Memo Pad: Bill Wackermann's Circuitous Route... Layoffs at AOL...

Bill Wackermann wasn’t always the hard-charging, elegant suit-wearing publishing executive that many see him as today at Condé Nast.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 03/11/2011

CULTURE SHOCK: Thursday morning at 7:16 a.m., Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, e-mailed his staff. “Today is the next critical step on the comeback trail for AOL,” he wrote. He was sending a blast to explain his decision to lay off 900 employees — 700 in India and 200 in the U.S., many of them working on the company’s editorial teams as content producers. Exactly two hours later, he stepped onstage to applause at the Bloomberg Media Summit and began fielding questions from Eric Pooley, the deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Armstrong looked tired. The interview was starting late.

“The press at large writes these unbelievably crazy articles about the content farming and all that other stuff,” he said. “We’re trying to serve magical content experiences and use technology to help do that,” he continued. Armstrong was explaining how the company was changing after the acquisition of the Huffington Post for $315 million. An AOL spokesman said that, with the addition of HuffPo, the company has seen a “net increase” in journalists.

“And I think one of the benefits of the negative press is, we’re not getting employees who aren’t mission-driven on what we’re doing,” he added later. “And I think that’s an important part of the culture.” Armstrong has already eliminated 2,300 jobs since he joined the company; about 5,000 remain. There has been 90 percent executive turnover during his tenure after Armstrong eliminated their retention bonuses.

He told a story to illustrate cultural changes at the company: the time he removed glass doors from the executive suite. “The first day I showed up, an employee came up to me crying,” he said. “And it was somebody who’d worked at AOL for a long time. I said, ‘What are you crying for?’ And they said, ‘I used to have to wait outside that glass door to come in the executive [suite]. I sometimes would wait out there for two hours before somebody let me in.’

“And it’s nice to bring it back to the human element, which is at the heart of everything we do,” Armstrong said at the end of the interview. “And the media are sometimes guilty of forgetting about that, you know, just a testament to, I think, what the cultural change will be at this company. And I think that’s important.”

— Zeke Turner

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