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AOL's 'Goodbye' to Pittman

7/21/2002 8:00 PM Eastern

About halfway through an interview at Bob Pittman's digs in Rockefeller Center a little more than a year ago, his computer — running America Online — bleeped out the ubiquitous, "Goodbye."

Apparently AOL Time Warner Inc.'s then co-chief operating officer, who moved over last April to head up the sagging online side of the business, didn't have an AOL connection that stayed on when he was away from the computer.

How emblematic of the mess that company had become. One year later — with Pittman's departure, and a reorganization of the company that will decentralize what he attempted to centralize — it's easy to play Monday-morning quarterback about what went wrong in his game plan.

That interview took place at a time when things began to rapidly head south for the newly formed, Hydra-headed entity called AOL Time Warner. But he didn't seem to know it — or, more likely, wasn't acknowledging that there were problems.

The dot-com bomb had been detonated. Advertising sales had taken a nosedive. And his own employees chafed at many of his initiatives, including forcing all of them to use AOL's clunky electronic-mail service, software that's inappropriate for many business functions. That directive was quickly abandoned.

Instead, he put on the happy face, saying, "There's just no more exciting place or time to be than right now and right here."

Apparently his employees did not think so. Nor did some of his major advertisers, who found it increasingly difficult to cut those huge and much-vaunted cross-platform deals with the various operating units, which really had no incentive to follow his corporate mandate.

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal
last week, many of those deals which Pittman crowed about last year vanished into the ether this year.

Only a year ago, Pittman talked a good game about being a strong partner for people outside the company, including his customers. He talked about the responsibility of "putting the pieces together for them."

But he couldn't do it for his own company, let alone for any potential partner.

The disconnect going on here was that the various AOL Time Warner divisions did not share his vision — particularly Time Warner Cable, which was humming along happily before the merger, and resented his intense intervention.

Pittman, at best, was a visionary. At worst, he was a victim of his own myopia. He really believed it when he told Multichannel News
, "I think everybody in the company understands it's one company."

They did not. With last week's restructuring, it seems that AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons will now be moving in a direction that will let the individual business units operate with the autonomy they'd been accustomed to. Gone is Pittman's pipe dream of a centralized business model.

Pittman truly didn't see the combined AOL Time Warner as some sort of a "holding company," as he would say. Instead, he was near-rabid about seeing it as one company whose strategy was to capitalize on the strengths of the units, and to have them all dancing in harmony.

His dream was almost quixotic, as he attempted to get the company's 80,000 employees marching in lock-step precision.

It just didn't happen. And AOL Time Warner's Parsons —with his bold restructuring plan — is now acknowledging that was the case.

As for Pittman, perhaps he attempted to do the impossible. Like many trailblazers before him, Pittman took the arrow last week, and he took it on a grand scale.

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