Hit “reset” and forget everything you’ve read about Tim Armstrong leaving Google for AOL. Take a leap of faith and believe he was not brought in to take the company public on its own, or paint this house and then sell it to another media company. Armstrong at AOL makes sense on many levels. From TimeWarner CEO Jeff Bewkes’ point of view, this is a logical hire to keep AOL within the company and connect its fate to TimeWarner’s myriad content brands.
Bewkes has been through a few top dogs at AOL. One, Jon Miller, came in with a very impressive resume on the ecommerce and entertainment content lines. His strategy did not drive revenue. Now Bewkes is looking at a company that has media assets occupying very different stages of their lifecycles. Movies and cable are still prime. One of the most troubling assets is a huge stack of print magazines of varying profitability and viability. Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and even the flagship Time have had a tough time maintaining readership and revenue. Readers have moved online, but TW has cut too many deals to make the internet a value-add for print sales. Revenue migration has lagged.
Bewkes and predecessor Dick Parsons, have made some improvements to AOL sales capabilities that should have driven more revenue than they have. It still maintains a search technology and placement agreement with Google, for example. It bought Platform-A and integrated Tacoda to solidify its ad network and targeting capabilties. But these have not worked to satisfaction because sales executives for the individual brands still need to control key intertnet ad placements and to an extent, be accountable for the revenue. Integrating Platform-A has been tough. Armstrong, with his knowledge of Google’s technology, key clients, and partnerships is a good match for these challenges. His knowledge of internet advertising, and the new Platform-A leadership of ex-Yahoo Greg Coleman, is a plus.
Armstrong should have the knowledge and skill to give AOL one last run as a TW brand. If Bewkes wanted to have a hotshot executive that was palatable to a potential buyer, he would have reached into Fox’s recent talent pool castoffs such as Peter Chernin or Chase Carey. If Bewkes wanted a sale of AOL as the outcome here, he would have sold it already. What he paid for here is a good blend of cutting-edge technology and old media salesmanship.
From Armstrong’s point of view, why would you take this gig to become a highly-paid virtual real estate agent? Armstrong will find a way to re-brand AOL. He will hire someone to help him with that. His main mission will be to weld AOL’s user base with TimeWarner’s reader base. There are a lot of big numbers on both sides of that equation.
And Jeff Bewkes keeps two monsters at bay. One is the stock market that isn’t exactly primed for an AOL IPO. The other monster is the board member who asks the very relevant question, “who would you sell AOL to anyway?”