Verizon's Oath Isn't a Big Threat to Google and Facebook, but It Can Still Pay Off

 | Jun 09, 2017 | 5:27 AM EDT
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Even since it struck a deal to buy Yahoo!'s (YHOO) core business last July, and perhaps even before it, Verizon has been eager to share a vision of creating an online ad empire that marries the company's telecom assets with a slew of digital media properties and ad platforms.

Today, with Verizon on the verge of closing the Yahoo deal, we have a reasonably good idea of how the company, whose various telecom operations are beset by major top-line pressures, aims to make Oath pay off. The effort is unlikely to cause major headaches for Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) , who continue gobbling online ad share like clockwork, but does have a few important things going for it.

Chief among them: Verizon's ability to significantly cut costs at the merged operations of Yahoo and AOL -- they'll have the corporate name of Oath, for better or worse -- by eliminating duplicate functions and slashing the number of content and ad platforms it supports. Reuters reported on Thursday that Verizon plans to cut 2,000 jobs at the combined company, or about 15% of its workforce. Given the calls that were made for major headcount reductions at Yahoo prior to the Verizon deal, additional job cuts might eventually arrive.

There's also, of course, the tremendous amounts of data the Verizon has on its 100 million-plus mobile subscribers and tens of millions of TV, wireline voice and broadband subscribers, and its ability to use that data to show targeted ads on both its own digital properties and (via AOL and Yahoo's ad networks) and third-party sites and apps. There could also be some room to deliver targeted video ads to FiOS TV users 

Verizon has already taken steps in this direction via its Relevant Mobile Advertising Program: It pairs Verizon's address, device type and demographic info with the browsing activity, app usage and location info AOL is able to obtain from its properties and ad networks to show targeted mobile ads to Verizon subs. Notably, it can also show these users ads on on non-Verizon devices (PCs, tablets, etc.) if they're used to log into the My Verizon site, or if AOL is able to track one of its 150 million unique monthly U.S. users across devices.

Adding Yahoo to the fold should make Verizon's cross-device ad efforts much more effective, since it will let the company also track when one of Yahoo's 200 million monthly U.S. users logs in on both a Verizon phone and a non-Verizon device. It will also, of course, provide Verizon with plenty of addition user data for targeting, and increase the scale of its ad platform (helpful for luring big-name brand advertisers).

The FCC's recent controversial decision to allow ISPs to collect and potentially sell a user's browsing history without requiring them to opt in also works in Verizon's favor. Since the decision, Verizon (like other ISPs) has promised not to sell its users' browsing history, but while reiterating it does use browsing data to personalize ads and to provide "aggregate insights" about user activity to third parties. At least unless users manually opt out (few typically do for such things).

Favorable demographics will also help Verizon. The United States is still by far the world's most lucrative online ad market: North America still accounts for about half of Facebook's ad revenue, and the U.S. accounted for 48% of Alphabet's Q1 revenue. And relative to U.S. mobile subs in general, Verizon's mobile base skews towards higher-income and corporate subs.

Other trends, such as booming local and video online ad sales, also don't hurt. Verizon's location data and possession of over 100 million U.S. mobile subs leaves it in prime position to sell targeted local ads. And between AOL, Yahoo and internal Verizon video efforts such as its Go90 service, Verizon has decent online video exposure.

On the other hand, even with Yahoo on board, Verizon's global ad scale and data-collection abilities will still be much smaller than Google and Facebook's, each of which can sell marketers on their ability to collect data from and show ads to well over a billion active users. And whereas Yahoo's traffic has been declining, the momentum for Google and Facebook's core properties remains strong.

In addition, AOL and Yahoo are still well-exposed to an online display ad market that has been stung by weak ad click rates, a shift in ad spend towards social platform (Facebook especially) and the price pressure caused by the adoption of programmatic (automated) ad-buying platforms. Certain technology trends, such as PC ad-blocker adoption and attempts by tech companies to crack down on web activity trackers -- see Apple's (AAPL) decision to add "intelligent tracking prevention" to the Safari browser shipping with the next version of macOS, are also headwinds.

Then there's the big question of execution. Google and Facebook are well-oiled machines with long track records of hiring the best and brightest, of steadily improving their ad products, targeting abilities and measurement tools, and of successfully selling marketers on their offerings. To put it mildly, Yahoo doesn't have the same reputation, and in the coming months, Verizon will have the difficult task of turning AOL and Yahoo's disparate platforms into an integrated all. All while carrying out major job cuts that are bound to hurt morale.

But it's worth remembering that at its $4.48 billion purchase price, Verizon is buying Yahoo for just 1.3 times its expected 2017 sales of $3.5 billion. And in AOL chief Tim Armstrong, Big Red does at least have a seasoned, well-respected exec to lead Oath.

Ultimately, Verizon might fall short of its goal of creating a global ad giant via Oath. But thanks to its unique assets, it could create a successful regional ad giant with a healthy cost profile. Just as long as it can prevent the traffic at its digital properties from falling off a cliff.

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