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'Mad Men' star leads Yahoo's pitch to Madison Avenue

Actor Jon Hamm joined company execs in the launch of the "APT by Yahoo" ad platform, which promises to clean up the display advertising process for advertisers, publishers, and agencies.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
Jon Hamm in a promotional still from 'Mad Men.' AMC

NEW YORK--When Yahoo finally debuted its display-ad platform in a press conference here on Wednesday, CEO Jerry Yang and President Sue Decker had an unusual guest on hand: actor Jon Hamm, who plays 1960s-era advertising exec Don Draper on the critically acclaimed drama Mad Men.

"I do feel a little strange being up in front of a group of people, in front of cameras, talking about advertising, instead of smoking nine cigarettes and drinking three or four glasses of Scotch," Hamm said, referring to Draper's hard-living attitude, "although maybe if this was a little later in the day we could do that."

It might seem odd for Yahoo to unveil a new product with an actor famous for playing a fictional figure on the Madison Avenue of four dozen years ago. But Mad Men, which won an Emmy Award on Sunday for Best Drama, is a wild hit in New York's media and advertising circles, and that's who Yahoo is trying to court. They're the ones whom Yahoo has to convince that its new ad platform, called APT, will make their lives and jobs easier.

"Today's digital advertising process is broken," Decker said in the press conference, part of the fifth annual New York Advertising Week festivities. "As we see it, we count more than 30 different operational steps, 30, from a time that an ad is conceived to the time that it runs on a publisher's site and is optimized for their strategy."

Actor Jon Hamm, star of AMC's 'Mad Men,' speaking at a press conference unveiling Yahoo's new APT platform. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

APT hopes to solve those problems. It's a Web-based product that aims for a smoother and more efficient ad-buying process with a drag-and-drop interface, simple analytics, and all-in-one client "dashboard." Geared toward not just advertisers, but also digital publishers, media companies, ad networks, and agencies, the technology uses multiple kinds of targeting--geographic, demographic, and behavioral--to achieve what Yahoo says will be the best possible destination for graphical ads with a minimal amount of work.

"We challenged ourselves to make the whole process of doing business in the digital world easier, more transparent, and more profitable," Yang said of APT's development. "APT from Yahoo is all about spending less time managing digital advertising and spending more time delivering business results.

Yahoo first began to talk about this extensive display-ad strategy in April, then calling the product AMP. On Wednesday, the company announced that the re-named APT's first clients are two Bay Area newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.

Both publications are already part of Yahoo's Newspaper Consortium, which is an ad network for participating media companies. APT will become available to other Newspaper Consortium partners over the course of the rest of the year and into 2009, followed by other clients in the publisher, advertiser, and agency sectors. Also in 2009, Yahoo's own ad industry will shift to the APT platform.

Yang said that APT's genesis is rooted in the company's relationship with Right Media, an advertising exchange start-up that Yahoo acquired last year after initially purchasing a 20 percent stake in 2006. "That move really also enabled us a core foundational network technology that's going to be able to be part of this new system that we're announcing today," he explained.

But, he said, it was the Newspaper Consortium that really sparked the demand. "(Members were) telling us (of) the need for a far more robust digital advertising platform," Yang said. "It was becoming far more difficult for them to find the exact audiences, it was taking them too much time to find them if they found them at all, and they needed to be more effectively monetizing their inventory in the digital world."

One member of the consortium was on hand to testify on Yahoo's behalf: Dean Singleton, president of the MediaNews Group, which owns the Mercury News. "We are launching a new era with this extraordinary platform, APT from Yahoo, which will drive a sea change in how we operate as newspapers and capture opportunities," said Singleton, who also serves as publisher of the Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune.

But APT won't be without competition. AOL has amassed its own ad service, Platform-A, out of a number of start-up acquisitions, and earlier this week announced the addition of an ad exchange called BidPlace to the platform. Google, the digital-ad leader that has spooked Madison Avenue, is still best known for its text ads but has made move after move to court industries like television, radio, and newspapers.

And with its aggressive focus on display advertising, some may see the beleaguered Yahoo's move as effectively conceding the search ad market to rival Google; the two have, in fact, partnered in a controversial deal that followed Yahoo's failed acquisition negotiations with Microsoft. It would pull in more revenue for Yahoo, but it would also further cement Google's position as the clear industry leader.

Since Google hasn't yet cornered display advertising as effectively, and the landscape now consists of dozens of different ad networks, Yahoo sees opportunity with APT. Bringing along the dashing Jon Hamm, speaking just as suavely as his Don Draper alter ego, couldn't hurt. In his address to the audience, Hamm drew parallels between the digital advertising revolution and the challenges faced by the Mad Men characters as they dealt with the explosion of television advertising in the early 1960s. Today, the ad industry needs to adapt to a climate that demands innovative, straight-to-consumer marketing and up-to-the-minute delivery.

"In 1960, New York City alone had eight daily newspapers. Every significant daily had offices around the world, and print journalists were the rock stars of their day," Hamm said. "Today we see Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing his California gubernatorial candidacy on Leno, and Barack Obama announcing his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, by text message."

"Don Draper knew how to connect," Hamm continued. "He'd recognize that what my friend Jerry Yang is about to share with you will rock the advertising world in the same way that radio and television did way back when."

For an industry that's become captivated with the alluring Mad Men, that just might be enough of a pitch.