"The AOL Way": Can Creativity Be Industrialized?

Tim Armstrong is not the first CEO of a media company to try and bring some rigour and process to the creative process, and he won’t be the last. Whether The AOL Way, the training document that maps out a vision of 21st-century editorial production, will succeed — first, in getting AOL’s editorial team on board, and second, in creating a content experience that will engage fickle users and generate revenues — remains to be seen. But the exercise reminds us of the eternal challenge for the media industry — how to channel creativity to produce valuable and differentiated content.

From my experience working as an editor on magazines, on websites, and in TV, I wish Armstrong luck in implementing his vision. Much of what he is looking for makes sense: creating more content, more quickly; thinking about search optimization, traffic, and revenue; using more video. But such thinking is at the heart of Demand Media’s model, too. What is it about AOL content that will enable it to stand out in a crowded marketplace? Where is that X factor? How can AOL be distinctive as well as more efficient?

AOL, like its contemporary Yahoo, does not have the established brand values of an “old” media company like ABC, for example; arguably, it has had to acquire newer companies — such as TechCrunch and Huffington Post — to become a genuinely nimble and relevant content provider. The fear now is that if it’s a choice between “The AOL Way” and the highway, those within AOL who already know how to create compelling content will choose the highway: The signs from Engadget don’t look great.

The problem goes much wider than AOL, though. We wrote a couple of years back that We Are All Media Companies Now. Once you factor in user-generated content, blogs, and social media alongside traditional providers, more content is being created and consumed than ever before, across a growing number of platforms. Given this fragmentation, what can non-media companies (tech companies or brand marketers, for example) learn from media companies? More than they realise, is the answer.

The history of the media industry is littered with accountants and management consultants (and, more recently, engineers) who cast an eye over the ramshackle businesses before them and wondered why these creative types couldn’t be more efficient. In their wake, they tend to throw the baby out with the bath water (witness Guy Hands’ clueless management of EMI). Creating content is easy enough, but creating great content is tougher than it looks.

Anyone creating a blueprint for a 21st-century media company needs to be efficient and focused. No argument there. But that is not enough. Media companies succeed ultimately because they establish an environment in which creative people are empowered to generate great content that audiences value. If that isn’t the first item on your agenda and if you don’t have a plan to achieve it, you’d better bail out now.