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A detailed Analysis of the AOL Time Warner Merger and its failure with special focus on the environment, strategy, structure, cultural aspects and their fits. Includes a detailed section on how mergers could be made more successful to generate the synergies that elude most mergers.
AOL Time Warner
Leadership in Organizations – Final Project
- TEAM 10 -
TEAM SWAT (STRATEGIC WORK ANALYTICAL TEAM)
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY STERN SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
In December of this year, Time Warner (TW) will sever its ties to America Online (AOL),
putting an end to a troubled ten year corporate union. At one time heralded by many as a
visionary merger between the old and the new, the combined AOL-Time Warner failed to
live up to its billing as the future of global media. In fact, after destroying more than two
hundred billion dollars of shareholder wealth, the merger now stands as one of the most
remarkable corporate miscalculations of all time, an outcome likely not envisioned by its
While Time Warner continues to reap profits from film, music, publishing and television,
AOL has struggled to develop a sustainable model for its ISP business. In retrospect,
perhaps most surprising is that the synergies expected between the content rich Time
Warner and AOL‟s millions of subscribers never materialized. This is largely due to the
inability of the two entities to integrate disparate corporate cultures into a single
Time Warner is an iconic American company which has built one of the world‟s largest
media empires through serial acquisition. A look at why its union with AOL failed can
provide insights into the pitfalls that can befall leadership attempting to steer its way by
merger through swiftly moving business currents.
BRIEF HISTORIES OF AOL AND TIME WARNER
The merger of AOL and Time Warner in 2000 gathered together under one roof
businesses dominant in film (Warner Bros., New Line Cinema), music (Atlantic, Warner
Bros. Music, Elektra), cable television networks (HBO, TBS, CNN), cable television
distribution (Time Warner Cable), publishing (Fortune, Time, Little Brown & Co.), and
the internet (America Online). The combined company spanned the breadth of the media
business. How they got there, however, tells two very different stories.
Old Media Stalwart
Time Warner thrived for decades despite dramatic changes in technology and
demographics to become the quintessential American media company. It did so primarily
through timely strategic acquisitions and mergers.
Its corporate history can be traced back to the founding of Warner Bros. film studios in
the 1920‟s. Early on, the company prospered producing silent black and white films. Its
initial wave of success crested with the release of the legendary Casablanca in 1942.
Around the same time, Henry Luce independently published the first issue of Time
magazine, and later expanded with Fortune and Life. Life represented one of the first
successful forays into graphic rich publications. By the 1950‟s, Life had become a staple
of American culture and boasted a readership in the millions. Time Inc. later expanded
with People and Money, and ventured into pay television when it acquired Home Box
Office (HBO) in the 1970‟s, which would become a dominant player in its market.
Warner, meanwhile, expanded into music publishing with the purchase of Atlantic
Records in 1969 and the creation of Warner Music. Warner captured explosive growth in
video gaming with the purchase of Atari, only to later lose hundreds of millions on the
venture as its competitive position slipped. In the 1980‟s, Warner upped its stake in cable
distribution, and purchased Lorimar Telepictures, which owned a rich television library.
In 1990, Time and Warner Communications merged. Joint ventures such as
Entertainment Weekly combined Time‟s publishing prowess with Warner‟s film business.
In 1996, the company merged yet again, this time with the Turner Broadcasting System,
its suite of cable television networks (TBS, CNN), and its stake in the MGM film library.
And yet, despite its dominance in almost every aspect of the media market, Time Warner
seemed old fashioned to many in the internet age, and some questioned its continued
Digital Age Darling
America Online forged a very different path to the pinnacle of the business world.
Originally called Quantum Computer Services, Inc., AOL began in 1985 as a small
technology company. Although Quantum achieved small successes during the decade
providing closed system online computer services, its achievements were not notable.
It wasn‟t until Steve Case became CEO in 1991 that AOL‟s corporate identity, culture
and strategic goals began to take form. Although competitors Prodigy and Compuserve
were the leading ISP‟s of the day, Case differentiated his product by featuring easy to use
graphic interfaces and accessible peer to peer communication. AOL marketed itself as the
internet portal of choice for those ill at ease with technology – a „walled garden‟ in
cyberspace. AOL also featured lower online subscriptions rates, free trial periods for new
users, and was quick to adopt flat monthly fees instead of hourly usage rates.
