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Friends, New Yorkers, Lend Me Your Ears: I Come to Praise AOL!

Internet Company's Headed to Big Apple, and This Columnist Is Rooting for the Suddenly Agile Giant

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I can't believe I'm about to type the following sentence, but here goes: Welcome to town, America Online.

Last week, as you probably heard, AOL announced plans to relocate its headquarters next spring from Dulles, Va., to Manhattan -- just a few miles south of Advertising Age HQ.
Randy Falco took AOL reins last fall and grasped the need to transform ad sales.
Randy Falco took AOL reins last fall and grasped the need to transform ad sales. Credit: Keith Bedford
I've been trashing AOL for more than a decade -- first as an unhappy content partner (I created an AOL site for a glossy magazine back in the '90s, which involved daily battles with AOL's rank-and-file bureaucracy and executive-suite numbskulls), then as a bewildered observer of AOL's idiotic business decisions -- so maybe you think I'm being sarcastic. But I'm not.

Against all odds, I'm actually rooting for AOL.

Time Warner investors have been agitating for years, of course, for the company to spin off its AOL division. Sure, TW bigs were sufficiently ashamed of their boneheaded 2001 merger with AOL that in 2003 they switched the company name from AOL Time Warner back to plain old Time Warner -- but CEO Dick Parsons maintains to this day that the company is worth more intact than broken up, despite its languishing stock price.

Actually, I'd like to see AOL spun off from Time Warner not because it deserves to be dumped, but because it deserves liberation. AOL, right now, is a newly vital company and it's moving ahead with unprecedented agility -- and a new awareness of "internet time" that's at odds with the lumbering pace elsewhere within TW.

Case in point: In addition to the HQ decision last week, AOL announced it was putting Curtis Viebranz, the former chief of behavioral-advertising firm Tacoda, in charge of its new advertising-sales division Platform A. AOL only brought Viebranz on board in July when it bought his company for $275 million. Now, effectively, he's tasked with supercharging AOL's entire ad-business model (which, given the probable sale of AOL's dial-up-access division, may soon be AOL's only business).

Credit Randy Falco, a 30-year NBC veteran who took the reins of AOL last November, for not only apprehending the value of Tacoda's brainy approach, but for understanding that AOL has to transform its ad-sales apparatus to put as much -- if not more -- emphasis on selling inventory for outside web publishing partners as for its own sites. The network -- and network of networks -- is the thing. (Another smart move: AOL's May buy of mobile-advertising-network Third Screen Media.)

At the same time AOL has been looking outward, it's been doing a great job of looking inward to rethink its own approach to serving its audience. At the basic site-utility level, AOL has given its web-based e-mail interface a state-of-the-art makeover that makes it a pleasure to use. After years of championing a dopey, lowest-common-denominator institutional voice, AOL has figured out how to nurture surprisingly brash, attention-getting editorial voices, like that of TMZ (its co-venture with Telepictures Productions) -- one of the most successful built-from-scratch webby brands since, say, Gawker, and enough of a pop-cultural touchstone that it's spawned its own TV show. The rethink has been so effective that AOL can now even make a legitimate claim to being a regular destination (see Media Guy's Pop Pick about AOL's Spinner.com) for, yes, hipsters and cultural trendsetters who once dismissed "AOHell" as a creative wasteland.

But mostly I love the fact that AOL, which has been astonishingly arrogant in its dealings with Madison Avenue over the years, is recognizing the importance of not just algorithms, but relationships. How nice that in this age of increasingly automated, server-driven advertising buys, the humbled internet giant has made the decision to move to New York to cozy up to -- gasp -- humans.
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