Virgin-Phorm Deal Remains Uncertain; It’s ‘If’, Not ‘When’

Behavioural ad targeting network Phorm may still have the three ISP agreements it won in February – but, unlike BT (NYSE: BT), whose delayed trial is now underway, it seems a case of “if“, not when, Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) will go ahead with the partnership.

— First inkling we got that Virgin is wavering came in its investors meeting this week, when CEO Neil Berkett said the company’s next advertising initiative “won’t be with the Phorms of the world“. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

ISPReview ran with our coverage of the remark, getting a further response from a Virgin spokesperson: “Whilst we are still investigating the use of Phorm’s technology under our existing agreement with the company, due to the complexities of the proposition we do not have any timescales on when, or if, we will progress to trial or full launch“.

— But Phorm insists everything’s on-track. Its communications director Alex Laity told me: “Our position is simple: there has been no change in the relationship“. He said the company is in regular contact with its partners, is working with each of them and that Virgin’s statement was not incomparable from those it’s made previously.

So who’s right and what’s going on? Whilst Phorm undoubtedly has “agreements” with Virgin, BT and TalkTalk, it’s unclear whether they commit the ISPs to actually go ahead any time soon. Virgin remains interested in behavioural targeting – it called the opportunity a “strategic initiative” in its investors meeting this week; “monetising our customer relationships”. But the investment for that initiative was flagged to come from its own capital expenditure. Berkett says: “We’re waiting principally to see what the trial with BT looks like…but there are other ways we can start to monetise the power of the network.”

It’s now clear, despite earlier criticism, that Phorm is legal. It also claims to have several overseas ISPs ready to sign (still not named) and interest in the technology remains strong, with several publishers now ready to start running its ads. But, with Orange having opted out and Virgin wavering, hesitant ISPs aren’t exactly all jumping in at once to follow BT’s lead.

On the other hand, true to say the delay to BT’s trial was due to technical complexity rather than having any second thoughts. A Virgin spokesperson, too, told ClickZ “progress with the platform has been slow”, saying Berkett’s comment to investors “did not imply any finite decisions” about Phorm.