Re-learning from AOL-Time Warner

On this blog previously, David discussed some of the issues surrounding the AOL-Time Warner merger.  Given that the ten year anniversary of the merger was recently marked, I wanted to re-visit the ill-fated deal to explore it a little more in-depth.

AOL and Time Warner merged to create the “world’s first Internet-age media and communications company” for an all-stock combined value of $350 billion. The merger announcement stated that the new company “will be uniquely positioned to speed the development of the interactive medium and the growth of all its businesses. It will provide an important new broadband distribution platform for AOL’s interactive services and drive subscriber growth through cross-marketing with Time Warner’s pre-eminent brands”… which doesn’t include the laundry list of growth opportunities captured in the remainder of the announcement covering everything from music to telephony.

Instead of delivering on these ambitious promises, the merger imploded, translating into about $100B in lost shareholder value. The new company was plagued by many issues such as: short-term thinking, bad technology, bungled product development, and a risk-averse culture more prone to imitation than innovation. Most importantly the vision and passion the deal champions Jerry Levin and Steve Case established in 2000 were not effectively translated and executed by their people.

Yes, there were external pressures such as regulators and Wall street that increased merger difficulties – but I believe it all comes back to a clear vision that sets the strategic direction that the rest of the organization can understand and execute against. To that point – AOL’s original vision was “to build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone or television… and even more valuable”. The company accomplished this vision prior to the merger. Eventually they replaced the statement in 2006: “to serve the world’s most engaged community”, which is nondescript and applicable to many businesses.

Recently, Jerry Levin, former CEO of AOL-Time Warner, and Steve Case, co-founder of AOL were on CNBC reflecting on the merger (see the video below). Levin apologized for the merger, “I presided over the worst deal of the century… I’m really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss this has caused.” Levin and Case’s observations included:

  • Leaders need to be compassionate and understanding of the significant tension due to a merger’s disruptive nature and cultural differences
  • AOL TW was to be a ‘supermarket’ but instead was a ‘mall’
  • Vision is nothing without execution in which people are key
  • Too much focus on internal politics and wall street instead of customer needs