By Katie Deighton | Senior Reporter

September 19, 2016 | 4 min read

The chief executive of AOL is betting on its new union with Yahoo reaching 2 billion consumers by 2020, differentiating itself in the marketplace with a brand-first focus and an open data strategy.

Tim Armstrong, the ex-Googler expected to continue heading up Verizon’s new stack, is clear that despite his charge comprising “the original brands of the internet”, the revived offering must ignite a challenger mentality against the behemoths of Facebook and Google.

“If Facebook is about social and Google is about search, then we want to be about brand,” he told The Drum. “We will have a totally differentiated strategy and that strategy will enable the best brands in the world to have brand metrics, brand planning, brand ROI and brand interactions with consumers that are very unique from Google and Facebook.”

Another differentiator – and one that will no doubt mean more to planners than an early lip service to brands – will be the group’s approach to data. The AOL/Yahoo offering is preparing to buck the trend of walled garden models, and instead use its open strategy to lure in marketers sick of the Big Two’s limiting environment.

“AOL got into a lot of trouble as a company when it went to a walled garden mode back in the early 2000s,” explained Armstrong. “We're taking the total opposite approach. We want to be the company without walls: the open company.

“We’re one of the only companies in the world that partners with Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Snapchat … there's not a scale partner in the digital space that we don't partner with and we're probably the only large scale company that partners with everybody overall. So we take a very open mentality to the world, and we're going to continue to do that. We will not be a walled garden.”

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Beyond mobile-first

Armstrong is almost fervent in his belief in “mobile-everything”, believing the next 3 billion people to get online will access information without a desktop. The stack plans on anchoring itself on mobile and mercilessly “drag operations and brands” into the format. The CEO also believes this focus has enticed and will entice the best talent to the operation – another differentiator to Facebook and Google.

“I think most of our talent has [come from] challenger companies that have had to change,” he said. “Some of the companies we’ve acquired have been mobile only, such as Millennial Media [now part of One by AOL], and the majority of our traffic now is mobile.

“We have a smaller headcount company than the companies in front of us and we have challenger brands and challenger platforms that are forced to get to move to mobile. ‘Mobile everything’ is really what our talent base has to be focused on.”

It will be a little while before the stack is ripe for market. However Armstrong hopes to see proof points as early as next year. “I think 2018 you'll really start to see us with our combined assets and a simple focus, and then by 2020 I’m hoping we get to 2 billion consumers.”

The boardroom will certainly be happy with 2 billion in just four years’ time, although “being the brand company” and doing that challenger role well is more important to Armstrong.

He added: “I think Google and Facebook are going to do a tremendous job, and there's also new entrant Snapchat. But we have a nice area of the market that we can do a really good job at, and we're going to focus on that.”

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