Peter Kafka

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Tim Armstrong Makes One Last Pitch for AOL: “No More Hail Marys”

tim_armstrong_lgAOL is about to cut ties to Time Warner (TWX), and CEO Tim Armstrong has been making his case to current and potential investors. Here’s one last pitch, delivered to the crowd at the annual UBS (UBS AG) Media and Communications Conference in New York.

Note to readers and/or Engadget editors: This liveblog is not an official transcript. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as possible. It is not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one. Cool? Cool.

Q: Why leave Google, which is awesome, for AOL, which is not?

A: The Internet is still at an early stage. AOL is a global brand, and that’s hard to build. We have a unique set of assets. AOL can be core and central to where the next $50, $100 billion are going. And we have unique talent to make a run at it.

Q: Please explain your strategy.

A: “Content, ads and communication.”

Q: Why is this turnaround different than other AOL turnarounds?

A: I can tell you whatever, but you need to see metrics move to believe me. But we have a good strategy. “You have to maniacal about the piping,” and in the past AOL wasn’t. We had terrible integration of acquisitions, systems. You want to be able to take $25, $40 million ad deals and run them through the piping and we haven’t been able to do that.

Q: Please explain AOL’s content strategy.

A: We launched our content platform last night. A single platform. It uses data, helps scale to content producers and will work with thousands of partners. It differs from Demand Media et al in that we already have scale for production and scale for advertising. We can snap those two platforms together. [Note: No mention of robots yet.]

Q: Is AOL interested in video or other self-produced stuff?

A: Sure. Video’s important to us. We’re also interested in what we would call “niche at scale.” As a collective whole, we have 70 or 80 properties and will go up to 100. We want to aggregate uniques that will be attractive to advertisers. We want to own the equivalent of the top 80 or 90 cable channels on the Internet. We’re also very interested in local, via Patch [which Armstrong invested in before AOL bought it].

Q: How do you market all this content?

A: By the way, everyone thinks our traffic comes from the access business. That’s not true. It’s a minority of our traffic. Also, when you produce your own content, you can distribute it and get traffic back. You also need to make this stuff shareable on the Web. We’re getting mass scale distribution from platforms like Twitter and, of course, search.

Q: There’s a big gap between your monetization and Yahoo’s (YHOO). How do you change that?

A: I can’t tell you! It’s how I got my job. Ho ho ho. Okay: AOL went to a network-based strategy a couple of years ago, which cut into the pricing yield, and that is now changing. We addressed this in the summer and fall. Also, AOL, shockingly, had under 1,000 customers on ad platforms when I showed up–700, actually. At Google (GOOG), we had millions. So we had a clear dialogue about what had happened. Also, the salesforce needed to be restructured, different tiers of the salesforce. And we also needed a self-service option you can use with a credit card. “Look, this is why they hired me….If we can’t make that business work, I think we have big issues.”

Q: What’s up with search?

A: We like Google and are still talking to them. We’re also talking to “other partners.” Last time, the deal was done “purely for money,” and that had benefits and some downside. This time, the pricing may be different, but it’s not the only thing that determines value.

Q: Please be more specific.

A: Okay. We’re really big on music. But if you go to AOL search for music, you get a subpar version of Google’s search for music. There are too many ads on the page. So why don’t we set up a onebox-like search box and send people to AOL music? For example, let’s think about trading search dollars for display dollars. We want to make money on ads in a much more natural and healthy way.

Q: What about investments in content?

A: Sure. We’re making nominal investments in content and a putting a lot of money in technology and infrastructure. In terms of M&A, we will sell off stuff that doesn’t make sense and do tuck-in buys.

Q: How does your local strategy differ from others?

A: We do real local, not quasi-local. We put editors in communities to actually get the stuff and monitor and update platforms. “It’s a risk, it’s a bet,” but early results are promising.

Q: Your ad business is much less profitable than that of your peers. What up?

