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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. With ADTECH, 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."

Meghan Keane

Published 23 March, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (18)

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john

You really have to call bull on this - the problem is that they had so many people arguing for quality, who were the people "at the end of the line" who were shot down and bypassed because of those who wanted to check a deliverable off a list and jsut get it done. they all left. now he's left with the non-visionaries.

your competitors are going to eat you alive, and as your dialup audience decreases, so will your traffic. no one else cares. 

over 6 years ago

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johndoe

John - Great point. I'm still not quite ashamed to admit it, but I've been at aol for 10 years. Anyone with a progressive vision has been shut out for a number of reasons. It's always been about "checking it off the list". Execs never really cared b/c they'd get paid regardless. Guarantee me a few million a year and see how much I give a crap.

All said, Tim & Co. are saying a lot of the right things. If they'd lay off the meeting rules and other nonsense and make way for the talent to do the right thing, everyone would be better off. 

over 6 years ago

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Greg

Turning around the culture at a big company is always hard. In this case, it sounds like Armstrong has to deal with a bunch of people actively pushing back. That's going to make it even harder. Completing the spin-off was a huge step. People need to feel the company can control its own fate, and stock compensation will also be a big motivator. But in the end he's going to need to turn a bunch of people over and replace them with more fresh blood. Convincing a lot of top performers to come to AOL, especially to enable a pretty bland content strategy, will be a challenge.

over 6 years ago

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Peter

Another way of looking at it:

Tim & Co. are so used to winning, they don't know what it's like to lose.

I have a feeling they're going to find out.

over 6 years ago

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KPOPROCESS

Turning around the culture at a big company is always hard. In this case, it sounds like Armstrong has to deal with a bunch of people actively pushing back. That's going to make it even harder.

"Google has very passionate employees."

over 6 years ago

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Laura

This interview is an embarrassment to Tim and all the AOL employess. 

For a CEO to say, ""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."

Tim has been at AOL for a year and all we continue to hear from him are excuses.  While he may believe that all the new Google hires can turn the place around , the truth is that he is hiring inexperienced people for the real work at hand.  And, to bring in all the people with the same mindset from a very succesful company in SEARCH is not the same thing as bringing in a diverse group of thinkers that understand content and display ad sales.  Jeff Levick is a perfect example.  Jeff brings ZERO to an ad meeting with clients.  It is a fact that clients are UNDERWHLEMED! Jeff might be brillant.  However, he never sold an ad in his life and certainly NEVER helped a large CPG or Drug company market their products.  So, to put him in charge  of sales made no sense.

Unfortunatley, Tim is proving that he is nothing more than a rookie on a team that needed a true proven veteran leader.  When you are as lucky as Tim to get into Google at the right time in the right space doesn't mean that you are ready for a turnaround the likes of which the Internet has ever seen.

Investors BEWARE!

over 6 years ago

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Steve Poppe

The fact that people are still referencing "Tim and Co." means acculturation has a way to go.  When they start saying AOL or the new AOL in these discussions it will suggest progress. Content is the right strategy for AOL.  But to be important again it needs a guiding brand principle.  It has new logo, a new boss, but no new brand.

over 6 years ago

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Wow

Way to have the back of your team, Tim.  I think the true sign of a poor leader is when they don't have the back of their team. He's blaming AOLers and acting like the GOOGLERs are making a difference.  There are huge problems, but take responsibility as the leader, Tim. This was very disappointing to read.  And why don't you spend a little time getting to know some of the AOLers who can help make a difference, but haven't played old AOL politics and are in management positions. Perhaps some of them should be tapped for more senior roles to help your admins and manager-level people who have VP titles.

over 6 years ago

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Thank you for the VSP!

All the good people took the Voluntary Separation Package.  Looking back, the VSP was probably a very bad idea for Tim and his team.  Think about it. The marketable people, the visionaries, the energetic and confident; these people knew they would find other job opportunities and be able to take advantage of being double paid for at least three months.  I'm really sorry to say it, but I just don't see much hope for AOL going forward.  It's almost like the company is cursed. 

over 6 years ago

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Ditto!

Yes, the VSP was very, very good for me.

over 6 years ago

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Ditto

Though I concur most of the top talent (not all of it) left with the VSP, the reasons were less due to TA and more due to the management style of the old AOL Media business leadership. I suspect a lot would have stayed if they had known the changes brewing in AOL Media business/product which hit in early 1st quarter 2010.  Nevertheless the article is a black eye for the existing CEO as just blanket statements of blame that cast a pall on any AOL'er not hired by TA crushes morale and exacerbates the gloom and feelings that all is lost and new jobs need to be found. Remember the die hards that will claw in one way or another to the side of the ship will be the last to go. If a new wave of departures commences, it will be the most innovative ,daring and skilled of the remaining bunch further whittling the pool of competence.

over 6 years ago

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tom flanagan

I really am rooting for AOL to do something that matters, but my opinion hasn't changed since January. They are not leading their users anywhere new, better, easier, etc.: http://tiny.cc/mixp8


over 6 years ago

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Mia

I don't work at AOL and would never want to work at a company where the CEO publicly humiliates the employees. So what Armstrong's saying is - if we fail it's because of the old AOL culture and if we win, it's because I taught them to win." How convenient! 

Company cultures don't change on a dime and he's incredibly naive if he thinks that all the "old timers" can be replaced overnight. My advice - tone down the arrogance,  STOP reminiscing about the good ol' days at Google, and focus on the turnaround. 

over 6 years ago

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Steph

Blaming the employees, how easy... I've got one question for you Tim: what's your content strategy? No, I mean for real, what's your content strategy exactly? I know people who left because precisely you couldn't answer that question. You can't just be evasive.

over 6 years ago

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video izle

This interview is an embarrassment to Tim and all the AOL employess.

over 6 years ago

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CB

What a jerk!  It sounds like he needs to drop down a peg or two.  If things were so great at Google, then why is this loser working for AOL?  Perhaps he intentionally wants to sabotage?

about 6 years ago

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Eric

I am a longtime user of AOL and have always been relatively satisfied. Lately some of the basic and continuous technical problems, make me wonder whether there is some deliberate sabotaging going on by former employees who would know how to hack into the AOL system and screw things up. Just a thought.....and I hope I am wrong!!  

about 6 years ago

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cashloanpersonalr

hi everyone

over 5 years ago

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