MSN challenges Google for UK online ad crown

The online advertising market is gearing up for battle as AOL, MSN and Yahoo! look to take on Google. But rather than just try to beat it in search marketing, where Google is strongest, they are turning to a one-stop-shop model, offering advertising across multiple platforms.

Microsoft’s UK trial of the AdCenter network, its online advertising platform, begins next month. Announcing the rollout, chief executive Steve Ballmer said: “Ad-supported software services are an integral part of Microsoft’s plans. Our close partnership with the ad community is extremely important to us as we evolve Microsoft from a software company into the world’s largest provider of online media.”

Microsoft’s AdCenter will cover all search, display and now in-game advertising, following last month’s acquisition of the Massive network, across all Microsoft’s online and mobile services. It is designed as a one-stop shop for advertisers, whether they want to buy search, contextual, or display ads across MSN.

Yahoo! is expected to unveil a similar product later this year, while AOL recently bought online advertising company Lightningcast as it, too, seeks to boost its advertising services. MSN’s fledgling “one-stop” model appears to have impressed advertisers across the Atlantic but Richard Dance, head of strategy at ad agency Unique Digital, points out that the service “is a step forward but it’s hardly revolutionary”. He says it was an obvious move and one that was, in fact, a long time coming.

“Google already offers a similar product for search and display. But the launch can only be a good thing; it will put media planners back in the driving seat, returning to classic planning techniques as they will know who is responding to which ads,” he says. “It was a blindingly obvious move to make, as search and display have never really been divorced from each other; nevertheless it is a welcome step.”

Peter Birch, head of interactive at ITV Sales, says the one-stop model can only benefit both planners and clients. His company offers advertisers the chance to buy space in various formats and across multiple platforms – including broadcast and online sponsorship, the chance to sponsor “mobisodes” and podcasts, interactive spots ads and break bumpers. “It makes it easier for advertisers to be able to come to one place to get all these products. For buyers, ITV’s offering is a cost-effective model,” he claims.

While the advent of AdCenter has generated a buzz among advertisers and agencies, Dance says they are certain to act cautiously at first. “The products will be offered at a premium price, as MSN seeks to recoup the cost of new technologies and research tools, so clients and agencies will be cautious initially. But it will offer a much better understanding of how users are responding to online campaigns.”

The consensus among media owners, agencies and clients is that a one-stop shop, where advertisers can buy space in packages that cover multiple platforms, is a natural evolution of the interactive market, and a necessary one. Just as media platforms are converging, so too must the packages offered to advertisers.

Whether the companies offering it can use their new services to grab market share from Google remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt they see the importance of it. Microsoft founder Bill Gates said last year: “The future of advertising is the internet” – it’s not much of a stretch to say the future of Microsoft is advertising.

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