The first thing I knew about Facebook’s purchase of the Atlas ad serving suite from Microsoft last week was a trail of disbelieving social media commentary by colleagues saying “What? Are they insane?”. By “they” here they mean Facebook, as the overwhelming view amongst past and current digital media operators is that Atlas is a “pile of s***” and that Microsoft must be glad to be shot of it, even at the rock bottom price of $100million.
Facebook has an enormous job to do to regain the trust and support of the online marketing community for Atlas or anything else that they build based on its skeleton. I have spent the best part of the last 4 years complaining about Atlas to the tech support teams, to the product leads and vainly shouting and throwing objects at my screen when another huge spreadsheet of thousands of bespoke tracking URLs is lost in the ether at midnight when the campaign needs to go live by 8am.
When all pleading made no difference I made a very vocal point of persuading clients to move their advertising to other solutions wherever possible, and I am not the only one.
It wasn’t always thus – 5 or 6 years ago Atlas was the defacto ad server for every digital agency I knew, so much so that Google seemed to have played a slightly inferior hand with its 2007 purchase of Doubleclick, and Microsoft’s decision to buy Atlas seemed to make perfect sense. MS did make a classic 2nd mover mistake of desperately throwing money at the problem however, and the purchase raised gasps throughout the market with its $6.3billion cost (Yes, $6.3 billion) – more than double what Google had paid for its acquisition.
Granted that $6.3billion cost (Yes, $6.3 billion) was for the whole aQuantive group, which also included Razorfish (which they later sold for $530 million) and Drive PM, which was absorbed into the Microsoft Media Network (and arguably did add value to the offering). This didn’t hugely impact the end result however, which was still that Microsoft wrote down $6.2billion in 2012, mostly due to the aQuantive purchase, for which Atlas is the biggest culprit.
So how did Atlas go from the dominant ad server in a growth market, to losing the entire GDP of a small country (such as Liechstenstein) in 5 years?
Without seeing internal figures its impossible to say how much Microsoft has invested in Atlas technology since its purchase, but as a user it’s clear that the fundamentals haven’t changed since the mid 2000s. Every team I have worked on has been shouting in frustration at the Atlas team for years about usability and how they literally *hate* using it. The only tech in advertising that stimulates more frustration is DDS (cue bloodcurdling scream).
In the 5 years since Atlas was bought there have been multiple changes in the digital advertising space along with the rest of the technology world, most if not all of which expose Atlas as inferior to more nimble competitors:
The growth of paid search bid management software
Atlas search offers a very basic click tracking function rather than any operational help to the search operator. This means that any serious campaign will need another software such as Marin on top to ease the thousands of optimisation tasks and data analysis, which just adds cost to the technology stack, and yet more cookies with more potential data discrepancies into the mix.
Cross digital measurement attribution
Atlas “Engagement mapping” garnered a bit of support for about a minute until we realised that many competitor tags couldn’t be placed in the UAT (Universal Action Tag, their container tag solution). What’s the point in running an advertising campaign where your media choices are dictated by your tag provider, not their performance? Any cross-media tracking that exists needs to at least include all paid media (and preferably direct & organic driven traffic too), so again Atlas offers only a partial solution at best
Facebook & other social network launches
Facebook has obviously been a market changer for the advertising world, and its growth has also created a market for Facebook campaign management software. Good Facebook campaigns need hundreds of targeting clusters created to maximise creative performance, and this scale of tracking and the speed with which it needs to be done is impossible with something like Atlas.
Across all digital media many widely used technologies were developed to manage one type of media, but the market direction is towards bundling search, social and display management capabilities into the same technology. If that technology is already being used, such as the ad server (Doubleclick) or search bid management software (Marin and Ignition One) then the consolidation of technology saves an enormous amount of time and complexity.
The consolidation daddies of digital marketing technology are now Google and Adobe.
Google has an ad network, an exchange, an affiliate network an ad server and a free analytics suite sitting on the same technology stack as AdWords, the worlds largest global advertising platform. In the time it’s taken Atlas to lose all its customers, Google has totally rebuilt Doubleclick, and Doubleclick search, is adding new functions almost weekly.
Meanwhile Adobe’s frenzy of acquisitions in the last 2 years have added a Data Management Platform (DMP) and search management to its “Marketing Cloud” which now offers end to end creation, tracking and optimisation for video, social, search, site analytics and landing page testing.
While I understand that Facebook want to have access to technology that helps them to prove that FB advertising works, they’d have been better buying a small, nimble FB specialist plus a small ad serving company and building their own solution. Either way without site side analytics and/or search management their offering will not cover the full picture that a digital marketeer now wants to see (preferably with one login).
Add to this that unpicking someone elses’ tech to rebuild it and re-gaining the support of a busy, cynical group of people (with lots of shiny other options) is not a small task. Facebook will do well to learn from Microsoft’s mistakes that being the dominant force is not an unassailable position to be in. Watch out Facebook –
Only the paranoid survive.