Industry React: Coleman Fits AOL’s Content Shift; But Instability At The Top Remains A Worry

For the most part, in conversations I’ve had with executives at the AlwaysOn NYC media conference this week, incoming Platform-A president Greg Coleman got high marks for “strategic thinking” and for the extensive relationships he’s established with advertisers over the years. Coleman, Yahoo’s former EVP-Global Sales, replaces AOL vet Lynda Clarizio at the head of Platform-A — making him the third person to hold the job since the division was created in December 2007 to house and coordinate the seven online ad companies AOL bought over the previous year, including Advertising.com, Tacoda, Quigo, Adtech and Third Screen Media. (Despite repeated requests, Coleman was not available to comment for this article.)

Rearranging the deck chairs: The instability is considered a negative for Platform-A, but even worse was the 25 percent drop in Q4 ad revenues at AOL (NYSE: TWX). The way AOL’s evolving strategy shift has been described by company insiders is that as the publishing side — now known as MediaGlow — under Bill Wilson (who was recently promoted as MediaGlow’s president) has broken out niche content sites from the portal, someone with more marketing skills than organizational savvy was needed at the helm of the ad side. Clarizio, who’s strengths were more on the business development front, was not viewed as the best person to strike ad deals for those sites. Still, given the challenges that have been gathering around AOL lately, Coleman’s hire doesn’t make much difference. As Pali Research’s Rich Greenfield put it in a withering blog post (free sub. req.), the company’s recent actions have been nothing more than “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

More after the jump.

As for Coleman’s bona fides, a number of his former Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) co-workers declined to offer an assessment of the individual who has been credited, at least in part, with helping grow Yahoo’s from $600 million to $6 billion by the time his departure was announced in August 2007. (For the record, Yahoo’s Q4 revenue slipped 1 percent to $1.8 billion.) But others who have worked with Coleman outside of Yahoo attest to his acumen as a salesman with close connections.

Don’t blame the display market: Jim Spanfeller, CEO Forbes Digital: AOL can’t solely blame its woes on the displays downward trend. After all, Forbes Digital is not seeing the large downdrafts in display, Spanfeller said. “That is why I think that the AOL results — and perhaps Yahoo’s too — are more a result of their strategy to focus on their network business and not on their display business. Yahoo seems to be changing tacks and now it would appear that AOL is as well.” Nevertheless, Time Warner’s Q4 earnings clearly showed that display is getting hammered.

Relationship cred: Taking a look at how the landscape has been changing at AOL and what Coleman will be confronting, Spanfeller offered this take: “When you had one or two major horizontal ad networks and could get $5 CPMs, that’s a really good business since you’re not paying anything for the inventory. But now, what you’re getting from a revenue standpoint is $0.22 CPMs and falling, you’re dancing on the head of a pin, in terms of profitability.” Spanfeller got to know Coleman during the latter’s print mag days at Hachette Filipacchi’s Women’s Day and Readers Digest in the ’80s and ’90s. “I think he’s a great selection for AOL’s new direction [in building up the individual blogs and shifting away from reliance on the ad network]. Greg’s run a sales team, he’s been a brand champion at a variety of places and has great relationships, especially at [consumer packaged goods] marketers. And that’s not to say that Lynda was doing a bad job. My guess is they’re looking to change strategies. Someone like Lynda who’s an M&A person, very organized, analytical is a great person to have there. But if you’re looking to go out and sell brand advertising in specific environments, you want someone with a history of doing that and has the relationships to command credibility.

Jeff Lanctot, chief strategy officer, Razorfish: “Greg Coleman is very well respected in the industry and his track record at Yahoo was very solid and he was well respected by advertisers. He was seen as an honest voice of reason. I think it’s a good choice to have Greg come in and head up Platform-A. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate for AOL to have another change at the top there. Stability is always nice. But if Greg’s a better fit, it might ultimately make sense.”

Rajeev Goel, president, PubMatic: “Greg is on our advisory board. He’s been great for our business in terms of helping to manage and start relationships and providing strategic advice. And when I look at AOL, those are the two key areas where they could use some help. They’ve acquired a lot of great assets over the past couple of years. And always a challenge in doing that is, how do you streamline? How do you bring all these elements together and cross-sell? His work at Yahoo suggests he’s the right person to answer those questions for AOL.”

Frank Addante, CEO Rubicon Project: “AOL bought all these assets, but we haven’t seen much movement. They’ve done a good job, overall. Ad.com has done a great job, but I think most of the innovation has been pre-integration. They’ve spent so much time integrating their products, now’s the time for the next step.”

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