As a result of these initiatives, AOL succeeded wildly and its subscriber base exploded.
In 1993, the company had approximately 600,000 subscribers. Three years later, that
number was 6 million. By 2000, it boasted 25 million subscribers.
AOL also focused on developing its brand, and hired Bob Pittman, creator of MTV, to
build its corporate identity. The AOL logo and “you‟ve got mail” were soon immediately
identifiable to millions of consumers. As the internet became ubiquitous, so did AOL.
AOL made a number of small acquisitions during the decade (e.g., Redgate
Communications, Booklink Technologies) to expand its functionality. In 1998, AOL
acquired competitor Compuserve in a complex transaction with Worldcom. That same
year, AOL acquired Netscape for approximately $4.2 billion in stock. Nevertheless, AOL
had no appreciable history of large scale mergers, and during its brief corporate history,
had developed a unitary culture under a largely homogenous core of leadership.
Despite these successes, it was clear that AOL expanded rapidly at the expense of the
bottom line. Although by 2000 it was among the most valuable businesses in the world
by market capitalization, it had no reliable track record of profitability.
Merger discussions started and completed rather quickly. Talks began when Steve Case
approached a TW board member at a 1999 Shanghai business conference. Although Time
Warner CEO Jerry Levin reportedly initially shrugged off the suggestion, merger plans
were finalized within three months. The new AOL Time Warner sought approval in
February 2000 for merger, and it was sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission later
The merger was structured as a stock swap. Because of AOL‟s higher market
capitalization, its shareholders would own 55% of the new company, initially valued at
$350 billion. Jerry Levin would become CEO and Steve Case Chairman. The
organizational chart resembled a massive family tree, with Time Warner contributing
many divisions, and AOL relatively few. Exhibit 1 identifies the key players following
ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE
ENVIRONMENT – STRATEGY
Many aspects of the alignment between the environment and the strategy for both
companies appeared fundamentally sound pre and post merger. Each lacked assets crucial
for competing in the internet age and it seemed unlikely that either would develop those
resources quickly enough to compete. AOL and Time Warner saw in the other
complementary strengths which suggested the possibility of a mutually beneficial
As the dominant ISP at the turn of the century, AOL could claim success for its strategy
of providing simplified access to the internet for the masses. It dominance, however, was
tenuous in a rapidly changing external environment. See Exhibit 4.
Industry - Growth of substitutes: Competition for dial-up access was increasing
dramatically. Rival ISP‟s such as NetZero were eroding AOL's customer base by offering
lower rates. For those customers AOL retained, profitability diminished, as increased
competition pressured margins. Moreover, although AOL had established itself as a
leading internet portal and pioneered electronic communication, new competitors such as
Yahoo! and MSN were now offering similar services, threatening AOL‟s business model
and spurring it toward opportunities to diversify and differentiate its product.
Market - Rise of Broadband: With significantly faster data transfer speeds than dial-up,
broadband internet access was fast becoming the preferred way to connect to the internet.
Large telephone companies benefited as early „first movers‟ in broadband. While AOL
had the brand and credibility to capitalize upon growth of this area, it lacked the
infrastructure. As a leading provider of cable television, Time Warner had the distribution
capabilities AOL needed.
Economic Conditions - Tech Asset Bubble: At $175 billion, AOL was among the most
highly valued companies in the world by market capitalization, despite its lack of
profitability, modest revenue of $5 billion, and relatively small workforce of 15,000
employees. Time Warner, meanwhile, was much more conservatively valued at $90
billion, far more profitable upon $27 billion in revenue, and had nearly 70,000 employees.
Merger would allow AOL, through a corporate stock swap, to buy old media pennies
with inflated new technology dollars.
In sum, AOL correctly recognized that the external environment was changing in a way
which required it to act decisively. Increased competition for its core business and the
demise of dial-up posed existential threats to its business model. The decision to merge
with a durable and profitable company with tangible assets, at the peak of AOL‟s capital
value, was the right strategic decision.
Time Warner had successfully adapted to changes in the way its content was distributed
from the era of silent films to twenty-four hour cable news. Yet, in 1999, Time Warner
lacked a material cyber foot print and had no coherent strategy to develop one.
