Digital Conference 2010

Bank of America to Spend Less on Traditional Outlets

At Ad Age Digital Conference, AOL's Armstrong Discusses Content Venture With Merrill Lynch, Online Journalism

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NEW YORK ( -- In an effort to shore up its ailing brand, Bank of America is doubling spending on digital platforms, but as a result will be spending less on traditional outlets, namely TV and print.

Claire Huang and Tim Armstrong at Advertising Age's Digital Conference today.
Claire Huang and Tim Armstrong at Advertising Age's Digital Conference today. Credit: Gary He
"We're not abandoning any of those forms of media," Head of Marketing Claire Huang told an audience at Advertising Age's Digital Conference today. "But we're realizing that digital not only allows you to provide information, you can have real, live connections. It's not just a flat little square box you have two seconds to look at."

Ms. Huang was answering a question from fellow panel member AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who also addressed his company's revamped branding initiatives. "When I first started at AOL, a lot of people gave me advice to remove the AOL brand from the company," Mr. Armstrong said. "I talked to a lot of different partners, and the fact is there's a tremendous amount of goodwill behind the brand -- it was so unexpected. So we made a decision to stay behind the brand."

More specifically, and not surprisingly, deploying more content was the key solution for both companies, though in somewhat different ways. Significantly, Bank of America is improving its digital presence by increasing internal efforts, such as new texting tools, Twitter tools and self-produced webcasts, rather than on more digital ad spending. "Traditional advertising of digital like search and banner ads has shrunk a little bit," Ms. Huang said. "We're actually making our own content because we have the content experts."

As an example, Bank of America's Merrill Lynch unit recently hired Charlie Gibson to talk on a panel about retirement planning that was webcast from the Merrill Lynch site.

Nonetheless, part of that content creation is also done in partnership, and Mr. Armstrong's all-in content gamble for AOL resulted in a deal where the two companies co-created a financial planning site on AOL. "We know content, and they have the experts," Mr. Armstrong said.

Addressing concerns that such an arrangement may be potentially damaging to the journalism industry, Mr. Armstrong spoke to the core concerns of news gathering: "My belief is that when you hire a great journalist you're hiring their network, and not just their Twitter network -- journalists are networks themselves," he said.

AOL has recently gone on a journalist-hiring binge, employing the ranks of those recently displaced from traditional outlets, and in some ways AOL is seen as a reporter's haven. But Mr. Armstrong also spoke about how AOL is planning content around reader requests, a practice that stands in stark contrast to the newspaper tradition of editor as expert.

"Content has been historically been done in a vacuum," he said. "So we're continuing to work on it, so two months from now AOL will be very accurate at producing content. The investments we're making for improved use of technology for content will be a long-term net positive. I think we're a great place for journalists. We have church and state at AOL."

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