By Any Other Name, Will it Finally Smell Sweet?

No doubt, faithful readers of the trade press covering our hallowed industry know that AOL Time Warner has been considering changing their name for a few months now. Plagued with the reputation as arrogant dot-commers who came with the AOL management structure and business philosophies, the remaining Time Warner old guard, now firmly in control of the company that was supposed to be the pantheon of media convergence, will move Thursday to drop AOL from their name forever and go back to using the 'TWX' ticker symbol by which stock traders and investors identify their security.

And so, just a few months shy of 3 years, the largest corporate merger in history, the buyer is not only disgraced, but its name is being stricken from the records. It is like Tuthmosis III defacing the monuments of his stepmother, Hatshepsut, the only female to rule Egypt as pharaoh, dressing in men's cloths and wearing a fake beard. The marks of the infidel are to be purged from history.



Let this be a lesson to one and all who may have either not known it or made the mistake of forgetting it: in a business that promotes, profits from, and relies on image, appearances are everything.

And let's face it; things weren't looking too good for AOL. To the public, they became synonymous with the all style-no substance dot-com craze; a lot of talk about big growth and profits that never materialized. To those in the media business, AOL came to represent all that was negative about the Internet as a business: bombastic, aggressive, vague, and reliant on ignorance of the medium to instill fear in advertisers on the fence about engaging them.

As time went on after the bottom fell out of the stock market, much of which resulted from a lack of confidence in the Internet as a business opportunity, AOL suffered just as much as their lesser brethren in the Web publishing space. But the AOL culture stayed in place until just the last year. Then the 'old line' management began to take control of the court and start moving that culture, if not out, at least to the side.

So it was that the righteous smirk became a pained grimace that then gave way to the pouting expression of the chastised child.

But even the management changes and attempts at culture transfusion couldn't save the vision of "AOL Time Warner" that was presented to investors and the public. So it is that on September 17 the Washington Post reports that at a meeting September 18th, Richard Parsons will announce the excoriation of those things suggesting AOL from the flesh of the greater company.

It is certainly the end of an era. I remember working in financial services on a quotes line, a year or so out of college, when a company called "America Online" was a new security on the NASDAQ. At the beginning of 1995, just months before I started working in advertising, I picked AOL (along with CNS, Inc. the maker of Breath Right Nasal Strips) to be among the top 10 stock performers in a little game I was playing with the other folks on the quotes line. I'd already been on Prodigy for some time by then and figured that something like AOL was going to do well and go far. It did.

But a year later, when I was helping to put together a "State of the Internet" for a client interested in the emerging medium, I remember coming across a projection in a piece of research that suggested AOL, Prodigy, and other proprietary online services were going to plateau, and by the end of the century (the one finished up just a few years ago), users were going to start going directly to the Internet rather than relying on walled garden environments. As it turned out, this was accurate. And the once-vaunted figure of "30+ million" subscribers for AOL has been found to be more like 25 million; but even this figure may be in dispute.

All of this to say, AOL's present isn't as bright as it was when it was still just their projected future.

But don't count them out, yet. In spite of AOL's trials and tribulations, they still have a very large regular user base. And this base is made up of a large swath of the general population. They are also still responsible for generating some $1 billion a year in cash for the company.

With the passing of this vestige of the largest, most well know, and, arguably, most successful venture into the Internet as a medium, the new isn't being driven out by the old. The new is far too ingrained into the fabric of the old. The removal of AOL from the name of this vaunted media conglomerate is not a sign of AOL's weakness. It is a move that shows the Internet is so ingrained into all of our lives that it is no longer necessary to draw attention to it. Being "digital" is no longer a point of differentiation or the indication of being tomorrow rather than yesterday. The Internet as a medium is a given.

And, let's not forget; it makes for good appearances.

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