AOL Afternoon: MAKERS and MORE

“AOL is the intersection between culture and code,” said Natalie Azzoli, Communications Director for AOL. “Our mission is to simplify the Internet for creators.” Sitting at a large conference table in the AOL office, Azzoli addressed a group of NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students during an industry visit. Graciously fielding questions about AOL’s corporate culture and marketing model, Azzoli explained how the company has repositioned itself from a traditional Internet business to a content producing brand.

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Natalie Azzoli, Communications Director for AOL (left center and in top photo), explains the company’s approach to content, distribution, and monetization.

This began in 2009 when Tim Armstrong made the move from Google to join AOL as CEO. Under his direction, AOL shifted not only to become a content producer, but an advertising technology company as well. “Ad tech, content, and distribution is a unique mixture of assets,” Azzoli noted.

AOL is now 30 years old and currently employs 350 editors. They create 1,700 pieces of content every day across more than 20 brands (including The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, DailyFinance, Cambio, Style Me Pretty, and Engadget), earning over 400 million views globally. In 2015, AOL was acquired by Verizon and transitioned from a 4,000-person company to an 180,000-person mega platform operating in 184 countries. “It was a $4.4 billion deal, but the autonomy and culture of AOL stayed the same,” Azzoli noted.

To learn more about the brands and platforms at AOL and how they connect to the company as a whole, we met with Rebecca Fenton, Managing Editor of MAKERS, the largest collection of women’s video stories online and one of the biggest digital women’s platforms. Not bad for being less than five years old. “We’re a startup within the giant backing of AOL,” Fenton explained.

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Rebecca Fenton, Managing Editor of MAKERS (center), explains to our students what makes a great MAKER.

Fenton began her career in newsrooms at ABC and CBS before moving over to the Food Network and digital content for Hearst magazines. At MAKERS, Fenton and her team lead a digital collective with the purpose of empowering women and telling their stories. “A MAKER is a mentor,” Fenton said, “someone who is not afraid to tell her story and is bold, brave, and inspiring.” A new MAKER is added each week, and some in the collection include Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and most recently, Caitlyn Jenner.

When asked about career experience and industry success, Fenton told the students, “My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your interests and your passions, rather than the expectations you may have about your career.”

It’s clear that Fenton enjoys her role at AOL, noting that she’s the first person in the office each morning and is inspired by her talented team. “The most important thing here is to like what you do and have a sense of pride in your work,” she added.

Left to right: Foosball table, work stations, and a NapQuest room at the AOL headquarters in Manhattan.

At the end of our time with Fenton, Campus Recruiter Susan Kim guided us on a thorough office tour. The AOL office spreads over three floors at 770 Broadway in Manhattan; Facebook is a few floors upstairs, and Nielsen and J. Crew are also in the building. For a corporate work environment at one of the largest digital platforms in America, the workspace is not your standard sea of cubicles. The interior design by West Elm has the feel of a hip boutique hotel, set up for working collectively rather than anonymously. It’s also apparent that employee morale and content production operate at a higher frequency in a place so stylish. The concept for the workspace is to be fun and dynamic, with time out for foosball and, yes, naps! Paying homage to Mapquest, owned by AOL, the company has a number of little rooms with sleeping pods called “NapQuest” chambers for use when employees need a break.

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Students got to watch from the sidelines as AOL BUILD filmed with Tao Okamoto, star of the upcoming Batman v Superman.

On the bottom of the three floors is the headquarters of AOL BUILD, the company’s live video studio. We were excited to slip in to watch an interview with the actress Tao Okamoto, who was promoting the upcoming Batman v Superman movie. The steady stream of talent coming through the office is a daily occurrence.

From the studio, Kim led our group through multiple large rooms where The Huffington Post staff punched keys in front of glowing screens, to the lunch area, where a different New York City restaurant sets up a serving line each day. We then migrated back to the elevators and off to school and work. Meanwhile, at AOL, staffers continued with the tasks of publishing endless content to engage with their growing global audience.

The overall objectives and attitude toward the content they create on the AOL platforms is best described by Fenton: “We want people here to enjoy what they’re working on. Write what you want to write.” And if that’s ever too much to handle, you could always slip into one of those nap pods.

by Eric Greene

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