Oath CEO Tim Armstrong has changed his story on Verizon's ad ambitions

  • Verizon’s Oath message has changed of late — away from data-driven targeting towards showcasing a stable of content brands.

  • CEO Tim Armstrong is talking less about challenging Facebook and Google and ad targeting overall.
  • He did say that YouTube’s recent issues with brand safety help bring in more ad revenue.

Oath CEO Tim Armstrong has seemingly changed his story on Verizon’s ad ambitions.

When Verizon purchased AOL for $US4.4 billion, the emphasis was on the powerful potential of combining AOL’s ad tech assets with Verizon’s vast pools of consumer data. The $US4.48 billion acquisition of Yahoo, which gave the wireless giant access to millions more web consumers along with another set of advertising technology systems and consumer data, was only going to help take that to another level. 

Not long ago, Armstrong was telling ad buyers that Verizon’s data and AOL and Yahoo’s scale was going to help the company challenge Facebook and Google. If Facebook’s ad targeting strength is drawn from its users’ self-reported personal data, and Google’s power came from billions of people typing into search boxes what they are interested in, Verizon has unique data on over 145 million subscribers, such as where they live and what kind of apps they use. That could potentially be hugely powerful for ad targeting purposes.

But recently, Armstrong has noticeably backed off that claim, while seriously downplaying the data-driven ad targeting rationale behind the Verizon deals. Instead, the emphasis on Oath — the new name for the Verizon/AOL/Yahoo mashup — is about being a “house of brands.”

That message is apparent in the company’s new marketing campaign, which includes a cherry video featuring former Public Enemy front man Chuck D talking about people’s love of coffee and sneakers and other brands.

In fact, during an Advertising Week keynote on Tuesday, Armstrong was asked repeatedly by CNBC anchor Julia Boorstin whether Oath could seriously take on Google and Facebook — and he largely demurred. 

“Having a strategy of being in business because people don’t like Google and Facebook is a bad strategy,” he said.

Boorstin also pressed Armstrong several times to articulate the big picture motivation behind Verizon assembling all these digital assets, and he scarcely mentinoned data and ad targeting. 

Instead, Armstrong described what he saw as two big moves Verizon can now make. The company is planning to push Oath brands like HuffPost and TechCrunch onto more people’s Android phones via a product called AppFlash. In addition, Oath wants to explore ways down the road to subsidise content and services for consumers, presumably to keep them more loyal to the wireless carrier.

When it comes to battling the duopoly, he said that as Google and Facebook are in a war, Oath can serve as an “arms dealer.”

Did Verizon really spend over $US8 billion for AOL and Yahoo to get Tumblr and Yahoo Sports on more people’s phones? It’s not clear how this is going to happen for millions of iPhone users who only interact with Verizon when they pay their bill.

Could Armstrong be downplaying Verizon’s data-driven plans to avoid the attention of regulators? The threat of consumer privacy legislation? Or to just lower expectations?

Regarding Verizon’s long term digital media game plan, Armstrong was vague, saying “we’re still in the second inning.” 

He alluded to the privacy dance Verizon has to navigate, arguing that its consumer data offers a “opportunity and a challenge.” Wireless providers, he claims, are under more scrutiny than Silicon Valley companies.

It’s a far cry from recent talk of taking on digital ad titans and aspiring to build the “number one media and tech company in the world,” as he told Recode in 2016.

Still, Armstrong did hint that competition with Facebook and Google is still a goal. He told Boorstin that when YouTube saw a slew of advertisers pull back on spending after some ads were spotted next to dicey videos, “our revenue went up.”

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