A History of Ad Tech Acquisitions

Updated: Nov 8, 2016

Today I’m publishing a list of over eight hundred ad technology acquisitions as a resource going forward. You can read more about the methodology on how I decide what to include and what not to include on that page, but I will be keeping it up to date moving forward, adding companies each week as transactions happen.

Pulling this list together was a ton of work, but now that I have it, we can do all kinds of interesting analysis on the trends we’ve seen over the past 15+ years.

Overall Trends

No surprises here, there’s been an explosion of acquisitions as the market has grown and capital has been cheap.  Entirely new sectors were created during this timeframe; remember – there was no such thing as mobile ad tech in 2000, no such thing as video ad tech in 2002, no such thing as social ad tech in 2004.

ad tech acquisitions graph

The First Ad Tech Acquisition – LinkExchange

So far as I can tell from my research, Microsoft’s $265 million dollar purchase of LinkExchange was the very first ad tech acquisition – nearly 17 years ago! LinkExchange was the very first ad network model and figured out how to monetize the then-popular concept of a web-ring. For all you whipper-snappers out there, a web-ring is a cooperative effort by many publishers to link to each others’ sites in hopes of driving traffic. Usually, they popped up in common niches, so people who had a site about robotics, or space travel, or nature photography, or the New York Yankees would all put links to other related sites. LinkExchange figured out how to build a business off that concept by allowing publishers to promote their own site across a huge web-ring in exchange for serving paid, promotional links from LinkExchange every so often.  This was good for publishers because it gave them greater exposure, and was good for LinkExchange because it enabled them to create a platform that could reach a very large percent of the internet for advertisers.

LinkExchange is also notable because it was founded by Tony Hsieh, who went on to future greatness as a thought-leader in office culture, and the founder of Zappos which he sold to Amazon ten years after LinkExchange.

Early Years (1998 – 2007)

The early years of ad tech acquisitions are not well documented, so frankly I feel less good about my data, but the dot-com bubble that collapsed in March of 2000 likely put a damper on any significant transactions.  One that just squeaked by though was the NetGravity purchase by DoubleClick for a massive $530 million in 1999.  NetGravity invented ad serving technology in 1995 and was founded by Paul Nakada, John Danner and Tom Shields.  Nakada and Danner both left ad tech after their exit, but Shields stuck with the industry and went on to co-found Yieldex and now works at AppNexus (with me!), which bought Yieldex in 2015.  NetGravity was an enterprise ad serving technology, which meant you had to buy the hardware to host the ad serving software yourself.  That contrasts to DoubleClick’s model, where they host both the software and hardware in their private cloud.  NetGravity eventually became DoubleClick Enterprise, which was widely used by many large and prominent publishers like Turner, WebMD, Monster.com, and others, until DoubleClick finally retired it in 2014.

After that, there’s not a lot of activity until 2003, when things start to get interesting again.  In 2003, aQuantive bought GoToast, which was a bid management tool to help advertisers manage paid search campaigns, and kicked off a small wave of acquisitions in the search space.  Just a year later DoubleClick bought Performics and Aegis bought iProspect. Other early transactions of note are IAC’s purchase of Ask.com (2004), AOL’s purchase of Advertising.com (2004) – still a major player in ad tech – Gannet’s purchase of Pointroll (2005), Publicis’s purchase of Digitas (2006), and Microsoft’s doomed acquisition of Massive (2006), an in-game ad network they bought for an estimated $300 million and then shuttered in 2010.

The most influential transactions by far however were made by the team at Google, who comes out of this period looking like geniuses.  In just four years, Google cobbled together the most important assets in the digital advertising ecosystem – Blogger (2003), Applied Semantics (2003), Urchin (2005), YouTube (2006), and DoubleClick (2007), the latter of which marked the end of the early era of ad tech.

The impact these acquisitions would go on to have is just enormous; Blogger was important because it made it easy for anyone and everyone to build their own website, which effectively turned Google into a huge publisher business and shifted its competitive dynamics with other digital publishers.  Applied Semantics was the answer on how to monetize that publisher business.  While many aren’t all that familiar with the company, it is certainly one of the most important ad tech acquisitions of all time, because Applied Semantics is how Google built AdSense.  AdSense was a game-changer for the ad tech industry because it made it easy for advertisers to target consumers across the millions of fragmented websites online, and it gave publishers of any size a quick and easy way to make money from their content. Urchin is also unfamiliar to many, but Urchin is to Google Analytics as Applied Semantics is to AdSense – it’s the code at the heart of the platform, or was for a number of years anyway.  Analytics, while not exclusively built for advertising purposes was important to the small publisher community to figure out how to create content that was valuable, and thereby optimize their site revenue.

