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July 03, 2012

#Microsoft Writes Off #aQuantive. What Can We Learn?

In May 2007, Microsoft paid $6 billion to buy aQuantive.  Today, only five years later, they wrote off the whole investment.  Since I wrote about this a lot five years ago (herehere and here), it prompted me to think about what happened, and what I might learn.  Here are a few observations:

1. 2006 / 2007 was a frothy time in the ad network market, both for ads and for the firms themselves, reflecting the economy in general.

2. Microsoft came late to the party, chasing aQuantive (desperately) after Google had taken DoubleClick off the table.

3. So, Microsoft paid a 100% premium to aQuantive's market cap to get the firm.

4. Here's the way Microsoft might have been seeing things at the time:

a. "Thick client OS and productivity applications business in decline -- the future is in the cloud."

b. "Cloud business model uncertain, but certainly lower price point than our desktop franchise; must explore all options; maybe an ad-supported version of a cloud-based productivity suite?"

c. "We have MSN.  Why should someone else sit between us and our MSN advertisers and collect a toll on our non-premium, non-direct inventory?  In fact, if we had an ad network, we could sit between advertisers and other publishers and collect a toll!"

5. Here's the way things played out:

a. The economy crashed a year later.

b. When budgets came back, they went first to the most accountable digital ad spend: search.  

c. Microsoft had a new horse in that race: Bing (launched June 2009).  Discretionary investment naturally flowed there.

d. Meanwhile, "display" evolved:  video display, social display (aka Facebook), mobile display (Dadgurnit!  Google bought AdMob, Apple has iAd!  Scraps again for the rest of us...). (Good recent eMarketer presentation on trends here.)

e. Whatever's left of "traditional" display: Google / DoubleClick, as the category leader, eats first.

f. Specialized players do continue to grow in "traditional" display, through better targeting technologies (BT) and through facilitating more efficient buys (for example, DataXu, which I wrote about here).  But to grow you have to invest and innovate, and at Microsoft, by this point, as noted above, the money was going elsewhere.

g. So, if you're Microsoft, and you're getting left behind, what do you do?  Take 'em with you!  "Do not track by default" in IE 10 as of June 2012.  That's old school medieval, dressed up in hipster specs and a porkpie hat.  Steve Ballmer may be struggling strategically, but he's still as brutal as ever. 

6. Perspective

a. $6 Big Ones is only 2% of MSFT's market cap.  aQuantive may have come at  a 2x premium, but it was worth the hedge.  The rich are different from you and me.  

b. The bigger issue though is how does MSFT steal a march on Google, Apple, Facebook? Hmmm. video's hot.  Still bandwidth constrained, but that'll get better.  And there's interactive video. Folks will eventually spend lots of time there, and ads will follow them. Google's got Hangouts, Facebook's got Facetime, Apple's got iChat... and now MSFT has Skype, for $8B.   Hmm.

7. Postscripts:

a. Some of the smartest business guys I worked with at Bain in the late 90's (including Torrence Boone and Jason Trevisan) ended up at aQuantive and helped to build it into the success it was.  An interesting alumni diaspora to follow.

b. Some of the smartest folks I worked with at Razorfish in the early 2000's (including Bob Lord) ended up at aQuantive. The best part is that Microsoft may have gotten more value from buying and selling Razorfish (to Publicis) than from buying and writing off the rest of aQuantive.  Sweet, that.

c. Why not open-source Atlas?

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