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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

America Online or Flatline?

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. One minute, you're thinking that your hero can do no wrong. The next minute, you find your hero has feet of clay after all. Sadly, you watch as a former stalwart crumbles due to its own weaknesses.

What -- you thought I was talking about Eliot Spitzer? Nah. That's your basic, run of the mill, politician's sex scandal.

The story I'm talking about is America Online, or AOL. That's the real tragedy that's hurting more people than Spitzer's sex drive ever will. According to the New York Times, the once high-flying leader of the internet is now stumbling around on the floor like a drunken sailor looking for pocket change. What was once the belle of the ball is now the old, dried up hooker that nobody wants to admit to sleeping with.

For those of you with short memories, let me remind you that as recently as 2000, AOL stock was selling for close to $100 a share. Then it split. Then the dot bomb era hit and since 2003, the stock never really managed to keep its head up over the $20 level. In fact, it's not even really listed any more. You have to track it via Time Warner (TWX). Of course, it would have been easy for everyone at AOL to blame the dot com implosion for AOL's price drop.

But they are wrong. Plenty of dot com companies weathered the online meltdown and clawed their way back to respectable values. Amazon.com, for example. Not my favorite company in the world, but after the market took it to the woodshed, they climbed back on to the horse to regain an appreciable amount of their former value.

Not so with AOL. AOL has always been a company with no brand. No purpose. No direction. No plan. There's no leadership -- never has been. In fact, urban legend has it that management installed a revolving door on the executive suite to save everyone time.

According to the New York Times "On Tuesday, Jeffrey L. Bewkes, the chief executive of Time Warner, AOL’s parent company, acknowledged weakness in the business and said he was open to combining AOL with another company — " 'whatever configuration makes it the strongest and the most valuable.' ”

Now there's something you don't see everyday: The CEO of a company publicly throwing up his hands and claiming the equivalent of, "Ya got me -- I haven't got a clue what to do with this thing -- maybe someone reading this article will have some ideas!"

The truth be told, Bewkes is just one in a long line of AOL victims who simply don't get it. After running through a succession of executive blowhards and posers, AOL is even worse off now than when it booted out Steve Case a while back. While the company has always had high awareness, it has never had a real brand -- one of the reasons why even AOL employees could never agree on what the company is or should be. Once more, according to the New York Times, "Several recently departed executives contacted this week described the climate at AOL as acrimonious. They said there had been confrontational meetings of employees as well as screaming matches in offices, as senior executives worried about making their aggressive quarterly ad sales goals."

Ouch.

To top things off, AOL's much-heralded-but-hardly-effective tactic of shifting emphasis to advertising sales has, in a word, blown up in its face. Following their tradition of shooting first and aiming later, the company has tried and failed to buy their way out of their problems by purchasing and absorbing several online advertising companies. Nice try. All that ended up accomplishing was more in-fighting among the "absorbed" executives, each playing "king of the hill" until the last man standing was a woman -- Lynda Clarizio -- whose portrayal in the media is alternately described in animalistic terms: one minute she's a mother hen, the next, a barracuda.

Where does all this leave the once flying high and mighty? Just about where you'd expect: Spiraling downward toward an inevitable crash into obscurity.

And no, I'm not talking about Eliot Spitzer.

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