Turner draws tighter Web

Coalesces ad plan, swears off third-party nets

Turner is pasting together its vast collection of Web properties to form a sizable, brand-friendly ad network, just as the company officially swears off selling its remnant inventory via third-party ad networks.

The cable-centric company said it plans to begin packaging both display and video ad inventory for advertisers from 19 different Web sites. That encompasses such owned-and-operated properties as CNN.com and CartoonNetwork.com as well as partner sites including NBA.com and PGA.com as part of an overall digital sales restructuring (news and entertainment properties previously were sold by different groups).

In total, the new network, which also includes TNT.com, TBS.com, PGATour.com, AdultSwim.com and GameTap.com, will be able to deliver an audience of 48 million monthly unique users (per Nielsen Online), putting it in the range of some of the Web's larger media conglomerates.

But unlike some of the major ad networks, Turner says it's now positioned to offer high reach while promising sometimes-leery brand advertisers the benefits of well-lit, quality editorial environments. That's not always guaranteed when brands run across thousands of long-tail sites.

"I don't know how many companies can do what we're attempting to do," said David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting Sales, Inc. and president of Turner Sports. "We can deliver high reach with 19 different brands, not hundreds of sites. And these are strong brands, too."

In addition, as had been rumored, Turner is no longer willing to leave the custody of those strong brands in others' hands. "We are no longer using third-party ad networks," Levy said. "Nobody sells these brands better than we do." Turner's stance amplifies an ongoing industry debate, brought to the forefront in March by ESPN, which made a similar no-networks pledge.

Alan Schanzer, managing partner at MEC Interaction, North America, sees Turner's move paying off on several levels. On the one hand, it highlights the company's ability to mine inherent synergies among its growing list of Web brands, letting advertisers target groups like sports enthusiasts or young men on several sites at once. "They are creating a lot more 'verticalness' in the ad network world," he said. "This gives them (online) scale to sell underneath their TV business."

Schanzer added that Turner is protecting itself against being undercut in the marketplace by networks offering its inventory at bargain basement prices. "They are saying, 'Why sell at a discount when we can sell our own stuff?' "

Some see the move by Turner and ESPN to dump networks as the beginnings of an industrywide rethinking of the online ad sales model.

"If you talk to sales people (about using ad networks), they will tell you, 'This is stupid, this is crazy,' " said Paul Iaffaldano, executive vp media solutions at Weather Channel, which has never employed networks for the highly trafficked Weather.com.

Iaffaldano predicts a mass exodus, and soon: "By the end of the year, when you look at the list of quality sites, every single one will have pulled out of ad networks."

Yet John Ardis, vp corporate strategy at ValueClick, one of the largest independent ad networks, doubts such an exodus is coming -- or whether it would have much impact. He acknowledged that for some networks, being able to claim that they represent inventory on premium sites does opens doors. "It gives you an ante," he said.

But the best ad networks, Ardis said, have "always been about non-marquee sites," which in today's fragmented Web universe is "where people are spending most of their time. A lot of companies are trying to find the best way to capitalize on that shift."