- Colleen Aubrey is one of Amazon’s longest-standing and most powerful advertising execs.
- She helped build Amazon’s search advertising, which makes up the bulk of its $31 billion business.
- She’s tasked with developing ad products to convince TV-ad buyers to spend money with Amazon.
This is the seventh in a 10-part series publishing over the coming days that examines Amazon’s booming advertising business: The people driving it, the ripple effects on other companies, and what’s next.
In early May, Colleen Aubrey took the stage at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual Digital NewFronts event to make Amazon’s first big pitch for TV ad dollars. Sporting purple hair and a bright yellow blazer, her appearance at an industry event was rare for a top Amazon exec.
Aubrey, who spoke of Amazon’s ambitions to grow beyond Amazon’s tried-and-true search advertising and how it would measure TV audiences better than linear TV, acknowledged the significance of the moment.
“It feels surreal to be here talking to you about
TV,” she told the audience. “Amazon grew up on shopping and now we’re extending it to digital advertising.”
All eyes have been on Amazon’s ad business lately. The e-commerce giant recently disclosed that it made $31 billion in advertising in 2021, triple what it did in 2018, making it the third-biggest digital-ad player behind Google and Facebook. Along with providing a new revenue stream, advertising has fueled Amazon’s moves into areas like physical stores and streaming video. And its success has spurred retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy to build their own advertising businesses.
Key to this growth has been Aubrey, senior vice president of advertising products and tech. She’s had a hand in nearly every ad product it’s launched over the past 15 years and is now charged with growing new products in areas like streaming TV and advertising tech.
That responsibility and her proximity to power — Aubrey is part of the S-team (S for “senior”), a small group of top execs surrounding CEO Andy Jassy, and she’s close to him, Jeff Bezos, and the ad exec Paul Kotas — have led insiders to see her as a possible successor to Kotas, her longtime boss, if he steps aside.
“Aside from Andy Jassy, it’s hard to find someone who has achieved what she has,” said Connor Folley, a senior vice president of corporate development and strategic partnerships at Jungle Scout who was formerly an Amazon marketing manager.
Aubrey ‘doesn’t care about what people think’
Aubrey was one of three women at the top of Amazon when she joined the S-team in 2019. She’s known at the company for being authentic and speaking out against bias.
During an interview at an Amazon event last year, Aubrey talked about taking a job at an investment firm in Europe early in her career and quitting after her first day because the company didn’t allow her to wear her nose stud.
Reflecting on that decision today, Aubrey said she still stands by it.
“That discussion was about the importance of being your authentic self and spending your energy on building and delivering versus trying to fit in,” she said. “We each have control over our career and can choose a place to work where we’re valued for who we are – and can therefore focus our energy on doing great work. In this case, just after one day, I realized I was not being true to myself. That was detracting from me doing a great job, so I knew it wasn’t the right place for me.”
“She can be that transparent but also doesn’t care about what people think — she’s true to herself, and that’s the way that she’s driven herself up to her level,” said Virginie Douin, partner at The Brandtech Group and a former Amazon ad executive who worked with Aubrey from 2014 to 2021.
Douin said that Aubrey encouraged employees to always ask for promotions, raises, and new projects, even if the answer was no, and that she often called out biased language in the promotion process at Amazon — such as when a manager described a candidate as having a backbone, which could be interpreted negatively if the person is a woman but positively if they’re a man.
Douin recalled that Aubrey also said once that women shouldn’t put up with unsupportive managers.
“As a woman, it resonated with me,” Douin said. “That’s a badass comment, but that’s Colleen.”
Aubrey described combating biased language at Amazon as an imperative for her. “I have the opportunity to call this out and bring attention to the way that language shapes our behavior and impacts people — particularly underrepresented groups,” she said. “It’s easy for me to do, and I’m happy to do it. I use my voice and speak up whenever I see something that I might consider to be worthy of change.”
A behind-the-scenes operator
Aubrey has spent most of her career at Amazon working behind the scenes to develop ad products, rarely meeting with advertisers. She’s been described as a builder who follows the Amazon playbook of testing everything to see what sticks, and she’s known for speeding through Amazon’s notoriously long presentations and documents.
“There are people at Amazon who know how to look at a 20- to 50-page metrics deck and figure out exactly where a problem is in the business — she does that quicker than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” said Mark Mannino, a former Amazon ad exec who’s now an executive vice president of digital commerce at Ascential.
