Can Armstrong bring Google glam to AOL?

Time Warner recruits search giant's top sales executive to fix its ailing online unit.

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By Adam Lashinsky, editor at large

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Tim Armstrong was named chairman and CEO of AOL Thursday.

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Here's what we know about Tim Armstrong, the Google's top ad sales executive, named late Thursday as chairman and CEO of AOL, the shriveled remains of the company that brought dial-up Internet to the masses and oodles of grief to its diminished owner, Time Warner (FORTUNE's parent):

Super nice guy. Evidence: universally liked at ultra-political Google -- no small feat.

Young, rich and handsome. Now 38, Armstrong joined Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) from teetering Snowball.com (now called IGN, part of News Corp.'s (NWSA) Fox Interactive Media unit) in 2000 as the company's first salesman. He likes to say he ran Google's first sales office out of his Manhattan apartment. Anyone who worked at Google in a mildly seniorish role nine years ago made a boatload of money.

Knows everyone. As Google's best known non-propeller head, Armstrong was Google's emissary to the advertising community but also to deal teams at the biggest media companies in the U.S., including AOL, where he was part of the negotiation that brought Google search and addictive ad dollars to AOL in return for an equity investment of $1 billion that hasn't worked out too well for Google.

Restless. Armstrong has been trying to leave Google for at least two years. Despite his wealth, prestige and reputation, nothing was going to change the fact that he's a sociology major in a company run by (and sometimes for) engineers. Suffice it to say Armstrong could toil at Google for 20 more years without becoming its CEO.

As for what Armstrong's arrival at AOL on April 7 will mean for AOL, that's a lot harder to nail down. AOL has been the sick child of Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500) since America Online technically purchased the world's largest media company in 2001. It has lurched from strategy to strategy. (First it was going to become a broadband provider, then a Yahoo-like portal, then a major player in the online advertising business.) Most of its moves have been wrong, from waiting too long to de-emphasize Internet access to overpaying for the wrong social networking site (Bebo) and installing unfortunate management, most recently the corporate duo of Randy Falco and Ron Grant, snickeringly referred to at AOL as "Rondy." Armstrong told The Wall Street Journal Thursday he plans to spend some time learning the AOL culture. He might be better off telling AOL what he thinks its culture ought to be.

One hopeful sign is that AOL plays to Armstrong's strength. He has long been enamored with convincing advertisers that Google was the place for brand advertising, the next frontier of Internet revenues. It never worked. Google is a platform for content; it doesn't produce content, which is what companies want to advertise against to promote their brands. AOL has content galore and has begun to succeed at being a home for third-party content as well.

Like Carol Bartz at Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), media and technology types will root for Armstrong to succeed. Fear of Google runs rampant; the search company is seen by rivals an ogre that sucks up the revenues of anything in its way. His problem will be that success at Google very likely won't translate. "Google is about optimizing something awesome," notes a Silicon Valley insider. "Running AOL now is about getting a three-legged donkey with gout to run around a track without breaking its legs."

Armstrong has a prep-school-boy's knack for appearing to succeed effortlessly, but that exterior masks a fearsome work ethic. Nine years of brutal cross-country flights working on high-stress deals for mercurial bosses would leave most mortals exhausted. Yet Armstrong appears ready for more. The prize, presumably, is a sale or spinoff of AOL, which Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes seems more than happy to do if only the business were in better shape.

By the way, it's worth wondering aloud what Armstrong's departure means for Google, which no longer can claim that its top people never leave. With Armstrong at AOL, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and various lower-level Googlers populating a variety of startups, Google undoubtedly has entered its second phase of existence, the one where it is the established player and others are gunning for it. Armstrong never succeeded in turning Google into a display-advertising powerhouse. Now he has an opportunity to do it for a weaker but needier industry player. He may be AOL's best -- and last -- hope. To top of page

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