How AOL wants to battle Facebook, Google in the UK

AOL is on a mission to cement itself among brands and agencies in the U.K. as the third-top digital media company, after Facebook and Google. That at least, seems to be enough for the short term, according to its newly appointed U.K. managing director Hamish Nicklin.

Sitting comfortably in his new office at AOL’s London headquarters, the Google veteran told Digiday it’s content with a distant No.3 position but that it plans to “fight hard.”

At the heart of this battle plan is its “culture and code” strategy. Verizon, which owns AOL, has made a lot of investments in ad tech recently — the latest being the acquisition of Millennial Media — AOL now wants to do more to ensure advertising creative matches the sophistication of the media buy. Below is a breakdown of how it plans to go about it.

Culture and Code
Facebook and Google are its biggest rivals for ad spend. EMarketer predicts Google will take £3 billion ($4.6 billion) in digital ad revenue in the U.K. for 2015, a 38 percent market share, while Facebook’s 2015 U.K. revenue will be around 10 percent market share at £797 million ($1.2 billion). It doesn’t have figures for AOL. (See below for eMarketer’s full U.K. ad spend predictions.)


Nicklin believes digital media buying has become impressively sophisticated but at the expense of creative and consumers. He wants AOL to carve out its place on the media plan as a “one-stop shop” for clients to create “moments of culture that matter and resonate with consumers,” as opposed to standard advertising and campaign planning. It can then overlay its data to distribute those moments at scale.

“For the last few years the creative side of me has been banging my head against the wall asking ‘Is this it? — are we just optimizing for the buy?’” Clients may have got good value from this, but consumers haven’t, he added. AOL now has the resource in the U.K. to really drive this, he said, having beefed up its creative solutions team earlier this year.

Original content
Owning its own media is a crucial point of differentiation for AOL and will be a focus for 2016. Its U.S. content studio is a well-oiled machine, with Emmy nominations for shows like “Park Bench with Steve Buscemi” and “The Future Starts Here.” Its content formula: talent-led, made for Web, unscripted, and “social-ready” (code for being both shareable content and “relevant to society”), will be replicated more in the U.K.

Last week, AOL U.K. commissioned its third original show, a documentary series hosted by “Game of Thrones” actress Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), called #Powershift. The 10-part series explores how today’s youth are using social media to create positive change. Expect more of these original commissions to come from the U.K, says Nicklin.

Huffington Post
Huffington Post has had a 25 percent increase in editorial staff in the last six months, in core areas like politics, parenting and lifestyle. Nicklin hasn’t wasted any time learning that side of the business either. “I called Stephen Hull [Huffington Post editor-in-chief] the other day and said I wanted to come in and learn, and for them to treat me like an intern,” he said.

This involved a crash course in how the publisher mines its data to inform its content direction and even informs them on what style of content is most popular. AOL will then create original content off the back of what’s trending and “ride the wave of interest.”

Nailing how to sell Microsoft/ AOL “box of toys”
AOL is now responsible for selling Microsoft advertising for properties like MSN, Xbox and Skype. Together AOL and Microsoft advertising properties have a combined reach of 500 million unique visitors across the nine markets the deal covers, according to ComScore data (excluding Xbox and Millennial Media) supplied by AOL. It is in the midst of moving 120 Microsoft staff over to AOL’s offices. They will be trained to sell the combined product set.

“There are a lot of toys in the toy box which can be used to solve business problems. That’s our power. The combination of HuffPo, Xbox, Kinnect, MSN, Skype, AOL On — the culture and code, the media and the tech. It’s the premium content and the ad stack which will let us go and solve proper meaty problems, as opposed to just campaign problems,” he added.

He added that AOL’s complete offering, which now includes Verizon data and will soon include mobile marketplace Millennial Media’s capabilities, is still so new “word hasn’t got out yet” what the combined scale and assets really mean, according to Nicklin. “That will change.”

Image courtesy of: AOL

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