Over the years Aubrey’s team has cranked out a steady stream of new features and products — like a tool called Stores that brands use to create virtual storefronts and analytic tools — that had the sales team scrambling to keep up.
“Things happen fast when the people closest to the customer are able to make decisions, and most decisions are two-way door decisions,” Aubrey said of the product development pace.
She worked on Amazon’s first ad product in the early 2010s, called product ads. Advertisers often used it to drive traffic to their own sites to promote products not sold on Amazon, like washing machines. Amazon’s retail teams pushed back at the time, saying the ads undermined their efforts to drive traffic to Amazon’s website, Brad Stone wrote in his 2021 book, “Amazon Unbound.”
Amazon shut down product ads in 2015 because advertisers started linking their sites to Amazon pages, solving their problem of getting their products discovered on Amazon.
“The sellers were very effective at telling us that we were focused on the wrong problem,” Aubrey said. “This set us on the path to building sponsored products.”
Her most important work has been building out Amazon’s search-ad products, starting around 2015 with sponsored products, which became a hugely popular way for advertisers to target people based on their search queries. Google and others eventually developed similar search-based ads.
Nii Ahene, the chief strategy officer of the ad agency Tinuiti, said Amazon’s approach to search ads was significant because while Google and Facebook favored big brands, Amazon let lesser-known and smaller brands compete with those giants.
“It shows the kind of insight that she’s been able to bring to the organization to transform something that was an afterthought with Amazon into something that’s a very powerful part of the business today,” Ahene said.
“It led to creating a new industry that continues to grow rapidly around retail media,” Aubrey said. “That’s an accomplishment I’m pleased to be able to contribute to.”
Aubrey also developed Amazon’s Partner Network program that pairs adtech firms and ad agencies with advertisers. Rather than giving preference to big ad holding companies like WPP and Publicis Groupe, Aubrey opened up the program to hundreds of companies, many of them e-commerce specialists, turbocharging Amazon’s ad business.
“It needs to work for a ‘one person just getting started’ to highly sophisticated, well-known brands,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to build two separate sets of capabilities.”
Aubrey’s remit is growing as Amazon’s ad business expands
Amazon is growing beyond search ads, and it’s gunning for larger ad budgets.
A Cowen survey found that 35% of advertisers’ Amazon budgets went toward its most popular search-ad formats in 2021, while 27% went toward video advertising and 18% went toward ads running outside Amazon’s properties.
As the business has grown, so has Aubrey’s remit. She’s now focused on growing its adtech, streaming-video, and measurement products. She also oversees Amazon’s products that hundreds of third-party adtech firms and agencies use to manage campaigns for advertisers. She sees an opportunity for Amazon to add contextual ad-targeting products.
She hopes to have the same impact on digital advertising that she did on retail media, with new products that help marketers buy, sell, and measure digital ads.
“In five to 10 years, we’ll be able to look back on this period, and hopefully I can say I was able to contribute to another evolution in the industry,” she told Insider.
To be sure, Amazon faces new competition from the likes of Roku, YouTube, and more established players like NBCUniversal and Disney for the $19 billion that Insider Intelligence, which shares a parent with Insider, estimates advertisers will spend on streaming TV in the US this year.
Amazon says it can track brand lift and awareness, but many big advertisers still need convincing that its ads can drive soft metrics like awareness and loyalty.
Meanwhile, Aubrey still has to keep Amazon’s performance advertisers happy. Over the past year, as sellers — Amazon’s core advertisers — have bought more search ads on Amazon, their prices have soared. Amazon’s sponsored-product ad prices rose by 9.6% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2022, according to the e-commerce firm Pacvue. In the third quarter of last year, they spiked by 13% year-over-year. Aubrey said Amazon has rolled out new tools to help performance advertisers track ad spending and find new customers.
Balancing ad growth with the customer experience, which Amazon has been famously protective of, will also be a challenge. The average number of ads on the first page of search results on Amazon has crept up, to 9.3 in 2022 from 8.7 in 2020, according to data from the e-commerce firm Profitero.
“They can’t completely turn every position into a sponsored placement,” said Himanshu Jain, a vice president of product management and partnerships at the e-commerce adtech firm CommerceIQ. “Amazon is making more money with search right now because brands are continuing to bid against each other, causing ad prices to go up. But the inventory is fixed.”
But Aubrey is uniquely positioned to lead the next wave of Amazon’s advertising growth, said John Donahue, a partner at the advertising consultancy Up and to the Right.
“She’s born and bred there, so she’s a great person to put in that place,” he said.
Lara O’Reilly contributed reporting.