Coming to an established brand with new ideas is one thing. But
convincing existing employees to change old habits is an entirely different issue. And that’s increasingly a problem at AOL, where Tim Armstrong came from Google
11 months ago.

At the offices of brand strategists Wolff Olins in New York on Tuesday morning, AOL’s CEO laid out the cultural shift that he is still trying to overcome:

“AOL was so used to losing that they didn’t know what winning was.”

With a big roster of new employees, a few new properties and a much stronger focus on content, Armstrong has made big changes at AOL in the last year. But not all of his advice has stuck.

One example that Armstrong cited this morning was AOL’s crowd sourced journalism venture Seed. Seed set out to interview and feature all 2000 bands performing at the SxSW festival in Austin, Texas this month. But five hours before launch, the Seed site was a disaster.  “I went onto the SxSW site and I was horrified,” says CEO Tim Armstrong. The employees working on the site came back to the office and worked overnight to get it up to speed. But the bigger problem was that they thought it was ready to go live at all. It wasn’t ready.

“I shouldn’t be the one to catch that issue,” says Armstrong. “As a company we didn’t have a bar that we set. If you talked to people at our company, they’d say they’re doing A work. But I went to the site and realized, their expectation and consumer expectation.. was different.”

Why are mistakes like that still happening? Because the culture of AOL is not yet where Amstrong wants it to be.

He is refocusing AOL around original content, but many of the writers and editors have not followed through on the company’s verticals. With AOL’s healthcare coverage in the leadup to the big vote this week, “it turns out we didn’t have the best coverage. It was opinions and scraping.” Now the site has breakdowns of data from the healthcare bill pegged to location and legislator.

The intersection between data and new content is where Armstrong sees a real opportunity for AOL. He thinks that AOL is currently undervalued for all of the assets it has.
AOL has the second largest ad serve in the world and Armstrong plans to
use AOL to help change the business of online advertising in the near
future. Meanwhile, on the consumer side, AOL still has the advantage of
150 million viewers in
the U.S. (and 250 million globally).

But Armstrong says that a problem with digital creation is that so many people can be working to different ends that no one oversees the final product.

“We’re working on having a clear definition of what quality is…You almost need to have someone who stands at the end and says: this is how these things are going to converge.”

At a company as big as AOL, that can’t be one person. And no matter how on point Armstrong may be, his plans at AOL can’t be a success until the employees at AOL’s various verticals are making those decisions themselves. That will depend on changing the way individuals approach their jobs. At Google, where Armstrong came from, “the brands are a direct reflection of the employees that work on them.”

Armstrong has been importing former Google staffers in with journalists from varying outlets to the AOL roster, but as he puts it:

“There are still groups at AOL…They don’t enjoy losing, but they don’t know anything else.”

Meanwhile, “Google has very passionate employees.”

Some former Googlers at AOL are running into roadblocks at AOL because they’re used to giving someone a task and receiving work better than they expected. At an established corporation like the old AOL, employees are used to having their work checked over.

Which means that longtime AOLers may not make the cut if they don’t get with the program. Armstrong believes the internet (and AOL) has lots of room to grow and foresees launching new brands, but the current AOL landscape should condense soon: “you’ll see us collapse a bunch of brands together.”

Armstrong came to AOL in part because he believes that large brands are easier to turnaround than create out of thin air. But that doesn’t mean that AOL can sit back and rest on the audience it already has:

“Brands’ challenge in the digital age is that it’s a choice driven environment. You can’t force yourself on people, they need to choose you.”