Burbank Jumps Ship At AOL For Nielsen

headshotFrustrated by AOL's larger corporate challenges, John Burbank, its chief marketing officer, has decided to take another job as Nielsen's first CMO.

At AOL for less than a year, Burbank was responsible for building brands and driving audience metrics in support of the company's nascent ad-supported business model.

Data released last week by comScore Media Metrix shows that AOL is having success in these areas, as quarterly traffic to its sites--including AOL Money & Finance, entertainment, and the male-oriented Asylum--grew 15% year-over-year to 56.5 million U.S. visitors.

As such, Burbank said he achieved his goals at AOL, and is leaving for the opportunity to blaze new trails at Nielsen.

"I'm proud that we were able to put the right people in place--and the right processes--to change from a subscription business to an ad-supported business," Burbank said of his time at AOL. "This is a brand-new position at Nielsen, which leaves tons of room to develop new marketing strategies."

Still, Burbank admits he hadn't planned on such a short stay at AOL, and expressed frustration over the many challenges facing AOL.

"Of course, I'm disappointed that I'm leaving AOL after a year," Burbank said. "The challenges that AOL faces are not those that are going to be fixed by marketing."

Of AOL's troubles, a reticent Burbank would only say: "They're well documented."

More broadly, Burbank takes issue with the online industry's current preoccupation with corporate mega deals. "It's all about the structure," he said. "Corporate structure rather than a go-to-market structure"--the latter being where Burbank would rather focus.

"As evidenced by what's happening at Microsoft and Yahoo, it shows the Internet is a difficult place," Burbank added. "AOL has an even tougher challenge, though they're making steady progress."

The question is whether AOL can progress rapidly enough to meet the expectations of its parent company. When Time Warner reports earnings later this week, AOL is expected to post a weak first quarter, with potentially flat ad revenue.

In March, Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes said he wouldn't rule out the sale of AOL. And earlier this year, Bewkes announced his intention to split off the unit's Web-access service.

To keep Microsoft at bay, Yahoo has been exploring a possible merger with AOL.

Also, AOL is increasingly relying on Platform-A to market its sites to Madison Avenue, yet the ad-serving network is still a work in progress--having just lost its president, Curt Viebranz, for failing to align its assets quickly enough.

Following an exhaustive search, AOL brought in Burbank in June 2007. What had attracted AOL to Burbank was his familiarity with multi-platform content distribution, and his ability to strike deals with top content producers.

AOL had been hunting for new leadership at least since November 2006, when Time Warner replaced Jonathan Miller with Randy Falco as head of its online unit.

The search intensified in December of 2006 when three key executives left the company: Jim Bankoff, who spearheaded a number of high-profile initiatives including the launch of celebrity gossip site TMZ.com and the free broadcast of Live 8; Joe Redling, president of AOL mobile and chairman and chief executive of AOL International; and John Buckley, executive vice president for corporate communications.

Prior to AOL, Burbank served as AT&T's vice president of marketing, where he worked on the Cingular brand before it was rechristened AT&T. Overseeing a marketing budget of $185 million, he was involved in a number of experimental marketing programs, including the sponsorship of an online battle of the bands on YouTube. In another instance, Cingular original mini-episodes of the popular HBO series "Entourage" were available only to Cingular Video subscribers.

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