Kara Swisher

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MySpace Poised to Hire New Ad Sales Head as It Preps Music- and Entertainment-Centric Strategy and Redesign

In a week, the entire advertising sales staff of MySpace will gather at a swanky new seaside resort about 20 miles south of Los Angeles to get a first glimpse of the fresh direction the company is preparing to take under its new management.

The beleaguered social networking site has been in the midst of an effort to reinvigorate its image, spur innovation in its product and–most of all–pull itself out of a too-long slump, even as longtime rival Facebook has seen explosive growth.

Now, with a new team of execs, the News Corp. (NWS) property is putting the finishing touches on a master plan, which will include a new redesign of its hopelessly messy interface and doubling down on a product strategy that will center on, said one source, “what we own”–namely, music and entertainment.

On the agenda, aptly enough, for the 150 ad sales employees, who will gather at Terranea in Palos Verdes, is Ben Sherwood, author of “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life,” and founder of a Web site of the same name that describes itself as “the place for surviving and thriving.”

Also coming to the meeting will be several bands that have successfully leveraged MySpace as a platform, to talk about their experiences and to play for the crowd.

And, perhaps most importantly, the group might also get to meet its new boss by then, as several sources close to the situation said that MySpace has settled on an exec to fill the key job of running its ad business.

While it is unclear if the deal is completely done, sources said MySpace management will announce the pick this week.

Sources added that MySpace has been particularly interested in one exec from Viacom (VIA) and another from Microsoft (MSFT).

While the sources would not name the Viacom exec, several pointed to Keith Lorizio, Microsoft VP of U.S. sales, as someone MySpace has been targeting.

In late August, MySpace sales and marketing head Jeff Berman left the company as MySpace hired MediaLink, a New York- and Los Angeles-based media consultancy, to help get its ad sales business back on track.

That effort has been led by MediaLink President Wenda Millard, who is well known in the ad industry and was longtime leader of the ad sales force at Yahoo (YHOO).

Getting an experienced top ad exec in place will round out a recent spate of new hiring by MySpace, including a new CTO, Alex Maghen, who moved over from its MySpace Music joint venture, and a new CFO, Mark Rosenbaum.

This has been part of a wholesale flushing out of most of the top execs who worked under co-founder and former CEO Chris DeWolfe by new CEO Owen Van Natta.

Van Natta, along with COO Michael Jones and Chief Product Officer Jason Hirschhorn, have been squirreled away since late April, working at cleaning up the company by replacing management, restructuring its various units and cutting costs, including massive layoffs.

They have also been trying to come up with a plan to differentiate MySpace from Facebook, a good strategy since it is now well-nigh impossible for the Beverly Hills-based MySpace to catch up with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook’s galloping growth.

While the whole new offering will not be rolled out prominently until at least the first quarter of next year, said several sources, some changes will begin sooner, including a gradual redesign of the site.

Under the new plan, said several sources, the main idea will be to shift the focus to engagement over sheer audience numbers. While MySpace is still huge, with about 70 million monthly U.S. visitors, increasing how much time they spend on the site is the goal.

“It’s not like numbers are not important, but the better metric for MySpace will be how involved users are,” said one person close to the situation. “MySpace needs to win on minutes.”

And, rather than the wider and more scattershot approach of past years, the new direction being stressed is more scalable and focused.

“It is not about getting everyone and their mothers on MySpace,” said a source, “but about being a better site to those here.”

That will include stressing “ownership” of online categories, which for MySpace are music and entertainment, with the hope that advertisers will be attracted to more engaged users.

Unlike Facebook, which is often described as a utility platform for communications between friends, sources said MySpace will be aimed more at being a platform for communities of interest.

That includes using tools from other companies, such as MySpace’s recent two-way synch with Twitter, the hot microblogging service, to link those communities.

Presumably, the company’s August purchase of iLike, the social music start-up, is also part of that plan.

“Instead of the ability to just connect friend to friend in a single social graph, this will be about connecting a person to their communities of passion and interest and to others like them anywhere,” said one source.

Music is the obvious key leverage point, the still-bright spot of MySpace, followed by adding big entertainment categories like movies, television, gaming, video and other pop culture arenas.

(BoomTown request: Become the HQ for “Gossip Girl” addicts, um, fans, and I am so there.)

“MySpace should represent pop culture online to customers and advertisers,” said one source. “The core strength has always been music and that is where the site will really excel, because it binds customers to the service.”

The even heavier music focus on the main juggernaut site, noted several sources, does create an odd situation with MySpace Music, the separate joint venture the site has with music labels to create a massive music community.

While sources do not think News Corp. will attempt to suck MySpace Music back into the main site, due to the complex partnership issues, the idea is to make them even more deeply integrated and to sell them to advertisers as one powerful marketing message.

In any case, several sources noted that one of the most successful parts of the new plan has been to convince News Corp. leaders that MySpace does not have to beat Facebook to be successful.

Sooner than later, of course, MySpace has to do just that.

Will it work? Who knows, but said one source close to the situation quite correctly:

“There is no silver bullet for MySpace–it just has to climb back step by step.”

(Full disclosure: News Corp. also owns Dow Jones, which owns this site.)

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik