NBCU creates own ad network

Universal Audience Platform will sell display ads on 21 sites

NBCU has created its answer to an online ad network -- though one comprised solely of its owned-and-operated sites.

Called Universal Audience Platform (UAP), the group, which will have its own logo and staff, will be headed by Nick Johnson, svp, NBCU Digital Media Sales. He will report to Peter Naylor, evp, NBCU Digital Media Sales.

The UAP group will sell display inventory across 21 sites on an audience basis, including NBC.com, USANetwork.com, Bravotv.com, iVillage.com, Telemundo.com, as well as NBC's 10 O&O TV station sites.

As a result, NBCU will "sharply curtail" selling its inventory via third-party ad networks, said Naylor --following the lead of several top publishers such as ESPN.com. While NBCU will continue to use some networks to sell international impressions, the company's move to take control of its online ad sales is aimed at positioning NBCU as a high-reach alternative to ad networks and portals like Yahoo.

While UAP will not initially include the NBCU joint nets (MSNBC.com, Weather.com, CNBC.com), execs say that the network will reach close to 60 million unique users. "This allows us to go after a billion dollar segment of the market we don't always play in," said Naylor.

Of course, NBCU isn't the first big media company to attempt to counter the rise of networks by launching its own. But what makes UAP different is that it embraces audience-based selling as well as agency-run demand-side buying platforms (DSPs), two trends many publishers fear.

Buyers will be able to purchase impressions against specific target audiences via UAP using their own data or data from third parties like BlueKai, Quantcast or Claritas. While such buys will ultimately be transparent, agencies won't be able to cherry-pick individual sites ahead of time.

"This allows us to target frequent business travelers across all of our sites," said Naylor. "You take the horoscopes section of iVillage. Now it's not just a place that delivers millions of page views. It's a place to reach millions of moms with kids."

Yet many traditional sellers say that approach cheapens the importance of premium sites. For example, Turner, which launched its own premium ad network a few years ago, doesn't allow buyers to use client or third-party data to purchase inventory on an audience basis.

But Naylor doesn't believe that publishers need to take a hard stance one way or another. Thus, as part of the UAP launch, NBCU is formally announcing partnerships with Publicis' VivaKi, IPG's Cadreon, Omnicom Trading Desk and Havas Adnetik--though no dollar figures have been disclosed.

Execs from those companies praised NBCU for being forward thinking. "NBC's been thoughtful about this," said Curt Hecht, CEO of the VivaKi Nerve Center. "They've been learning from testing with us [since 2008], and they know we're not out to commoditize them."

Nathan Woodman, managing director at Adnetik, said many clients are drawn to the idea of targeting very specific users via exchanges, but still want some assurance of editorial quality. "Brand-conscious advertisers would like to be on NBC sites, and they'll pay a price for that."

So as more media giants like NBCU move to take more control of their online ad sales, do traditional ad networks need to be worried? Not according to Mike Cassidy, CEO of Undertone Networks.

"I don't think this represents a big shift, because only a few pubishers have these kinds of assets," he said. "If a company such as NBC can put this kind of network together, I think that is great. But there are still a lot of big media companies that need our type of services."
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