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Tim Armstrong Defends Aol’s Content Business, Announces New Ad Tool For Publishers

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Aol CEO Tim Armstrong sang the praises of programmatic, automated advertising today during his keynote presentation at the Ad:Tech conference in San Francisco, and he announced a new Marketplace tool to help publishers manage their ads. So when Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky took the stage to interview him, he asked: Was it meaningful that Armstrong didn’t talk about Aol’s content and publishing business?

After all, Lashinsky pointed out that Aol has made some pretty big investments in content, especially with the acquisition of properties like the Huffington Post and, yes, TechCrunch. Armstrong answered that he still sees content as a big opportunity — he was just tailoring his message to the audience.

Indeed, if you look at companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google and Microsoft, it seems like more tech companies are getting into the content business. Armstrong argued that Aol was one of the first online ad companies to “try and jump in and do both sides.”

At the same time, Armstrong acknowledged that there does seem to be a shortage of big-name talent in web content and that he’s looking forward to seeing “a lot of the brainpower” moving from offline to online. (I’m not sure what kind of talent he was referring to, so I’ll try not to take that personally.)

“If we were to take all the technology people in this room and switched them to content management systems, the opportunity is just as big,” Armstrong added.

Continuing on that theme, Lashinsky said that traffic to Aol properties doesn’t seem to be growing. Armstrong said it’s been “a very, very challenging situation” because Aol is trying to “switch the engines while the plane is flying” — there are new properties that are growing, but the company is also saddled with others that are declining or that it has shut down. The good thing, Armstrong said, is that the mix of Aol’s traffic “looks different than it did three years ago,” that “Wall Street has gotten more excited,” and that “we’ve been able to stuff the company with lots of talent.”

Lashinsky also asked Armstrong about his earlier statement that if he was making the decision for himself (rather than Aol), he’d be interested in buying Time Inc. Armstrong said that’s because he’s a big believer in the media brands that Time has built: “People undercut how powerful brands are.”

My boss Alexia Tsotsis really hates that word, but to illustrate his point, Armstrong said that Fortune hosts a successful conference every year based on the magazine’s brand — if Armstrong wanted to start “Tim’s online finance site” and hold his own conference, he said, “I would bet on Fortune more than Tim’s finance.” He also said that Aol is trying to acquire “meaningful” online brands. That was the rationale behind the HuffPo and TechCrunch acquisitions, and he said they’ve led to traffic and revenue that has “exploded.”

As for the new Marketplace product, it’s a supply-side platform that Aol is pitching as a competitor to Google and as something that completes the company’s ad-tech stack.