Telefonica, Blackstone Launch Axonix, A Mobile Ad Exchange Built On Defunct MobClix Tech

Telefonica, the Spanish carrier with operations in 24 countries and 323 million customers, is making its latest bid to expand its business beyond basic mobile and telephone services, by moving into ad tech.

It’s teaming up with Blackstone to launch Axonix, a real-time bidding mobile ad exchange that has been built on technology from MobClix, the defunct ad exchange whose assets were acquired by the private equity giant at the beginning of this year. Axonix, which will be based in London, is officially opening for business in May with its self-service mobile ad platform initially focused on the U.S., Latin American and European markets.

MobClix, you might recall, was a fast-growing mobile ad company that had been acquired by mobile marketing firm Velti, apparently for over $50 million, back in 2010. Last year, when troubles started to hit Velti and it couldn’t make payments out to developers on the MobClix platform, and then reported huge losses of its own, Mobclix went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and Velti filed for Chapter 11 protection. MobClix’s assets, along with the rest of Velti, were then picked up by GSO Capital Partners, the credit division of Blackstone, in January, for an undisclosed sum.

(Part of Velti’s marketing assets are now in a new business, too, called mGage. “Affiliates of GSO Capital Partners LP, a division of Blackstone, purchased certain assets from Velti in January 2014 and launched mGage using those assets,” a spokesperson says. “mGage is an independent company and completely separate from Velti.”)

The wider transaction included up to $25 million in debtor-in-possession financing, including “a $10 million cash injection to support the operations included in the proposed sale.”

Fast forward to today, and it looks like Telefonica and Blackstone see some value in MobClix’s technology under the right custodianship. Simon Birkenhead, Telefónica’s director of global advertising sales and previously an exec at Google, has been named CEO of Axonix. He will be taking on just one ex-employee from MobClix, Simon Bailey, who will become Axonix’s COO.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Birkenhead would not disclose how much money Telefonica or Blackstone are putting into the new Axonix venture, except to say that it will be well funded for the next two years.

“There is sufficient investment from Telefonica and Blackstone, and it’s sufficiently stable and funded for the next two years,” he says. There will be money for “generous” hiring packages to woo ambitious talent from other firms, as well as potential acquisitions.

He says the firm does not expect to look for outside funding from VCs. Some of Axonix’s funding is likely to come from the $25 million debtor-in-possession funding originally put up by Blackstone for the bigger Velti asset acquisition.

Part of the acquisition of the MobClix assets included integrations with some 100 demand-side partners, but no debts. Those old debts “still sit with Blackstone,” Birkenhead says. It will be up to Axonix’s sales team — which will initially be Telefonica’s sales network — to convince the industry that MobClix’s technology is now being run within a more credible business.

“Our feeling was that MobClix had a great platform, one of the best on the market,” he says. “It was a great shame it went into bankruptcy through no fault of its own. Our intention is to take the tech but put it into a much more secure and stable company that we will be able to operate on a more sound financial footing for the next couple of years.”

The move comes at an interesting time for Telefonica, which has long been trying to figure out the most lucrative place for itself in monetizing better around the growth of smartphones and broadband networks, through advertising and other initiatives. In September 2011, the company channelled those efforts into one division that it named Telefonica Digital, complete with 2,500 employees and a host of different digital ambitions, including a Global Services unit (enterprise services), but the internet portal Terra, the internet-calling company Jajah (deadpooled), the “Spanish Facebook” Tuenti (still going), R&D operations, and many different mobile assets such as BlueVia (its app venture, also being wound down – see below) and its other, earlier mobile advertising initiatives.

But earlier this year, Telefonica made the decision to shutter Telefonica Digital and re-integrate parts of that operation into the bigger organization.

Telefonica Digital had put millions of investment into backing startups, incubating more, and launching other efforts like this integration with Pinterest, and the closure points to challenges for the carrier.

(One casualty of that was BlueVia, the open API platform Telefonica launched to offer services like carrier billing on its network to developers.

“The platform will continue to be maintained and supported but no new connections will be made. Instead we will work with all new partners to help them integrate through preferred aggregators,” a spokesperson says. “In terms of the decision to suspend new connections to BlueVia, this was reached after a strategic review. It was a question of priorities. We took the decision to re-allocate the budget to product development in other areas within Telefonica.”)

In short, it seems like Telefonica ran out of patience to see how some of its more ambitious “tech” ideas would eventually play out within a large and still-lumbering telco. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s decided to develop Axonix as more of a standalone entity.

Still, the potential is strong for Telefonica, which is why it has and will continue to keep chipping away at these ventures: ZenithOptimedia estimates that in 2013, $13.4 billion was spent on mobile ads, or 13% of all Internet ad spend; and it forecasts that by 2016 mobile ad spend will grow to $45 billion, or 28% of Internet ad spend. It will compete against the likes of MoPub (now owned by Twitter), and Amobee (owned by SingTel).

In the UK market, eMarketer projects that mobile ad spend will reach $3.53 billion (£2.26 billion) compared to $1.86 billion in 2013, equivalent to 15.1% of total media spend. Overall, it says the digital ad market is still dominated by Google and Facebook, just as it is in other big, Western markets like the U.S. Google will be just under 41% of all digital ad revenues in the UK in 2014.

So who will be the customers on Axonix? Unsurprisingly, Telefonica will among them. The company currently uses DoubleClick for ads on its Terra broadband network, and has a “longstanding relationship” with Amobee for its mobile business.

“It’s fair to say we will be evaluating the tech partners that Telefonica has, and seeing where it makes sense to use Axonix,” Birkenhead says. “Amobee is up for renewal this year, and so it’s an opportune time to look at this.”

But similarly, other potential customers could include partners of Telefonica’s, such as Firefox OS and Sprint.

“Telefonica has an existing partnership with Sprint announced last year for mobile advertising,” Birkenhead notes. “Sprint has a mobile ad business and uses its consumer data to enrich targeting, but it doesn’t have an in-house platform, so we will be engaging in discussions to see how it could use Axonix. It will be natural to engage with others like Firefox OS and Mozilla, where TEF already has a relationship where they don’t have in house technology.” That potential funnel, he says, also includes all operators “besides Singtel.”

Photo: Flickr