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So What Do You Do, Bill Wilson, President of AOL Media?

'As we spin out, it actually gives us a chance to redefine what AOL means for consumers'

By Noah Davis - December 2, 2009
Bill Wilson is a music guy. His corner office on the fourth floor of 770 Broadway in Manhattan is filled with gold and platinum records given to him by artists like Sarah McLachlan and Notorious B.I.G., whose careers he nurtured while at Arista Records and then its parent company, BMG Entertainment. Since jumping to AOL -- first as head of the music channel and now president of AOL Media -- he's taken the skills he developed creating pop stars and applied them to building brands on the Internet. MediaGlow, the editorial arm of AOL that includes sites such as Engadget, Fanhouse, and Asylum, currently gets 75 million unique visitors a month in the United States and growing. Wilson says the group will continue to add talent, despite recent layoffs as AOL prepares to spin off from Time Warner. That's music to the executive's ears.

Name: Bill Wilson
Position: President of AOL Media
Resume: Joined AOL in 2001 as vice president of marketing, programming and promotion for AOL Music; promoted to general manager of AOL Music and vice president of programming for AOL Entertainment, then to executive vice president of programming at AOL before entering his current role. Previously senior vice president for worldwide marketing at BMG after working his way up through Arista Records as a product manager, where he helped launch the careers of artists including Sarah McLachlan, Notorious B.I.G., and Kenny G.
Birthdate: May 27, 1968
Hometown: Tenafly, N.J.
Education: B.A. in business management and B.S. in economics from SUNY Stony Brook; M.B.A. from Rutgers University
Marital status: Married to Nicole with two children, Isabella and Aidan
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "[I] start online, then print sections of 'Arts & Leisure,' 'Style,' 'Business,' [and] 'Sports.'"
Last book read: Seize the Time, Here Comes Everybody, Power of Intention, The Effective Executive
Favorite TV show: Friday Night Lights
Guilty pleasure: Green Vibrance [a 'superfood' supplement]
Twitter handle: @Bill_Wilson_AOL

MediaGlow is a relatively new division of AOL. How has it been going so far?
Our whole goal with MediaGlow is to write about topics that people are passionate about or have great interest in. We bring in staff and freelancers who are the most experienced, who love the topics they're writing about, and want to connect with the community around that. So, everything we're doing is building out communities of like-minded individuals. We're really excited. We have 75, 80 sites now, but we continue to look at opportunities to reach more and more people around more and more topics.

"The economy obviously took a downturn last fall, and we started to see the fallouts of either cutbacks or full categories becoming less and less covered. [But] people still obviously have a desire for the content."

When you think back to when AOL went free in 2006, there were a lot of strategic discussions. We saw consumer behavior really starting to shift, where instead of coming through a few sites and main portals -- AOL being one of them -- we saw consumers going to many more Web sites with specific areas of interest. Search was a big part of that, the beginning of social media was a big part of that, but it was, I'd call it the infancy, and we in essence made a bet that that was going to continue. It's paid off for us: At this point, we're over 75 million people domestically that we reach, according to comScore, and over 275 million globally, so it's exciting.

There's a lot of editorial talent out there seeking jobs. It's almost a perfect time for hiring.
Quite honestly, we've been very opportunistic, because we already had the strategy. The economy obviously took a downturn last fall, and we started to see the fallouts of either cutbacks or full categories becoming less and less covered. [But] people still obviously have a desire for the content. So we've seen two benefits: one, consumers looking for places to fill those needs that they no longer have, but, two, a significant influx of talent -- you know, A+ names, A+ credentials. And what's interesting [is] it's been a domino effect. In January, we hired three or four world-class writers in the sports arena: Jay Mariotti, Greg Couch, Lisa Olson. And then all of the sudden the calls started coming to us, where their friends heard about their experience, the fact that they had a platform to connect directly to consumers, and that was a snowball. We've hired over 150 journalists through the year, just this year, and so we continue to see that accelerating. And our freelancers have gone from 500 at the beginning of the year to 3,500, so expect that to continue, as well.

"When we're creating these very niche topic brands, there's a connection to AOL, but AOL is not the leading brand. And that's a core part of the strategy."

You've been relatively subtle about the AOL branding. Why?
AOL has a very strong brand presence, but it also, particularly when we started this strategy, had a very definitive meaning, and people remembered it as how they connected to the Internet. When we looked at particular passion points, be it around music or politics, people would gravitate to brands that they were unfamiliar with over the AOL brand, because AOL already had a connotation to them in certain areas. So we do use the AOL brand in, say health, television, or music, where it's something that they're familiar with and they've used before. But when we're creating these very niche topic brands, there's a connection to AOL, but AOL is not the leading brand. And that's a core part of the strategy. As Tim [Armstrong, AOL CEO] has mentioned, it's almost like a Disney approach, where you've got Miramax, you've got Touchstone, you've got ESPN Sports, you've got ABC Sports. It's a very similar model in that regard.

