“Lone Wolf” Management Style Led to AOL Exec’s Downfall

An uncommunicative management style led to AOL brand management executive Len Short’s downfall this week, according to sources close to the situation.

Short’s engineering of a Sept. 24 Dave Matthews concert in Central Park to launch AOL 9.0 met with internal approval. And AOL executives didn’t hold the unexpected “wardrobe malfunction” at the company-sponsored Super Bowl halftime show against Short, who originally championed the sponsorship.

Rather, Short’s style caused problems, sources said.

“The Super Bowl itself was not the factor, it was the handling of the Super Bowl internally,” said one source close to the situation. “He was a lone wolf who did his thing and didn’t communicate with people above or below him. For projects as huge at the Super Bowl, it became very difficult to manage him.”

The past year has been one of marked dysfunction within the AOL ranks. Interactive Media Executive Vice President Lisa Brown departed in January amid internal dissent, after only eight months on the job.

Hired in January 2003, Short oversaw AOL’s domestic and international brand marketing efforts, including brand advertising and media, promotional marketing and overall brand management.

AOL has been steadily losing customers – 2.2 million in 2003 – to broadband and to lower-cost ISPs such as Earthlink and United Online. The company fought back in a number of ways, adopting a strategy of building its broadband subscribers while managing the erosion of its dial-up base as online audiences switch to high-speed services. In September 2003, the company released AOL 9.0 Optimized as part of this strategy.

One of the oldest Internet service providers, the approximately 25-million-subscriber company has struggled with the perception that it’s outmoded. Short was hired to address these concerns and turn around the subscriber decline.

“He was given the charge to change the brand face of AOL, so people wouldn’t perceive it as ‘your father’s ISP’ or ‘Internet training wheels,'” said another source close to the situation. The source said this partially explains why Short operated independently.

He failed, according to an AOL insider, to include senior VPs in decision making on high-profile ad creative, such as the Super Bowl TV spots the ISP bought.

“Tenured VPs and executive VPs who were expecting to see the benefits of incoming prospect demand for AOL services coming from the high-profile advertising weren’t given any dialogue flow for input into what was happening,” the source said. Incensed, they complained to higher-ups.

“You can’t develop media plans in a vacuum. You have internal clients to support and if you don’t get their sign-off on what internal strategy is, you risk going off strategy. The purpose and the footing is, did it [Short’s media plan] indeed drive new subscribers? The numbers indicate ‘no,'” the source said.

During his short-lived AOL tenure, Short placed the company’s media buying account, estimated in the $300 million range, into review. AOL announced Tuesday it will stick with Initiative, its current agency of record, to handle the media portion of its advertising, reported to be worth around $300 million.

The account review took about three months and was finally narrowed to two finalists, Aegis Group’s Carat in New York and incumbent Initiative, an Interpublic Group unit with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Former finalist Starcom MediaVest dropped out last week because of a potential conflict with its existing client Disney.

Short has stepped down and will handle “special projects,” according to AOL. Richard Taylor, AOL’s senior VP of brand advertising and promotions, takes over agency relationships. Taylor, a former Burger King marketing executive, is relatively new to AOL, having joined the ranks in April.

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