Traditional content providers, such as Disney and Viacom, had already launched popular
websites. Meanwhile, new competitors, such as Napster, were siphoning business from
the company‟s music labels. There was a feeling that the internet was passing it by.
Efforts at developing an internet presence had so far been unsuccessful. Pathfinder Portal,
designed to feature Time Warner content, had by some estimates lost the company $100
million, largely because many divisions were reluctant to share premium content. In July
1999, Levin launched Time Warner Digital Media (TWDM), a new centralized unit
dedicated to funding, building and assembling the company‟s internet assets, and started
Entertaindom.com in November 1999. This too failed to gain traction, and threatened to
put the company even further behind its competitors. Wall Street noticed, and Time
Warner‟s stock price languished relative to high flying technology companies.
AOL seemed like the answer to Time Warner‟s digital prayers: access to a fast growing
market, millions of customers for its media content, and a proven internet brand to
leverage its broadband business. There were simply too many strategic negatives,
however, for it to make sense:
Poor Timing: AOL, with its poor track record of profitability and diminishing growth
prospects, was absurdly overvalued. The market capitalization of AOL Time Warner has
declined by more than 75% since then, mostly because of deflation in the valuation of
AOL. Time Warner wrote down more than $90 billion dollars in corporate value not long
after merger, at the time the largest corporate write down in U.S. history.
Non-Operational Distractions: AOL generated a number of non-operational distractions:
an investigation by the SEC into aggressive accounting; widely publicized battles with
shareholders such as Carl Icahn who criticized merger and launched hostile proxy bids
for board seats; and costly lawsuits with Microsoft over the Netscape internet browser.
As a result, management had to divert focus from strategic and operational planning.
Unrealistic expectations for growth: The expectation that AOL would continue to grow
as it had in the past was patently unrealistic. In fact, AOL lost nearly 4 million
subscribers between 2002 and 2005. Most left for broadband services, and Time Warner
Cable elected to keep its own Road Runner ISP rather than market AOL.
LEADERSHIP – STRATEGY
Although AOL Time Warner started out with a stable of proven executive talent, it was
unable to develop true leadership.1
Control – Accountability: Leadership did not exercise enough organizational control and
authority did not flow down the control pyramid enough to create employee
accountability. “No one at the top of the company really tried to persuade the people in
charge of their brands that they needed to try to make this deal work.” (Kramer). In the
vacuum of strong leadership, an attitude of „us vs. them‟ prevailed.
Lack of Motivation: Steve Case quickly sold a significant block of his shares in AOL just
before the merger reaping a windfall profit of $161 million. Case demonstrated his lack
of confidence in the merger and decoupled his personal interests from that of his
company. This is to be contrasted with Sears Roebuck, which emphasized the importance
of upper management continuing to retain a financial stake in the performance of their
company through equity ownership.
Strategy Drift: Leadership failed to deliver Time Warner‟s significant film, publishing
and music assets to AOL‟s massive subscriber base. Fearing piracy, reduced advertising
dollars, and dilution, Time Warner‟s media businesses were reluctant to offer premium
Interestingly, this conclusion is not one Steve Case would be likely to quibble with. "In retrospect, I probably wasn't
the right guy to be the chairman of a company with 90,000 employees," Case said during an event at the Computer
History Museum. "In retrospect, none of us were the right guys."
content through the internet, and the company‟s leadership was unable to overcome this
Personality Conflict and Lack of Personnel Development: Steve Case remained
personally at odds with Time Warner executives which crippled plans to establish an
online empire. As the stock price plummeted from $71 in 2001 to $9 in 2003, backbiting
and internecine warfare flourished, similar to the inter-divisional conflict seen between
the sales and marketing departments in the SMA-MEPD case. AOL executives were
chosen for key positions including CFO, General Counsel, and Chief of Investor
In NYPD New, we saw the benefits of Chief Bratton‟s holistic approach to addressing the
challenges faced by the New York Police Department. Bratton developed a renewed
vision of the organization and proceeded to make changes to the structure, staff, culture
and systems to ensure that the organization aligned to his strategic goals. Leadership at
AOL Time Warner failed to take a similar approach, or frankly, even a part of it.
