AOL plans to train more than 600 Microsoft salespeople on programmatic

AOL’s global head of media sales, Jim Norton, has an interesting task ahead of him. The company has extended job offers to roughly 1,200 Microsoft employees, according to a spokesperson, and it’s “safe to say” the majority have accepted. Norton’s job: Make sure those 600-plus new employees are effectively trained on the entire AOL ad tech stack, which includes an expertise that most of them have little-to-no prior experience in — programmatic.

The task comes as AOL absorbs Microsoft’s digital advertising business as part of an exclusive, 10-year search and advertising partnership between the two companies. The deal, which kicks off in January 2016, covers video, mobile and display advertising across Microsoft properties like MSN, Xbox and Skype, and will soon encompass nine global markets, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.

“Microsoft Advertising as it was once known will now sit within AOL,” said Norton. “The long-term plan is for us to be the sole auctioneer of all [of Microsoft’s] non-search monetization.”

Programmatic is becoming a big business for AOL, which reports that programmatic revenue grew 80 percent year-over-year in the second quarter and now accounts for 45 percent of the company’s global brand advertising business.

“They’ve gotten ahead of Google in terms of presenting themselves as a seller with a programmatic-friendly inventory set — that’s impressive considering Google’s assets in that area,” said one agency executive.

But Norton’s job also entails a fair amount of myth-debunking around programmatic. “One of the fallacies [we see] is that programmatic only means end-to-end programmatic, and I don’t think it does,” he said. “There are very few transactions that are entirely programmatic — [for many] there is still some traditional selling or the human touch in there somewhere.”

It’s in this context that AOL is bullish. Norton said he expects 80 percent of AOL’s transactional ad revenues to have some sort of programmatic component. The rest will become via custom branded opportunities, which also might feed the “programmatic flywheel.”

The eventual goal is for all of its salespeople to be able to sell both AOL and Microsoft inventory across all areas, ranging from custom content to platform-based selling. And since it organizes its sales teams by category, it’s hiring by category.

“For instance, telco as a category tends to rely heavily on programmatic. CPG is heavy on brand-based advertising with a ton of video,” said Norton. “We need to make sure that the teams [in those categories] have the right level of expertise.”

With Microsoft, this has required daily meetings to determine what makes sense by category, team and expertise. Microsoft, for instance, has a “very good custom content selling organization,” according to Norton. One of AOL’s key Microsoft hires is North American vp of sales and marketing Bob Bejan, who is taking a “prominent role” within the AOL sales leadership and is helping AOL build out its custom content offering.

Initially, AOL has focused on hiring employees for the U.S. and Canada but will soon expand that as it aims to take over selling functions for seven other markets for Microsoft.

Where Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of expertise in is programmatic. Its programmatic business is run through AppNexus, which is Microsoft’s technology partner in the markets that AOL will sell starting in January 2016 as well as 30 others. A spokesperson for the company said AppNexus will remain the programmatic tech partner for Microsoft properties in those markets.

In the meantime, AOL will also be training its new salespeople on AOL’s entire market offering. Led by the company’s head of sales productivity Geoff Dodge, the training program will primarily be conducted through LearnCore, which has roughly 70 video tutorials on topics ranging from overall industry information to AOL platforms and formats. These “modules” can run from anywhere from  five to 15 minutes and are led by an internal product owner or specialist in that area. AOL is shooting these videos every week, including updates on older tutorials.

And yes, there’s a certification process. “With the mobile certification process, for instance, every seller has to do a presentation on mobile for the specialist and actually get graded by that specialist,” said Norton.

The intention, again, is to ensure that every salesperson is able to effectively communicate and sell the full spectrum of AOL and Microsoft properties — even if there are specific areas they have more knowledge and experience in.

It sounds like a tall task, but it is one shared by the rest of the industry, which is actively training and retraining people on programmatic. “It’s in line with what [AOL has] been doing loudly, while Google has been doing the same thing quietly,” said the same agency exec.

This article was updated to clarify AppNexus’s relationship with Microsoft.