When Tim Armstrong arrived at AOL in March 2009, employees were ecstatic. So much so that some adorned the company’s walls with posters featuring Armstrong’s image above the word Hope—modeled after the famous campaign posters of a certain president.
Like President Obama, Armstrong’s arrival was followed by a celebrated first 100 days. The much-maligned company was ready for change it could believe in after the disastrous Randy Falco and Ron Grant era—AOL’s Bush and Cheney. “Ron and Randy were not well-liked guys,” says a former AOL staffer. “So when Tim came in people were literally jumping up and applauding. The guy comes in, he looks like Superman. It felt like a coronation.”
But the believers’ faith has been severely tested. While many are still devoted to Armstrong and his vision, some former supporters question his readiness for the role and his ability to stick to strategy rather than reacting to changing conditions on the ground. Some have even questioned whether Armstrong really wants this job and believe that Armstrong is using AOL to paint himself as a turnaround hero—someone who should be the next CEO of giant media company X.
Last week, Armstrong made his most daring move yet, as AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million, while putting founder Arianna Huffington in charge of editorial operations. It remains to be seen whether this move will become Armstrong’s Sputnik moment or his stimulus bill.
What seems clear is that this move is about Armstrong creating a new platform, and perhaps destiny, for himself, cobbled from the inchoate parts of AOL and the headliner brand of his new partner. His hope may be to create The Armstrong Post.
As soon as he began his pre-spinoff tour in ’09 to meet with investors and advertisers, Armstrong was preaching the new AOL mantra: content, content and content. Premium advertisers. The biggest display ad company on the Web. But questions about his commitment are in the air. When asked to grade Armstrong’s execution of his strategy, one former staffer replied, “Which one?”
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