Ad networks: What recession?

-by Thomas Rasmussen

Akamai just got serious about online ads. It acquired ad network acerno from i-Behavior last week for $95m in cash. (See my colleague Jim Davis’ report for more on this acquisition.) This marks not just a somewhat drastic change in focus for Akamai, but is also an encouraging sign for the remaining online advertising networks. Despite the current economic meltdown, and more specifically the declining revenue and abysmal forecasts from ad giants Yahoo and Google, everybody seems to want a slice of the multibillion-dollar online advertising market.

Including the Akamai transaction, a total of 23 online advertising deals have been inked this year. That is up more than 25% from 17 deals for all of 2007, and just four in 2006. This increase in M&A activity stands in stark contrast to the overall Internet M&A picture, where the number of deals has declined more than 10%.

Moreover, despite highly publicized warnings from VCs about the decline in available venture capital and possible exits, funding has been flowing freely and rapidly to online advertising startups. Some of the many to receive funding recently include mobile ad firm AdMob, which raised $15.7m last week for a total of $35m raised to date; Turn Inc., which raised $15m recently for a total of $37m; ContextWeb, which raised $26m in July for a total of more than $50m raised; social networking ad network Lotame, which raised $13m in August in a series B round for a total of $23m raised; and Adconion Media Group, which closed a staggering $80m in a series C round in February, bringing its total funding to more than $100m.

With IPO markets closed, these startups should all be considered M&A targets. Adconion in particular stands out because of its international reach and large base of 250 million users, 50 million of whom are in the US. It would be a nice fit for one of the large media conglomerates competing for online advertising dominance. And they have shown that they are not afraid of opening the vault to do so. VC and banker sources say funding is likely to continue for the near term since there is still a lot of buyer interest. It is unlikely to suffer the same fate as the social networking funding fad, because some online advertising companies actually make money. As this segment continues to consolidate over the next year, we suspect deal flow will likely eclipse that of the past 12 months. Mobile and video advertising ventures are likely to lead the next generation of online advertising-focused startups.

Select recent online advertising deals

Announced Acquirer Target Deal value Deal closed
October 15, 2008 Technorati AdEngage Not disclosed October 15, 2008
June 18, 2008 Microsoft Navic Networks $250m (reported) Not disclosed
April 29, 2008 Cox Enterprises Adify $300m May 2008
March 11, 2008 Qualcomm Xiam Technologies $32m March 11, 2008
February 5, 2008 AOL Perfiliate Technologies $125m February 5, 2008
November 7, 2007 AOL Quigo Technologies $346m December 20, 2007
September 4, 2007 Yahoo BlueLithium $300m October 15, 2007
May 18, 2007 Microsoft aQuantive $6.37bn August 13, 2007
May 15, 2007 AOL Third Screen Media $105m May 15, 2007
April 13, 2007 Google DoubleClick $3.1bn March 11, 2008
April 30, 2007 Yahoo Right Media $680m July 12, 2007

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Ailing AOL no closer to a sale

Although CEO Jeff Bewkes and his Time Warner (TWC) cohorts put a positive spin on the company’s second-quarter results Wednesday, we’d sum up the call as bafflingly uneventful. The company highlighted gains in its TV and movie operations, while remaining virtually silent on its plans for AOL’s legacy Internet access business. If anything, the news concerning the ailing AOL division worsened, with Time Warner indicating that the AOL split is not set to occur before early 2009. The lack of urgency on the part of Bewkes amid declining AOL subscriber count and revenue is extremely disheartening.

Subscriber count at the legacy AOL division fell to 8.1 million subscribers from 10.9 million a year ago. This continues the trend of a year-over-year decline of an average 20-25% since 2003. For the first time in AOL’s history, revenue from advertising tops revenue from its subscription business ($530m and $491m, respectively). Operating income for the AOL division is $230m, one-third of which we estimate comes from subscriptions. This is in contrast to Earthlink (ELNK), which has seen its operating income steadily increase quarter-over-quarter for the past year. EarthLink’s operating income from its most recent quarter was $64m, despite having only 3.3 million subscribers. Clearly, AOL is failing to properly make money from its subscribers. We suggest the company turn the business over to someone who can do that as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there appears to be a suitor for the AOL legacy business. EarthLink CEO Rolla Huff has said he’s ready to discuss a deal. Time Warner should take him up on that immediately. If AOL’s subscriber base continues to decline (and there is no reason to believe it won’t), by the time Bewkes is ready to negotiate a sale, it will be in the six million range. Our advice to Bewkes: Put together a deal book on AOL and get out of the subscription business while you can.

AOL ISP divestitures

Announced Target Acquirer Deal value Price per subscriber
Oct. 2007 Albanian ISP business Telekom Slovenije $5.6m $2,489
Oct. 2006 UK ISP business Carphone Warehouse $712m $339
Sep. 2006 French ISP business Neuf $365m $730
Sep. 2006 German ISP business Telecom Italia $878m $366
Dec. 2005 Argentinean ISP business Datco $1m $67
Feb. 2004 Australian ISP business Primus $18m $200

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase