Interview: Neil Ashe On Why He’s Leaving CBS Interactive Now

If you’re looking for post-acquisition personnel drama a la MySpace (NSDQ: NWS) or frustration a la Dodgeball-Google (NSDQ: GOOG), don’t read this. Aside from losing control over the timing, so far Neil Ashe’s decision to leave CBS (NYSE: CBS) looks to be as simple as it gets: he sold at the right time for $1.8 billion, he integrated, his contract is almost up, he thinks it’s time for a change. There is some mystery, though:

Who will succeed him and where is he going? Ashe insisted in an interview with paidContent that he doesn’t have a landing zone yet. “I’ve intentionally kind of not focused on what’s going to be next,” he said. After six years on the crazy CNET roller coaster (the last two as CEO of a public company under the gun) and two-plus years at CBS, he says he’s ready for a break. He is the last of the top management team responsible for the transition still at CBSi; Quincy Smith, the head of digital for CBS when CNET was acquired, left earlier this year while Zander Lurie, who was Ashe’s CFO at CNET and at CBS, was promoted to SVP of strategic development for CBS; Smith is still an advisor to the company and CEO Leslie Moonves, who made the call to acquire CNET.

Succession: A number of companies have transitions like this to change the exec structure when it comes to digital or the role within the company. That doesn’t appear to be the case here although no one has committed it to publicly. Nor is CBS ready to name a successor; a spokesman called the timeframe for the search “relaxed.” CBS execs thought they had more time before making an announcement; instead, the news leaked Wednesday. Ashe, whose contract is up early next year, says he will help with the transition. “The reality is there’s a lot of talented people at CBSi and they’re still there.”

Why now?: Ashe says the unit moved past the integration phase long ago and it’s essentially been an operating job for the past year. “I’m at the end of my original commitment to these guys and I feel really good about where CBS Interactive is.” He and the company have yet to set an actual departure date.

CBS layoffs: The integration went smoothly from Ashe’s vantage point but that plus other circumstances like the sharp economic downturn cost a significant number of staffers, among others, their jobs. His take now: “It’s always unfortunate when people lose their jobs, so I’m sensitive to that.” But he’s also results oriented, adding “ is at an all-time high in traffic and revenue and we’ve done groundbreaking partnerships with the rest of the properties.” He singled out 60 Minutes Overtime with its bonus coverage and various extras as an example. Without providing numbers, Ashe said the 60 Minutes iPad app priced is exceeding expectations. “We priced it at 5 bucks and the market has been solid for it.” CBSi says it’s been the top paid app in the news category since launch and has been the the #1 grossing iPad app.

What would Ashe have done differently? Aside from a quip — “If I could go back in time what I would have done is founded Google or Facebook” — his reply was more about what he couldn’t control. “The stock price bounced around. The performance of the properties did not.”