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Amazon Ad Business Sparks Controversy—and Growth

There aren’t many companies that can claim to have a special competitive advantage over Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others in the cut-throat online advertising business. But, armed with unique customer data, a growing array of media-centric businesses, and a fledgling but fast-growing advertising platform, may be that rare beast.

Already, the e-commerce giant’s ad unit, which began to ramp up in 2011, is nearing a billion dollars in revenue, according to eMarketer. Media buyers say that growth has come even without an especially aggressive effort to lure them. Led by Seattle-based business development executive Jeff Blackburn and New York-based sales executives Lisa Utzschneider and Mark Mannino, Amazon’s ad division sells banner ads on the website and on Amazon-owned websites such as movie site IMDB, as well as on third-party sites. More recently the company has been displaying ads on the home screen of its Kindle e-readers and tablets.

Yet Amazon walks a delicate line in exploiting its most important asset: an enormous cache of shopping data that it can use to target people based on their in-store browsing history and their actual purchases. That, mixed with a corporate culture that has long valued secrecy and an insistence on making partners play by its rules, has made Amazon a controversial presence in the ad world.

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