Times Internet is making friends of old foes: Network18, a major rival of Times Internet, has joined as a publisher partner for the Colombia Audience Network, Times Internet’s programmatic ad-buying platform. Colombia ads are content recommendations, branded content and videos, which are displayed – at least on TimesofIndia.com – below the story content. Traditionally, this is a space that is occupied, for most publishers, by content-promoting ad networks like Taboola and Outbrain.

So are Times Internet and Network18 no longer competing? There’s always been a bit of an ego involved between publishers, and they have typically competed, not collaborated.

“Look, like with everybody, we work with people as partners and competition, “Gulshan Verma, Chief Revenue Officer, Times Internet, told MediaNama. “Just like within Times Internet, I have a Times of India and I have an Economic Times, and Times of India has a large business section. At some point it makes sense for them to work together, and at some point it makes sense for them to compete to give the best offer. The way I look at it, this is a market that is growing, and digital is getting money that is moving in from TV, Print and Radio. How do we work together to maximise the share of that? What we’ve done with Colombia is beginning to show value. This is an example.”

This reminds us of when the Times of India’s pitched its print business versus digital and TV, effectively also pitching against its own digital business.

Does Colombia compete with the likes of Taboola and Outbrain?

“On Colombia we have a direct demand, and we have demand from Taboola, Google, from Facebook and other partners. The way we look at is, for publishers, it drives the most amount of yield, because these compete against each other. Pretty much 90% of the maximising of yield comes from the direct sales team. The other places, other people come and add value. In the US and UK, it doesn’t make sense for us to have a sales team, so we have partners who work with us,” says Verma.

“Do some of the people who work with us as mediation partners go directly to publishers? Yes they do. Like Taboola. On the other hand, they also work with us as a source of demand and supply. Both are competition, and both work together, and there is a big opportunity.”

Colombia now has several Indian partners, though based on the limited list that Times Internet shared in the press release, Network18 is the first significantly large publisher to sign up for the network. Others include comparatively smaller players like Punjab Kesari, Sandesh, Dinakaran, Udayavani, The Tribune, India TV, Bartaman Patrika, Andhra Jyothy. The list of publishers on Colombia, Verma told MediaNama, is over a hundred, of which 60 are publishers external to the Times Internet suite of properties.

With Google and Facebook dominating advertising in India, there is often little left for the rest. While Google doesn’t disclose its monthly active user base in India, Facebook as around 184 million, and both allow fairly granular targeting. For publishers to get a slice of the advertising pie, this is what they’re competing with. With Colombia (and Times Global Partners), now aggregating a user base of 250 million user per month, Times Internet has earned a seat at that table, serving “personalized content and video recommendations in addition to branded content” to more than 9 billion native recommendations per month.

Currently Colombia is serving Native Ads, and had expanded the offering to include Native “outstream” video ads six months ago. Verma tells us it will include display advertising as well. From a product perspective, remember that Times Internet had announced last year that it plans to invest $100 million in Colombia, but had been fairly skittish about sharing details.

Realtime bidding?

If not Taboola and other publishers, does Colombia Audience Network then compete with the likes of GroupM’s Xaxis? Verma says that Colombia “is not programmatic in terms of real-time bidding. There is a platform approach where you can log in and buy, and it’s doing well for us. It’s not realtime biding for us. It’s a direction that we want to work in. We’re exploring that. The big thing is that you can log in, open an account, and say I want to distribute my content, like you do with any content discovery platform, and also we user algorithm to optimise. It’s not a trading desk where you can buy across X and Y. We’re thinking about it we haven’t got there.”

Note that there is little doubt of a shift of advertisers to programmatic – as Google pointed out in its most recent earnings conference call – and the issue for publishers, is that both mobile and programmatic advertising both carry a higher traffic acquisition cost (TAC).

Privacy and data sharing

The Colombia Audience Network has been launched by Times Internet in 2014, with the objective of allowing advertisers to target users on their own network, based on behavioral aspects forming an “interest graph”, such as the kind of music they listen to on Gaana, and whether they read finance report on Economic Times or gadget related content on Gizmodo India. You get the idea.

Times Internet claims that Colombia “reviews more than 4,000 data points” about users.

Since publishers can be skittish about sharing user attribute data with other publishers (and oddly enough, not with Google or Facebook, which aren’t seen as traditional publishers), I asked Verma about whether data is shared between Network18 and Colombia.

“We comply with privacy across Indian, US and European privacy levels because users come from everywhere,” Verma said. “From a general perspective, from an insights perspective, we obviously know which users are clicking on which content recommendations because it’s organic, within our widget itself. Outside of that, there’s very little in terms of data and insights that we’ll get on the page, to be frank. Because you know, everyone has an https server. Otherwise they wouldn’t work with us if they felt, y’know, if there were any privacy issues. So, within that page and that widget which sits on a publisher, it could be Network18, it could be someone else, we’ve obviously seen that user on our network, we’ve seen what they’ve read and clicked on.

But as a user progresses across the Colombia network, from Network18 to, say, a Times Internet property, do user attributes on Network18 also help targeting users on Times Internet properties?

“I think any time a user on any publisher on Colombia, will look at what we’ve recommended to them before, we look at the response and we learn from that. We have a limit that says that if we show you a branded content piece more than five times and the user doesn’t respond to it, you’re not interested on it. Whether it is on Network18 or somewhere else, that’s okay. Within our widget we’re looking at it, but we don’t look at the data the way you’re thinking about it,” says Verma.