But it was really the DoubleClick transaction that sent waves through the ad tech community and solidified Google’s standing in the industry today.  While Blogger, Applied Semantics, Urchin, and YouTube enabled Google to own the small publisher business, DoubleClick is what let them own the large publisher business.  To this day, while other options exist, there is very little competition in the ad serving space from a practical point of view.  At the time, Microsoft responded with the acquisition of aQuantive, which was the other ad tech behemoth and had Atlas and Razorfish as key assets.  As we all know now, destiny was not on Microsoft’s side and in the five years that followed it would divest Razorfish to Publicis in 2009, sell what was left of Atlas to Facebook in 2013, and write down $6.2 billion of the $6.3 purchase price. Eric Picard actually just wrote a fascinating article on what it was like on the inside at Microsoft at the time on AdExchanger.

The Post DoubleClick Era: The Ad Tech Explosion (2007 – 2011)

The post DoubleClick era is when ad tech really mushroomed in terms of innovation.  These were the days when the ad networks ruled, but also saw the birth of DSPs, SSPs, DMPs, Ad Exchanges, and the early days of mobile and video tech. So. Much. Happened.  Consider the very first Lumascape was released during this time, in 2010 as a response to the complexity, and a prescient document on the acquisition opportunities ahead.

Some of the biggest transactions during this time were ad networks, which had done a pretty good job consolidating publisher supply and inventing the remnant display market at the time.  I’ve already written a number of posts on the rise of ad networks and ad exchanges, but looking at the waves of acquisitions provides some extra color.  There were a huge number of network exits during this period, reflecting just the sheer number of ad networks in the market.  Using the data in the ad tech acquisition tracker, I’ve graphed the number of network transactions during the history of the industry below:

ad network acquisitions graph

Some of the notable ad networks picked up during this time were Third Screen and TACODA by AOL (both in 2007), BlueLithium by Yahoo! (2007), Acerno by Akamai (2008), Pepperjam by GSI Commerce (2009), Fetchback by GSI Commerce (2010), Where by eBay (2011), and Greystripe by ValueClick (2011), but the ones that really shook the industry was when Google bought Admob (2009), and Apple got into the game when it bought Quattro (2010).  The reason I call out these players specifically is because all these transactions were signaling that networks with tech had value.  While many networks were essentially run on relationships and manual labor, the companies that saw an exit had technology assets.  TACODA and BlueLithium were pioneers in behavioral targeting, while Pepperjam and Fetchback specialized in retargeting and customer prospecting for eCommerce sites.  The second major trend was mobile; Where invented the idea of GPS based targeting for mobile devices, Greystripe was one of the larger mobile players in space, and Admob and Quattro (which Apple rebranded as iAd) were the obvious mobile leaders at the time.

2 comments

  1. Ben,

    This is an amazing Ad Tech tutorial and data set – Kudos!

    I want to ask if you have specific thoughts about the future (say 1-Year and 5-Year) for Criteo?

    I am a finance guy doing research on re-targeting for upcoming job interviews, and I am positively amazed at how Criteo stands out in terms of its “Returns on Capital”. The financials seem to point to the best engineered technology in all of Ad Tech – and this may seem surprising but the only comparable return profile / growth rate combination I can find is Google from 2004 – 2008 (granted at the time Google was 10x the size).

    BUT, the moves by major publishers to build walled gardens has a lot of people questioning how a pure-play re-targeting company can survive independently.

    Many Thanks Ben (And I Swear I turned Off my Ad Blocker on your site!!!).

    Daniel Moisio

  2. Thanks Daniel!

    I would agree with you that Criteo seems to have very good technology. While I don’t have direct experience working with them as a customer, I have only heard good things and as an ad ops person, I can see how they deploy true real-time segmentation and dynamic creative optimization in a powerful manner. I’ve also seen them lead on things like first look integrations, which paved the way for header bidding.

    I think Criteo is in really good shape for the next year – at least as much as the advertising market is – because they’ve done the hard work over years to build a huge network of high quality supply, to which they have preferential access because they pay high rates due to the low funnel / shopping cart abandonment campaigns they run and spend a lot of money. Over the longer haul, I’d still wager Criteo is well positioned because buyers are moving in their direction. More media is transacting in a programmatic channel, and Criteo benefits from that. Even in a walled garden setup, I think it will be difficult for Google / Facebook to walk away from the demand Criteo brings to the table; they have network benefits at this point. The first big overhangs I see is in video, where folks like Google are trying to force buyers to access Youtube via DBM. Platforms like Criteo could get cut out of strategic supply in that sense, but then the second threat is ad blocking. Like any ad tech platform, Criteo works on a cookie-based infrastructure, and if that breaks down they’ll have to make some major investments in an alternative approach. Since the whole industry is at risk there however, I don’t see a unique risk for Criteo.

    Hope that helps!
    Ben

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