Interactive Quarterly: SHOCK TROOPS/THE MEDIA – PIERCING AT&T

Earring-sporting Chris Varley punctures the traditional AT&T mold.
Unlike other office buildings in the former Ma Bell empire, the mood at the AT&T WorldNet headquarters in Bridgewater, N.J., seems carefree and spontaneous. It’s not uncommon to see executives strolling about the corridors without neckties, waxing about the medium’s potential. One of the biggest culprits is Chris Varley, the 37-year-old interactive services director of WorldNet, AT&T’s entry into the Internet service provider market.
In under a year’s time at AT&T, Varley has proved he’s no “Bell Head,” the description given to AT&T lifers who navigate the 40-hour work week unnoticed. With a dirty-blonde, surfer hairstyle, rolled-up sleeves, a non descript earring in his right ear and a penchant for cinematic metaphors and historical references, Varley looks and talks every bit the New Age business disciple. He preaches such Zen-like business maxims as less is more, yield to the customer and embrace potential competitors.
Who could blame Varley, and AT&T, for finding religion in the online access business? Demand for WorldNet has been robust since the March 1996 launch, far eclipsing the Internet service offerings by other telecommunications companies. And most importantly, analysts point to WorldNet’s 900,000-plus subscribers as an indication that the company can compete for the coveted, if still small, technologically adroit crowd.
Part of the success has to do with WorldNet’s nurturing approach. In another era, AT&T likely would have tried to gobble up such companies as New York startup The Mining Co., a site that, like WorldNet, aggregates other Web sites by subjects and themes. This spring, however, WorldNet struck a deal with that firm, adding The Mining Co. to its roster of content providers.
“What’s refreshing [about working with AT&T] is that we have not received from them the kind of arrogance you might expect from anyone who came out of a monopoly environment,” says Jeff Radov, The Mining Co.’s head of strategic relations.
Varley admits that when he was first contacted last year about the WorldNet gig, he was a bit skeptical about joining AT&T. “I got a call from a headhunter about it and I said, ‘Mmm, no. I’m not really interested in going to work for AT&T,'” he recalls.
But Varley, then at CompuServe, relented and met with Erik Grimmelmann, WorldNet’s vice president of network and access. Grimmelmann convinced Varley to ditch the necktie and come work for an AT&T division “where free-thinking was going to be encouraged, where we were looking to press the bounds, where we were looking to take the company into new areas.”
Varley had been creative director at CompuServe for the previous three years, working in the advanced technology group. There, he developed hybrid online/CD-ROM digizines that were created so that users could download multimedia content painlessly. A quick learner, Varley took the leap into the online world five years ago, venturing online with a 1200-baud modem. The veteran of film and television became a convert.
At AT&T, Varley has the task of crafting the look and feel of WorldNet: from brokering content and advertising relationships to redesigning the WorldNet gateway, all while remaining true to one of his central tenets: yield to the Web user’s preferences. “Proprietary online services have a vested interest in controlling the customers’ experience, in large part because they need to make sure they get the customer exposed to the ads that are paying for everything,” he says. “And yet you see the customers chafe against that constantly.”
However, as the online industry revolves increasingly around a consumer-oriented axis, Varley doesn’t see growth in entertainment . . . just yet. “I’m a contrarian by nature,” he reflects. “For a long time, even though I came out of entertainment, I was saying, ‘This is purely a communications medium.’ Now that I hear other people saying, ‘This is purely a communications medium,’ I’m tempted to say, ‘No, no, there will be an entertainment component here.'”
Online publishers such as Microsoft who continue to tinker with the model, in Varley’s view, should be commended, since there is still no blueprint for online success. “We still haven’t figured out what’s unique about this [medium],” he says. “We’re still using metaphors from other media.”– Bernhard Warner