A “CEO Review” (see our reading Evaluating the CEO) of Case and Levin reveals that
both failed on metrics key to the success of any chief executive officer:
Criteria Steve Case Jerry Levin
Leadership: How well do you Pre-merger, Case excelled in this As the head of large, divisional
motivate and energize your area. Post merger, however, Case media conglomerate, Levin seemed
organization? appeared detached and disinterested to lack the vision to motivate and
in the future and decoupled his energize.
financial interests from that of the
Strategy: Is it being effectively No. Case lacked the support of key No. Levin could not effectively
implemented? Is the company aligned Time Warner executives. combat reluctance of TW executives
behind it? to distribution of content online, and
TW Cable did not offer AOL
People Management: Are you putting No. Overly political. Felt threatened No. Overly political. Obsessed with
the right people in the right jobs and by Robert Pittman, and failed to control of combined organization.
establishing a succession pipeline? utilize his considerable talents post-
merger. Favortism toward AOL
Operating Metrics: Are key metrics No. Case emphasized appreciation Levin historically successful at
such as sales, profits and customer of stock price over growth of developing the sales and profitability
satisfaction heading in the right business segments. of TW‟s content and cable
An anecdote from merger negotiations illustrates just how strained relations between the two companies really were.
A Time Warner executive expressed frustration at the lack of respect demonstrated by AOL, stating, “You talk like
you‟re buying us.” “We are, you putz”, was the response of David Colburn, AOL‟s president of business affairs.
Although Colburn has since denied making the comment, the incident was considered a point of honor by his
colleagues who had T-shirts made repeating the answer.
STRUCTURE – STRATEGY
Although AOL Time Warner sought to centralize control and command, it failed to
engineer a structure that was tailored to reach its strategic goals, for a number of reasons:
Overly Politicized Executive Positioning: AOL‟s greater capital value gave it substantial
control over the placement of executives – a fact which it took full advantage of. It is
estimated that AOL executives assumed two-thirds of high ranking executive positions
post-merger, despite coming from the smaller operational entity. Resentment among
Time Warner personnel festered, which significantly chilled collaboration and
undermined the company‟s strategic goals. While completely extracting politics from
corporate life may be unattainable, it is clear that AOL overplayed its hand and sabotaged
its ability to capitalize on merger opportunities over both the short and medium term.
Divisional Autonomy: Time Warner had twice failed to monetize the distribution of its
content over the internet, mostly because the company‟s structure ceded autonomy to
divisional heads who were reluctant to share the premium content necessary make
internet ventures viable. Despite these prior false starts, it does not appear that the
company made structural modifications to address this operational challenge. Without
such changes, it seems unlikely that the merged entities could have derived material
synergies from their union.
Structural Incongruities: The organizational differences between the two companies led
to significant structural incongruities. While at Time Warner content editors commanded
authority, AOL marketing chiefs brandished the most clout. As a result, AOL never
exhibited the attributes of a typical Time Warner company, making it difficult to establish
a single corporate identity and foster collaboration. In addition, there were no strong
editors at the helm of AOL who could ensure the delivery of material which would
appeal to consumers. More accustomed to engineering mass marketing campaigns, AOL
executives were simply ill-prepared to manage the distribution of content.
STRUCTURE – CULTURE – STRATEGY
Both companies were characterized by strong and disparate cultures. While AOL
reflected the norms and values of the internet age, Time Warner did not. The table below
lists some of the distinctions in culture between the two organizations.
AOL Time Warner
High Tech Old-world
Tight on finances/Cost Cutting Spendthrift
Casual, khakis and cotton shirt Suit and tie
Centrally managed Decentralized - autonomy at division level
Smaller, younger Big, mature – AOL the size of a small TW division
Top Down Management Style Improvisational Approach
20 somethings Gray beards (Bronson)
Compensation – Stock Options – Internet Trend Profit sharing – Old School
Unitary Culture Diversified Enterprise
Focus on stock price Focus on organic business growth
These differences made it unreasonable to expect a smooth transition into a merged entity.
While AOL Time Warner is a particularly conspicuous example, the challenge of
bridging corporate cultures at variance to one another is a common one. Our reading,
Managing Multicultural Teams, emphasized that cultural differences, if not managed
appropriately, can create four common barriers to success:
Teams may view clashing communication styles as violating cultural norms: AOL‟s
direct style of communication clashed with the indirect style favored by Time Warner.
Teams may consider a member less fluent in the language as having less to contribute to
the success of the group: Young, open and tech savvy employees of AOL had a different
„working/cultural language‟ than their older, more formalistic Time Warner counterparts.
Team members’ cultures can have a negative impact on issues involving hierarchy and
protocol: Centrally managed AOL employees had a difficult time acculturating
themselves to Time Warner‟s divisional structure.
Decision making processes differ among cultures, with some preferring to take a longer
and measured approach versus cultures that tend to value process efficiency: AOL‟s
decision making process was rapid and geared toward beating Wall Street expectations
and pleasing shareholders. Time Warner was slower and more measured.
What were they thinking?
While both companies had assets coveted by the other, the decision to merge was, under
all the circumstances, flawed, and AOL and Time Warner should have never carried
through with their plans. Oftentimes, companies can accomplish their competitive goals
through licensing agreements and joint ventures (e.g., AT&T and Apple). This approach
allows companies to preserve their culture. As a number of management studies have
demonstrated, bridging the cultural divide is one of the first and most significant hurdles
of any merger. Such an approach permits companies to continue to focus on their core
area of competence, which cannot be underestimated. This allows companies to preserve
their independence, set goals that are in line with the company‟s strategy, and decouple
from the arrangement when it no longer aligns to its strategic goals.
The motivation under girding most mergers is the synergies companies expect to extract
from the combination. Ironically, in most cases, this is where most mergers fail. As Peter
S. Fader, Marketing Professor at Wharton noted in K@W‟s So Far, the AOL Time
Warner Merger Gets Mixed Reviews,
Synergies can‟t be manufactured. In many cases synergies are more a
myth than a reality. To the extent they exist it is serendipity.
In a poll recently published by LinkedIn, 80% of those who participated believed that the
AOL Time Warner merger failed because of their inability to generate the expected
synergies. Cross selling (even within its own divisions) was never Time Warner‟s strong
suit, so it is not surprising that the goal of profiting from the distribution of Time Warner
content to AOL subscribers through broadband cable never materialized.
There are other considerations which likely mitigated against the likelihood of success.
While most business combinations are typically characterized by a dominant partner, that
wasn‟t the case with AOL Time Warner. While AOL had the advantage in market
capitalization, Time Warner was clearly the larger and more complex operational entity.
Questions of power and control were left unresolved as both entities struggled to assert
themselves post-merger. Here, it seems everyone lost. Both Case and Levin left the
company within a few short years as the flaws in the merger strategy became more
Immediately spin off AOL before eroding share holder value
Even before the ink from the merger could dry, complications began to surface. AOL was
accused (rightly) of manipulating its accounting records to favorably distort its financial
picture. The new organization never got the desired traction and started slipping almost
immediately. Even before the merger, leadership should have set some milestones and
quantifiable metrics to evaluate the progress of the integration. Once it became obvious
that the new organization was performing sub-optimally and eroding share holder value
at a blinding rate, the company should have acted quickly to spin off AOL. This would
have saved millions of dollars and years of frustration, and it would have still been early
enough that both could have emerged relatively unscathed - perhaps with the exception of
some bruised egos.
Focus upon integration in order to wring value from the merger
Once the merger was consummated, it was imperative for the companies to focus upon
Culture: “Culture is the invisible glue that binds people” within an organization. As a
statistical matter, most mergers fail. Many management thinkers attribute this sobering
fact to the difficulty of effectively integrating cultures. While it may seem an impossible
task to bring the divergent cultures of AOL and Time Warner together, that is not
necessarily so. There are other examples - GE and NBC - of companies with distinct
cultures coming together for a common purpose. Although GE has strived to impart key
aspects of its culture to high ranking NBC executives, it has always demonstrated regard
for NBC‟s unique and creative culture, which has largely remained intact, and the two
have coexisted in relative harmony. AOL should have demonstrated more respect for
Time Warner culture and personnel, which would have reduced divisional strife and
encouraged collaboration, which was the key to achieving the company‟s strategic goals.
Create „Buy-In‟: The company should have better involved key members of its
leadership in the decision to merge and the subsequent formation of strategy. At Ogilvy
and Mather, Charlotte Beers was successful in implementing her turnaround plan in part
by bringing together a core of key executives in the decision making process from the
outset. While AOL Time Warner had a clear strategic vision, Levin and Case failed to get
buy-in from executives within the organization, and as a result, the divisions continued to
work as disparate entities rather than a unified organization.
Structure: There were few structural changes made during or shortly after the merger
(apart from the shake up in senior management). AOL and Time Warner continued to
work as separate entities. A structure that facilitates the free flow of information and
ideas and creates an environment where employees are able to cut across formal
divisional lines would go a long way in enabling each company to assimilate the
strengths of the other.
Systems: Management should have created the following systems:
►“We Weave”: Combining two companies is similar to weaving together
different looms. You can loosely stitch together two fabrics or you can blend them
together beautifully to create a unique mosaic. Employees should be reminded to
always keep in mind that they are trying to weave together two unique companies,
even if this involved something as simple as AOL employees wearing a “I am
proud to be part of the Time Warner family” to a company-wide picnic.
► “Our Einstein”: One of the biggest advantages of mergers is intellectual
enrichment. At GE, for example, when any division came up with a new best
practice such as a new means control inventory that reduced storage costs by 20%,
this information would be shared with other divisions.
► “Our Family”: Teams from each company should have met to discuss the
strengths of the other. This would serve multiple purposes: (1) encourage respect
and cooperation; (2) increase self confidence through positive feedback; and (3)
foster an amicable environment where both sides can shift from the defensive.
► “Our Company”: Employees should have had a mechanism (something as
simple as a forum or something more involved like the offsite 3rd party mediated
discussions GE held) to express concerns or to suggest new ways of doing things.
It is often said that everything old is new again. This month, Comcast, a leading provider
of cable television, purchased a controlling interest in NBC Universal from General
Electric. The sale will end GE‟s twenty-five year experiment in media management and
usher in a new era for Comcast. Like AOL before it, Comcast hopes to marry content
with distribution as it struggles to survive against new competitors (ie., telephone
companies) in a business fast become commoditized. Unfortunately, like AOL before it,
Comcast has developed a discrete culture under the insular leadership of the Roberts
family. Merger with the long-established NBCU will present many of the challenges
AOL Time Warner faced. It will be interesting to see whether Comcast can succeed
where AOL Time Warner failed.
Exhibit 1: AOL Time Warner Organization Chart - 2001 (Dignan)
Blue: AOL Leader
Green: Time Warner Leader
Red: Main Divisions
Yellow: Sub Divisions
Exhibit 3: Leading Change: How AOL Time Warner approached the
Stage How AOL Time Warner approached the change (Merger)
Establish a sense of Leadership had a sense of urgency to make the merger work but
Urgency they did not demand that same sense of urgency from the
managers below them
Form a powerful guiding Leadership formed an HR committee to facilitate the ease of
coalition transitions of employees from one responsibility to the other.
This should have been handled by senior management that were
team players and could get along with both AOL and Time
Create a Vision The leaders from both companies had a good strategy on what
they wanted to achieve but did not have a good vision on how
they wanted to execute that
Communicate the Vision Leadership created structural changes to emphasis the change but
did not hold regular town hall meeting, or email meetings to
communicate their plan to successfully marry the content and
technology of the companies
Empower other to act on the Leadership roles were dominated by AOL personnel and this
vision created a bias towards the execution of the merger. Content
editors should have been empowered to make sure the right
content was distributed to the right customers. However, AOL let
marketing decide which customers get what content.
Plan for and create short No milestones were created to suggest they were on track to
term wins making the merger a success. Smaller instances like getting their
IT systems synced together would have been a milestone,
marketing the new content to specific customers would have
been another milestone to make sure they were on the right track
Consolidate Improvements They did not have any plan of looking at early successes and
and produce more change using them to build sustainable success in the future
Institutionalize new There was a big divide between people who provided the content
approaches and those who served the content. Leadership should have gotten
rid of people who did not share this joint vision of the merger.
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Ahead of its Time?”, July 31, 2002.
Knowledge at Wharton, “So Far, the AOL Time Warner Merger Gets Mixed Reviews”,
January 30, 2002.
Knowledge at Wharton, “Is it time to give up on AOL Time Warner”, February 26, 2003.
Knowledge at Wharton, “AOL: In Search of a New Strategy”, November 2, 2005.
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Corporate America, February 22, 2006.
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