AT&T and Verizon are both chasing a similar digital advertising strategy, though each carrier is pursuing a different path in their efforts to build a more serious competitor to market titans Google and Facebook. Verizon’s moves have cost substantially less, but AT&T could end up with the bigger haul in the end.
In the latest development, news leaked on Tuesday of AT&T’s interest in buying digital ad startup AppNexus for around $2 billion. AppNexus runs a network matching advertisers with online publishers using automated analytical placements. AT&T could be seeking to integrate the technology with its newly-acquired cable TV networks from Time Warner as well as its millions of viewers from the 2015 purchase of satellite TV service DirecTV.
While AT&T has spent more than $150 billion on its two big acquisitions, Verizon built its advertising technology business by acquiring AOL and Yahoo over the past few years on the cheap for a total of nearly $9 billion. The combined unit, renamed Oath, is run by Tim Armstrong, a veteran ad man from the early days of Google. AT&T could add AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelly, a 20-year veteran of the adtech world, to its ranks if it completes the acquisition, Cheddar reported on Tuesday.
Each carrier now has an appealing audience and loads of data to help place ads. Both have tens of millions of wireless customers. AT&T also has about 25 million video subscribers plus millions more cable channel viewers. Verizon has more than 1 billion monthly web visitors. TV ads have historically brought in the most money per ad viewer, but data and shifting attention spans are prompting more dollars to the online and mobile segments.
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Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOGL) together will capture more than $60 billion of digital advertising this year, or 57% of the total market, research firm eMarketer estimates. AT&T (T) CEO Randall Stephenson and outgoing Verizon (VZ) CEO Lowell McAdam, who departs in August, have been seeking to take on the giants and create a stronger No. 3 or 4 player in the digital ad market, which is growing at nearly 20% per year. Stephenson said last week on CNBC that his company was “standing up a significant advertising platform” which would lead to “some smaller M&A in the coming weeks.”
Still, the carriers aren’t the only ones vying to compete. Microsoft (MSFT) has long held third place on the strength of its Bing search service, though Oath is coming on fast. Amazon (AMZN), Twitter (TWTR) and Snapchat (SNAP) are also growing strongly, reducing the market share of the two leaders, according to eMarketer.
AT&T declined to comment to Fortune.