NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — “Keith Urban stood right there!”
It was, actually, just a TV studio and the assembled execs from Mediabrands had seen plenty of those before. But this was a tour of AOL’s New York studios off lower Broadway, and Mike Rubens, AOL’s director-production, was trying to make a point: We’re not just another portal aggregating and syndicating entertainment and information — we are producing it! Lots of it!
As if to prove that, AOL Music’s editor in chief and former Rolling Stone editor Bill Crandall invited the group to watch Beyonce perform “All The Single Ladies” on a monitor in the studio.
Then AOL Sales President Jeff Levick got right to the point. “What I’d like you to do is take everything you know about AOL and just sort of put it aside for a moment.”
This is one of five so-called agency summits AOL held with the media-buying arms of holding companies to cast itself as a content company built from the ground up to entertain and inform web audiences and to deliver them ad messages.
The three-hour drill-down included a whistle-stop tour of its media properties from The Boombox and Spinner to Politics Daily and Daily Finance to Engadget. Only scant reference was made to AOL’s ad network and technologies — the onetime Platform A, now known as AOL Advertising. AOL’s cash engine, the internet-access business, came up only when a Mediabrands executive brought it up. And Bebo, AOL’s $850 million prize of last summer? Well, that didn’t come up at all.
Most startling, however, was that the event — attended by the braintrust of AOL execs including CEO Tim Amstrong; Mr. Levick; Agency Relations Chief Erin Clift; Jon Brod, head of AOL ventures and maps; Brad Garlinghouse, head of communications, e-mail, AIM and ICQ, and Bill Wilson, head of content — was happening at all.
“We didn’t have these kinds of meetings nine months ago. We didn’t have the relationships,” said Mr. Wilson, the only member of Mr. Armstrong’s posse who has been on the job more than nine months. Mr. Garlinghouse is just a month into his job, having jumped to AOL from Yahoo.
“Normally we don’t go on tours of AOL; it’s not part of my day job,” said Bant Breen, president-digital for Initiative Worldwide. “Part of it was to re-educate key players on my side on what AOL is.”
And part of that is a give and take between AOL and the agencies. David Cohen, exec VP-digital at Universal McCann asked what makes AOL think it can make a business of web content when there’s “a whole bunch of carcasses by the side of the road of people who have tried and failed?”
AOL responded that its new approach is about addressing the fragmented web by launching many, many niche properties. “Where others in the space are focused on creating a few starting places, we are taking the exact opposite approach where we are creating starting places on your interests … hundreds of them,” Mr. Wilson said.
On the agency side, one of the hurdles is that so many of AOL’s branded sites are still a mystery to consumers. Those “unknown brands are the hardest part right now,” said Ben Winkler, senior VP-digital at Initiative. “It’s hard enough to get [clients] to commit to digital spend; then once you do to say, ‘Here are some brands [to buy] you haven’t heard of,’ it isn’t really worth the effort.”
AOL’s answer: We know we have a huge branding effort ahead. The AOL brand will be present on most sites, and where it’s not obvious the sites will share a look and feel.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of these summits to AOL. With the spinoff from Time Warner coming in December, it is laying the groundwork to be a standalone company, and while revenue from its legacy dial-up business declines each quarter, growth, if it comes, will come from advertising.