A: Our hamburger stand says “really cheap burgers at really cheap prices,” but we’re actually serving sea bass, and we should be charging for that. We told customers, via Platform A, etc., that they could buy us really cheap. Also, cost structure: We’re taking out a third of the business. Access was making money, and things “kind of got loose” at the rest of company. But advertising can be nicely profitable with content and we can do that.

Q: Okay, but when do ad biz profits become self-sustaining?

A: Not in 2010, but sooner than five years. I own two percent of the company, and I want it to work. Morale is already better than when I got here.

Q: Are you removing all premium inventory from

A: Don’t believe what you read! Internet! Bad! An analyst said we might do it. What we’re going to do is “sell Superbowl product at Superbowl pricing.” [i.e., a nonanswer]

Q: What’s up with the access business and the traffic it generates?

A: We have 100 million users. Five million people get “paid services” from us. Half of those are dial-up users. But people think that 70, 80, 90 percent of traffic comes from access. That’s not the case.

Q: What’s up with mobile?

A: We want to increase consumer mobile traffic. We have lots of Apple Store downloads. We’ll do more consumer downloads/traffic. And we’ll build our mobile ad business after that, probably in 2011.

Q: What do Federal broadband access plans mean for your business?

A: All of us believe that there will be some “tail” of dial-up access for some time. But it’s not going away, and the decline is actually moderating [which makes sense–if you’re still on dial-up now, what are you waiting for?]

Q: Please reiterate profitability plans for display/content/ads.

A: In reality, we’re “marginally” profitable now, but that’s not good enough.

Q: If you reprice ad business profitability, what does that mean for you?

A: I don’t want to set goals, but we’re not off by single digits. It’s significant.

Q: Talk about your communications business, please.

A: We have AIM, ICQ, email–all big opportunities. We need to clean up current products and services. Communications products “were recipient of problems” in the past. AOL tried to jam Bebo and AIM together, which didn’t work. We also slammed our stuff with way too many emails. I tried AOL email when I started and got 15 to 20 ads. Not a great user experience. It’s “project hygiene.” We also believe people want a unified platform across devices and we’re working on that.

Q: Talk about compensation.

A: I had the money options at Google, which got moved into AOL options at market value. Plus salary blah blah. I didn’t take a bonus this year “because I don’t think I should have gotten paid for laying off a third of our employees.” [All of this is discussed in the proxy, no?]

Q: Here’s a softball about your management team. How awesome is it?

A: Totally awesome. We’ll add more over time. On the engineering side, I was surprised that we weren’t chasing good engineers when we got here. “We have spent a lot of time and energy on the subject matter.” Culturally, our “internal mojo turned around,” and now the engineering community gets that we “have a big-hair problem” but that we have tons of use so things they do here have a big impact.

Q: Brand strategy: How do you extract brands people don’t know about while promoting the main site and vice versa?

A: We think about this like Disney (DIS), I think. By the way, there are two brands. The financial media brand is battered–worst merger in history, etc. But consumers like the AOL brand. Tomorrow, we’re giving AOL users a a 50 percent promotion via Target (TGT) on “very good toys.” So in the Disney way, there’s the brand people like, and we have other brands people like, just as Disney has ESPN. So we’ll have non-AOL brands launching, and we’ll refurbish the AOL brand itself.

Q: Whither MapQuest?

A: MapQuest is still Top 20 search term. It has a large market share. The technology has not been focused on in a number of years. We’re changing that. Partners are inquiring about MapQuest, and I think what we’ll do is an operational partnership with them. We feel like its a “very, very valuable property.”

Q: What are best metrics to evaluate AOL’s turnaround/growth?

A: Unique visitors [which is what everyone says now]. We need a turnaround in domestic display, which you should see in 2010. And then we need to generate cash, because that’s what healthy companies do. In terms of that cash: No more “hail Marys” where we take cash from access and make big bets on things that we don’t know about [i.e., Bebo]. We will want to fund the Web services business with cash from the Web services business.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo