4A's Leadership Conference

Tim Armstrong Looks to Simplify AOL's Brand Clutter

In 4A's Interview, New CEO Talks User Experience, but Is Mum on Portal's Spinoff Rumors

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Since leaving his post as sales chief of Google to run AOL, Tim Armstrong has kicked off a review of the long-ailing internet icon's vast array of brands, with an eye toward creating a simpler experience for both consumers and the ad community.

Ad Age Editor Jonah Bloom interviews Tim Armstrong.
Ad Age Editor Jonah Bloom interviews Tim Armstrong. Credit: Kipp Cheng
In an interview with Ad Age Editor Jonah Bloom here at the 4A's annual Leadership Conference, Mr. Armstrong made no guarantees about the long-term survival of AOL's current offerings, such as its MediaGlow publishing division or its Platform-A advertising platform or its numerous consumer-facing content brands. While he didn't detail any specific plans, he did say its portfolio has gotten cluttered.

"The understanding of the value of brands at AOL has gotten a little gray over time," he said in front of a crowd of ad agency CEOs, adding that the intense scrutiny of the company has had a negative effect. "The questioning from the outside" has actually bruised the company internally, he said. "There are cases where we have tens of millions of people touching a brand every day," but people inside AOL have forgotten the need to improve the products behind those brands.

Mum on spinoff
Mr. Armstrong shocked the ad business recently when he left the relatively comfy confines of Google for AOL, a trouble spot for Time Warner since its dial-up-internet-access business eroded with the advent of broadband.

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Lately Madison Avenue, the media business and Wall Street have been waiting for a decision from Time Warner on whether it will spin off AOL and thus unravel one of the most calamitous mergers in business history. That decision could be revealed as soon as an earnings call tomorrow, according to a recent Bloomberg story.

Mr. Armstrong said he did not know whether the story was accurate.

Taking a page out of Google culture, he said he has put multiple executives on the task of simply studying all of AOL's brand assets and working on the Time Warner unit's mission statement. He's also met with 2,000 or so AOL employees, many in town hall meetings he's conducted.

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Tim Armstrong: Why I Left Google for AOL: Three-Part Video Interview With Ad Age Editor Jonah Bloom at the 4A's Leadership Conference

Focus on user experience
Mr. Armstrong hinted at disapproval of the company's recent decision to allow Intuit to alter the AOL logo on the AOL home page by installing the TurboTax check mark in the "O" in AOL. "AOL needs to focus on the user experience," he said, and understand the "trade-off between that revenue and the user experience." He added, "I don't know how that decision was made, but I'd like to find out. ... There are lines to be drawn around brand monetization."

He said the future of AOL is as a "great, great, great internet products company, and products include content." He added, "People are not paying enough to put their ads on AOL content."

As Mr. Armstrong tries to sort out the future of the company, he is in part looking to the past. He said he's consulted with co-founder Steve Case as well as Ted Leonsis, AOL's vice chairman emeritus. Mr. Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals hockey team, even gave Mr. Armstrong a lucky green tie he wears to the team's games.

Mr. Armstrong also gave some details of the final moments of his last day at Google, owner of 5% of AOL, when, having already surrendered his security badge, he found his only way out of the building was through the loading dock.

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