Why is AT&T doubling down on becoming a new media company, while Verizon Media is retrenching? With divergent strategies at play in the U.S. telecoms market, is there a path or multiple paths to success in the advertising market that other telcos can follow, or is it too soon to tell?
Telcos’ pursuit of the digital advertising market is not a new phenomenon. Early telco-led mobile marketing and advertising initiatives pre-date the mid-2007 launch of the iPhone. The journey began with pre-iPhone primitive text-messaging marketing, moved through display advertising to an increasingly sophisticated data-driven approach. What is new is the flurry of investments the leading U.S. telcos and some others, notably SingTel, have been making over the past few years to compete more holistically and effectively in the advertising/media space.
While their core communications/connectivity services businesses are maturing and being disrupted, U.S. telcos now face the prospect of investing heavily in building out next-generation 5G networks. They are placing bets on new, potentially lucrative and high-growth opportunities in the Internet-of-things (IoT), media/content and fixed wireless, among others. Among these opportunities, brokering digital advertising offers potentially the highest operating margins. AT&T’s Xandr advertising unit reported an operating margin of 68% for the fourth quarter of 2018, compared with 33% in its core communications business.
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Going on the offensive
Telecoms networks have long been the conduits for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others, to deliver innovative and disruptive (and mostly free) services, which generate billions in advertising revenues. Many of these same players have also introduced services, such as messaging, voice calls and video-on-demand, which have siphoned off revenues from the telcos that provide the networks they are riding on.
It is against this backdrop that distinct and evolving telco advertising strategies are emerging. And, from a U.S. market perspective, what a difference a year makes. In 2017, it looked like Verizon and AT&T were both doubling down on their advertising/media business strategies, with the aim of growing their piece of the total advertising pie and in turn attempting to siphon off advertising revenues from Google and Facebook, among others. But 2018 proved a watershed year, and now Verizon is pulling back, while AT&T continues full steam ahead.
This report focuses on the U.S. market and specifically how the big two telcos – Verizon and AT&T – have fared in the digital advertising market and what lessons other telcos can take away from their divergent market strategies. The report builds on past STL Partners research including:
- Connecting Brands with Customers: How leading operators are building sustainable advertising businesses
- Personal data: Treasure or trash?
- Can Telcos Entertain You? (Part 1)
The advertising opportunity for telcos
The future of advertising is digital. While spending on traditional advertising may have peaked, investment in digital advertising continues to fuel growth in the overall market. In 2018, global digital advertising revenues reached US$273 billion, and represented 44% of total advertising spend, according to eMarketer. By 2020, the specialist research firm expects digital to represent half of total global advertising spend, and by 2021 to eclipse traditional media spend – reaching US$427 billion globally in 2022. Note, eMarketer’s definition of digital advertising excludes SMS, MMS and P2P messaging-based advertising.
The global advertising opportunity – the future is digital
Source: eMarketer, May 2018
Within digital advertising, the mobile medium is taking over from the desktop as smartphones ship with larger screens and faster connectivity. Advertising agency Zenith, part of the Publicis Media Group, forecasts mobile advertising will account for 30.5% of global advertising expenditure in 2020, up from 19.2% in 2017. It reckons expenditure on mobile advertising will total US$187 billion by 2020, more than twice the US$88 billion spent on desktop advertising, and not far behind the US$192 billion spent on television advertising. At the current rate of growth, mobile advertising will comfortably overtake television in 2021, Zenith believes.
Mobile and cinematic advertising are growing faster than other segments
Singtel – a pioneering advertising play
Globally, one of the most advanced telcos in the advertising sector is Singtel, which has made a series of acquisitions to build out its adtech proposition, following its first deal in 2012, which saw it acquire Amobee, an early player in mobile advertising.
By some measures, Singtel is the largest telecoms group in south east Asia. The company and its affiliates serve 700 million mobile customers in 27 countries, including its wholly-owned subsidiary in Australia (Optus) and minority stakes in India, South Asia and Africa (Bharti Airtel, 40% effective stake); Indonesia (Telkomsel, 35% effective stake); Philippines (Globe Telecom, 47% ordinary shares); and mi Thailand (Advanced Info Service, 23% ordinary shares). With that extensive reach, which extends beyond mobile and includes Internet and video/TV customers, Singtel sees advertising as a high-growth opportunity and a way to leverage its customer data assets.
Singtel’s adtech play sits in its Group Digital Life (“GDL”) unit, which focuses on using the latest Internet technologies and assets of the operating companies to develop new revenue and growth engines by entering adjacent businesses where it has a competitive advantage. GDL focuses on three key businesses – digital marketing, regional premium OTT video and advanced analytics and intelligence capabilities, while acting as Singtel’s digital innovation engine through Innov8.
Singtel has spent about a billion dollars on adtech capabilities
*Purchase price not available. Source: Company reports
In the fourth quarter of 2018, GDL contributed 8% (up from 7% in the previous quarter) to the Singtel group’s operating revenue. GDL’s operating revenue for the quarter grew 17%, lifted by a full quarter’s contribution from Videology and growth in Amobee’s programmatic platform business, partially offset by lower media revenues. At an EBITDA level, GDL lost S$16 million after inclusion of Videology’s losses.
Singtel said that Amobee’s programmatic platform business continues to gain traction, while the integration of Videology will further strengthen Amobee’s capabilities in TV and video advertising. Although its advertising business isn’t yet making a major financial contribution, Singtel’s continued investments in this market suggest the Singapore-based operator remains committed and convinced that there are synergies between the telecoms and advertising sectors.
The rest of this report looks at U.S. telcos’ advertising strategies in depth, drawing conclusions and recommendations for other telcos globally.
- Executive Summary
- The advertising opportunity for telcos
- Singtel – a pioneering advertising play
- U.S. mobile market shift in full swing
- Telcos’ strategic fits and starts
- Google and Facebook strong, but Amazon makes gains
- Amazon pulls commerce levers in advertising
- Privacy, identity and security challenges and mandates
- GDPR: A harbinger of things to come to the U.S.
- U.S. telcos’ advertising assets
- AT&T goes all-in on advanced advertising
- More inventory, stronger monetisation
- Balancing advertising and subscriptions
- Verizon cuts its losses
- The obstacles in the way of Oath
- Conclusions and recommendations
- Recommendations for major telcos
- Recommendations for how AT&T can get ahead in advertising
- Why Verizon didn’t get ahead in advertising
- The global advertising opportunity – the future is digital
- Mobile and cinematic advertising are growing faster than other segments
- Singtel has spent about a billion dollars on adtech capabilities
- US online advertising spend – shift to mobile has already happened
- Examples of telcos’ investments/divestments in adtech and content
- Amazon gains, but still significant opportunities for telcos
- AT&T, Verizon and Comcast’s content and advertising assets
- AT&T’s advertising revenues are rising rapidly
- Xandr is growing rapidly, but its high margins are sliding downwards
- AT&T reaps rewards from Xandr, WarnerMedia, but pay TV is still a drag
- Verizon Media (previously Oath) fails to hit revenue growth targets
- As Verizon’s ad business struggles, it doubles down on 5G
- SWOT analysis and recommendations for big telcos in advertising