AOL Boots Loser CEO for Google's Tim Armstrong
At last, AOL has done something right: The Time Warner Internet unit has hired Google's Tim Armstrong as its new CEO, booting the laughably incompetent duo of CEO Randy Falco and COO Ron Grant.
Falco and Grant were almost instantly hated when they arrived at AOL's Dulles campus — partly because Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes badly mishandled the exit of former CEO Jonathan Miller. (Miller is now a venture capitalist, and both his name and Armstrong's came up as candidates in Yahoo's CEO search.)
Armstrong, head of Google's North American ad sales, seems like the best possible man for the job — and with Google's shares hovering around $323, down more than 50 percent from their peak, and AOL at the nadir of its tumultuous existence, it seems like a good time for him to prove what he can do.
He benefits from an easy comparison: Falco's reign at AOL, where the company's notional value sank from $20 billion to a fraction of that, will go down in history as one of the worst reigns as CEO at any company, anywhere.
But what is Armstrong going to do? He'd never have left his cozy perch at Google to oversee AOL's further decline. Let's assume that's not in the cards.
The best indicator of Armstrong's preferred strategy is not the one he pursued at Google. Based primarily in New York, Armstrong oversaw an agenda set by the geeks in Mountain View. To keep him on board, Google's top managers allowed Armstrong use his Google-IPO wealth to make several startup investments on the side, even when they posed a conflict of interest.
One company, Associated Content, run by Armstrong's college roommate Luke Beatty, lets amateur publishers post content on the Web and get paid a share of the advertising revenues. Another, Patch, is building local news sites with real journalists behind them, in competition with the New York Times.
It's not clear if Time Warner, which is stricter about this kind of thing, will let Armstrong stay involved with his side gigs. But what they spell out is a guy who's itching to be a media kingpin, not the boss of an army of programmers.
What that likely means: The future of AOL will rest in its blog-heavy MediaGlow division, while Armstrong works his Madison Avenue connections to rebuild AOL's slouching ad sales. If he makes it work, it will be a triumph over his old bosses at Google — the ones who believe in the alchemy of algorithms over the hard work of creating content that attracts an audience.