AOL fired Lynda Clarizio as president of its Platform A sales division and hired retread Greg Coleman two days before Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes announced that AOL's ad revenue dropped 18 percent in 2008. Once again Time Warner and AOL top brass blow up an ad-sales exec rather than take responsibility for their own stupidity.
As Henry Blodget wrote in the Silicon Alley Insider:
In our opinion, the move is all about reversing her [Clarizio's] decision to can AOL's experienced premium salespeople, as well as AOL's recent emphasis on ad networks. Which means that AOL has lost yet another year.
Are [CEO] Randy Falco and [COO] Ron Grant, AOL's bosses, going to be held accountable for this? Lynda was their hire, and they presumably supported her salesforce integration decisions. Now, a year later, with AOL missing its targets again, it seems Lynda will take the fall.
Of course, the logical next question is: Will Time Warner stockholders hold CEO Jeff Bewkes accountable for firing the innovative AOL CEO Jon Miller, hiring the network TV sales exec Randy Falco to replace Miller, and allowing the Internet inexperienced Falco to hire abrasive gunslinger Ron Grant?
Furthermore, it was Grant who broomed Platform A president Curt Viebranz after only five months on the job and put his pal from AOL Business Affairs days, Lynda Clarizio, in the job. Clarizio had helped engineer the AOL purchase of the low-priced, junk-selling ad network, Advertising.com. Viebranz was CEO and of the high-priced behavioral-targeting firm Tacoda, also purchased by AOL.
Platform A was the ill-conceived effort to put these two cultures together. Bitter infighting occurred between the two units that embraced conflicting sales strategies – low-priced, junk display ad inventory versus high-priced, targeted display inventory. Clarizio's side won when Grant blew up Viebranz after a heated argument over unrealistic budget expectations in which Viebranz allegedly called Grant a "short little shit."
Viebranz was right; the sales targets were way too high, as today's earning announcement proved. But Clarizio apparently accepted them along with the top sales job. She may have known the sales budgets were stupidly high and that she'd get fired when they weren't met, but decided to take a paycheck for eleven months anyway, protect her Advertising.com people, and adopt the strategy of concentrating on selling low-priced ad network inventory. What did Clarizio know? She is a lawyer and deal maker, not a seasoned sales executive.
Obviously Falco and Grant bought into Clarizio's strategy, as Blodget indicated. But what did they know? Falco is a TV sales guy with no Internet experience and Grant is a deal maker. But they did understand corporate politics well enough to know that they could always blow up Clarizio if her strategy failed and save their hides by hiring someone who'd be dumb enough not to see the pending explosion.
Enter Greg Coleman. In 1998 he interviewed for a high-level sales executive job at AOL and was considered to be a lightweight – an empty suit. At that time, AOL gobbled up just over 50 percent of all Internet ad revenue and was hiring almost anyone with a good Rolodex who could sell or manage salespeople…but not Greg Coleman. He persisted and kept failing up (he wore nice suits) until he had one of the top sales jobs at Yahoo!. At Yahoo! many of his colleagues thought he was "so light he'd blow away if he didn't have rocks in his pocket." Yahoo finally caught on and fired him.
You'd think Falco and Grant might say to themselves, "Yahoo! has been horrendously managed over the last couple of years, so how good a manager can a guy be who's been fired by these yahoos?" Or maybe they said, "Let's hire someone who's dumb enough to take a job that everyone with any brains knows is like climbing on top of a burning oil storage tank."
Remember the last scene in "White Heat?" James Cagney, marvelously playing the psychotic killer Cody Jarrett, is on top of a burning oil storage tank and screams, just before the tank blows up, "Top of the world, Ma!"
Welcome to the top of the world, Greg.
Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at email@example.com.