In 2009, Tim Armstrong took over AOL and I wrote this column. In light of the Verizon-Yahoo deal, in which Yahoo will be integrated with AOL, it seems newly relevant.
My point back then was that when you strip away the tech complexity of how ads get served, you see clearly that we are all in the ad sales business. Tim understands how media gets bought and sold. Meanwhile, the list of unemployed CEOs of media companies who have never sold an ad continues to grow. Run, Tim run, and keep making sales calls on your way.
At an IAB conference in 2007, an executive at Microsoft took the stage and flashed a slide to the audience showing the ecosystem in which MSN competed. AOL wasn't listed on the chart. Later that afternoon, then-CEO Randy Falco reminded the room AOL was in the portal business too, and should be ignored at "your own peril."
I never worked for Randy Falco, but I did work for Tim Armstrong at Snowball.com -- and oh, man, are MSN and Yahoo in for a fight from this sleeping giant of a portal and its new giant of an executive.
Tim is far from perfect. He was notorious for leaving his Palm Pilot on airplanes and laptop computers in bars. But even his imperfections exude his strengths. You don't lose Palm Pilots on planes if you're not flying all over the country, and media buyers like to hang out in bars -- and like Tim, a lot.
When the announcement was made that Tim would take the reigns at AOL, the financial pundits chimed in on whether this was a good move or not. When one pundit claimed Tim was hampered by his limited experience tied "only to selling ads" I lost some respect for financial pundits.
CEOs must possess unique qualities to lead a company and balance its multifacets. And only time will tell those who don't know Tim that he has those qualities. But on day one of his new job, Tim walks in with years of success on the street selling ad campaigns, which is the business AOL is in, no? This actually gives him a leg up on his more experienced portal CEO competitors.
MSN and Yahoo have best-in-show advertising sales management. But the top of their org charts sits a person who has never sold an ad campaign. And before you jump to "they can learn the media business" as the new CEO of Yahoo proclaimed, don't overlook the obvious. Tim will lead AOL with firsthand knowledge of what he will ask his sales force to sell more of, and more importantly, dog years' worth of extremely well groomed relationships with clients and buyers.
So here is what I think you can expect from Tim and AOL:
1. Watch Tim make calls to clients. Sure, he will be taking on CEO tasks, but watch him continue to find time to meet with the very people who make the media-buying decisions. At Snowball.com, he introduced the corniest ritual we all bought into. At our weekly national sales conference calls, with everyone on the phone or in the room, he dialed a "client of the week" and with the entire sales organization on the line, would thank that person for their business as we all clapped and cheered in the background.
2. Watch Tim run fast and fall occasionally. He keeps an incredible pace and he will demand the same from his company. He will also make more mistakes, just as he did at Snowball and Google -- and that is his strength, not a weakness. He is willing to try new approaches in order to track down success, so look for AOL to foster an environment that rewards innovation and pats the backs, harder, of those who run the fastest.
3. Watch Tim make a play for Facebook. Deals are done between people, not companies, and Tim is Facebook's kind of people. Let's face it -- Facebook would be heralded as an invention on par with the telephone if it weren't for that grey cloud hovering over exactly who invented it. The folks working there are super-young, super-smart, and have little experience at the very top at selling advertising to large brands and ad agencies. So why struggle, when they can incubate themselves inside of AOL and in the arms of a fraternity brother?
My advice -- which I tend to share in this column without anyone really asking for it -- is to watch Tim run AOL, and see if you can emulate his moves inside the circles you run in.