I think part of that AOL connotation is the old, stodgy kind of Web 1.0 one. Whether or not that's true, is avoiding that perception also part of the strategy?
No, I think quite honestly we believe we can overcome that, and I think it's a very exciting time now, because as we spin out, it actually gives us a chance to redefine what AOL means for consumers. So I think all this content will do more to reinforce that message over time now that we've got this constellation and stable of premium brands, that there is a connection back to AOL that's more direct to the consumers. That doesn't mean we'll go back and change the branding, but let people know that when you go from Engadget to FanHouse to Asylum and down the line, it's coming from the same publisher.

You started in music, and then you came over to AOL and headed the AOL Music division. How does that lead to being in charge of all the editorial content?
I worked at Arista Records with everybody from Sarah McLachlan to Biggie Smalls to Santana, and then I went up to the parent company and did all worldwide marketing, which included traditional marketing, but also digital marketing and nontraditional. I came to AOL because AOL was a great place in terms of when they did something it had an immediate impact with consumers, but they didn't always know what they had done. We'd call up and say, "Hey, you just ran this promotion with Sarah McLachlan and we're getting a ton of sales or we're seeing activity," and they would actually not even know they did it. I said if I could become part of that and actually start to drive a process around the things that are working, because they're clearly affecting the consumer, there's a lot of upside.

I think that the parallel from the music world to this world is we're building brands. Instead of building Sarah McLachlan, Biggie Smalls, Carlos Santana, you're building Internet brands. That's what AOL Music was when we started, that is what Engadget is, that is what Politics Daily and FanHouse are. At the end of the day it goes back to in essence what I've always wanted to do, which is connect with consumers around things they're passionate about.

How much time do you spend surfing Engadget or hanging around Asylum?
I spend quite a bit of time [on AOL's sites]. How I start my day actually is reading all the consumer email. We get literally over a thousand pieces of email a day directly from consumers, and that comes in through each Web site. I'm able to look at each Web site, what consumers are telling us they like, what they don't like, and what they want. I see what our competitive set is doing with that content, and then I go to our site and say how are we delivering and setting trends, versus also reacting to trends. The strategy quite honestly is -- we're always evaluating it, but it's been pretty set for a while, and we're just figuring out how to scale and grow, but that's the bulk of my time actually.

Tim Armstrong has been here since May. How has he's changed the corporate culture?
It's been pretty remarkable. I've been here over eight years, and what Tim has done is he's brought a very transparent management style. He communicates to the employees regularly, directly, which is not what we've always done. That's probably the most important thing to employees, bar none. From a management standpoint, I think his biggest change has been [to] think big and take risks, so don't try to incrementalize our way to success. Take a step back and think bigger: How are we going to win big? Play big and win big, versus looking to do what you're doing a little bit better. It's been a great learning experience.

"As opposed to fine-tuning [something] for another two months, we put it out, hear directly from consumers what they like and don't like, and make them part of the process. That's a dramatic change."

What are some of the things AOL isn't doing well?
I think over time we have let business considerations sometimes get in the way of consumer experiences. Tim has made a real grounding point of we've got to continually put the consumer first, second, third and fourth, and let's not worry about the monetization -- because as the company has had challenging times over the last few years there's been a heavy emphasis on the monetization side. Tim is actually pulling down a lot of advertisements, on some highly visible areas, as well as low, to improve the consumer experience. Those are some of the things that I think over the time period, based on different times in the company, have not always been at the forefront.

One of the things I focus on most is really giving people that sense of empowerment, and giving them the boundaries in terms of, 'Make sure we're in the strategic guidelines,' and if you want to go outside those, let's have a conversation, but if you're in these, go at it and let's move quickly and learn from the consumer. We also at times have probably spent too much time in what I'd call in the lab, creating something and then fine-tuning it. What we do now is we create it, and as opposed to fine-tuning [something] for another two months, we put it out, hear directly from consumers what they like and don't like, and make them part of the process. That's a dramatic change too from, say, two years ago.

AOL's had a lot of turnover at the top. You're still here obviously, to your credit. Have the comings and goings of the executives been difficult?
I've been really fortunate, because if you look at the time that I've been here, which has been a lengthy time, particularly in the Internet world, we've always focused on [the] building of consumer value propositions, and as part of that, we've built a world-class media organization. Even though there's changes at the top, it's not like any of those particular changes, [of] which there [have] been maybe five since I've been here, have actually changed what we've done. There have been questions, like, 'Should we be doing this?' One big debate was, 'Could AOL be relevant to an open Web audience?' Our core audience was probably 25-plus, so the first thing we actually did was, to prove we can do this, let's do 18- to 24-year-old men. We actually did that first [with Asylum] and had great success, and then kicked it from there. Although there's been change at the top, there's always been the ability to do what we believed was right for the consumers, so that's been the constant.

Eighteen months from now, what's the plan?
Eighteen months from now, I'd say a few things. One, continually growing our audience and connecting with consumers -- and that connection with consumers is something that our shareholders value and our partners value from an advertising standpoint. We have Web sites covering many more topics with experts, and our full-time base has grown, our freelance has exponentially grown, and our audience has grown. And what is AOL, you know, from a question that you asked earlier, is probably less often asked, because it's more prevalent and understood that we are building a content empire and connecting with consumers as a result of that. Eighteen months is a good time frame for that.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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