Did Microsoft go lose its head over aQuantive?

I’ve been trying to find a way to illustrate just how screwy Microsoft’s $6 billion bid for aQuantive is, and here it is: For $6 billion in cash, Microsoft could have hired, in a single day, 60,000 engineers and salespeople (plus managers to make sure they earn their pay) – paying each one of them a $100,000 salary.

Of course, if Microsoft did that in one day everyone would think its executives had gone mad. After all, it already employs a modest 71,000 people around the world. Instead, it’s paying out $2.85 million for each of the 2,106 employees who work for aQuantive. Which, no matter how hard as people labor to rationalize this deal, is at the very least slightly more mad than that, if not good old-fashioned American bat-shit insanity.

Just as Microsoft was obsessed 10 years ago with an iron grip on the computer desktop – a vision that proved almost fatally shortsighted – it’s now obsessed with having a Bigfoot-sized imprint in the online-advertising industry.

Sure, being shut out by Google and to a lesser extent Yahoo has to be painful today, but the fact is Microsoft is seeding several markets that may well be just as important if not more important in a few years on: video games, online business transactions, health-care software and consumer-oriented robotics.

Still, Microsoft blunders on into online ads like a middle-aged ex-quarterback bent on reliving those glory days of high school. In the world of M&A, as in a post-midnight dive bar, desperation is a cheap cologne. If anyone smells it on you, they hold it against you. After Friday’s news, Microsoft is fairly doused in eau de désespoir.

Yet as always happens whenever something occurs that makes no sense whatsoever, there is no shortage of explanations: Microsoft lost Yahoo, so this is its last best option in online advertising. No wait, this allows Microsoft to get back into the courting dance with Yahoo. Or just maybe, Microsoft knows a bargain when it sees it.

The thing is, aQuantive is a respectable enough, if already overpriced, company. But its value has been erratic. Before the whole media-merger mania caught fire, aQuantive went from $11 two years ago to $29 in early 2005, down to $19 that same summer, and back up to $29 a few months on.

So aQuantive as an investment is kind of like John Travolta’s career: It really all depends on when you catch him. Are you getting the epoch-defining Saturday Night Fever or its unpalatable sequel Staying Alive? Pulp Fiction or Michael?

Just Microsoft’s luck, Travolta is about to headline the new Hairspray in drag. Microsoft wants a bride who resembles Doubleclick, snatched away by Google earlier this spring, but aQuantive has been dabbling all along in, shall we say, alternative revenue streams: “behavioral targeting businesses” and “creative development and branding,” and whatever those euphemisms, taken from aQuantive’s last 10-K, might suggest.

Microsoft has often been compared with Google unfavorably in recent years. One thing both companies shared in common was their restraint in spending hard-won capital. But with Google’s $3 billion buy of Doubleclick and now Microsoft’s buy of aQuantive that’s twice as large, I fear we are in uncharted territory of M&A-Land.

Well, territory that hasn’t been charted since the hyper-aQuisitive days of the dot-com years. But who would rationally choose to return to those silly times?

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