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Verizon declines to comment on WSJ report saying Tim Armstrong is in talks to leave Oath

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The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Tim Armstrong is in talks to leave Verizon as soon as next month.

Armstrong heads up the carrier giant’s digital and advertising division, Oath (formerly AOL, prior to the Yahoo acquisition and the subsequent merger of the two units). Oath also happens to be TechCrunch’s parent, of course.

We reached out to our corporate overlords for a confirm or deny on the newspaper report. A Verizon spokesperson told us: “We don’t comment on speculation and have no announcements to make.”

The WSJ cites “people familiar with the matter” telling it Armstrong is in talks to leave, which would mean he’s set to step away from an ongoing process of combining the two business units into a digital content and ad tech giant.

Though he has presided over several rounds of job cuts already, as part of that process.

Verizon acquired Armstrong when it bought AOL in 2015. The Yahoo acquisition followed in 2017 — with the two merged to form the odd-sounding Oath, a b2b brand that Armstrong seemingly inadvertently outted.

Building an ad giant to challenge Google and Facebook is the underlying strategy. But as the WSJ points out there hasn’t been much evidence of Oath moving Verizon’s growth needle yet (which remains tied to its wireless infrastructure).

The newspaper cites eMarketer projections which have Google taking over a third of the online ad market by 2020; Facebook just under a fifth; and Oath a mere 2.7%.

Meanwhile, Verizon’s appointment of former Ericsson CEO, Hans Vestberg, as its new chief exec in June, taking over from Lowell McAdam (who stepped down after seven years), suggests pipes (not content) remain the core focus for the carrier — which has the expensive of 5G upgrades to worry about.

A cost reduction program, intending to use network virtualization to take $10BN in expenses out of the business over the next four years, has also been a recent corporate priority for Verizon.

Given that picture, it’s less clear how Oath’s media properties mesh with its plans.

The WSJ’s sources told the newspaper there were recent discussions about whether to spin off the Oath business entirely — but said Verizon has instead decided to integrate some of its operations more closely with the rest of the company (whatever ‘integrate’ means in that context).

(Since the story broke, Verizon CFO Matt Ellis has expanded slightly on the ‘no comment’. Speaking during an appearance at a Bank of America Merrill Lynch conference this morning, he said: “Our commitment is as strong today to Oath as it has ever been… There’s a lot of good work going on there. It’s really setting the foundation of what we expect to do with the business going forward, and we still feel very strongly there’s a great opportunity there… So we continue to be very committed to Oath. There’s a significant opportunity for us there.”)

There have been other executive changes at Oath earlier this year, too, with the head of its media properties, Simon Khalaf, departing in April — and not being replaced.

Instead Armstrong appointed a COO, K Guru Gowrappan, hired in from Alibaba, who he said Oath’s media bosses would now report to.

“Now is our time to turn the formation of Oath into the formation of one of the world’s best operating companies that paves a safe and exciting path forward for our billion consumers and the world’s most trusted brands,” Armstrong wrote in a staff memo on Gowrappan’s appointment obtained by Recode.

“Guru will run day to day operations of our member (consumer) and B2B businesses and will serve as a member of our global executive team helping to set company culture and strategy. Guru will also be an important part of the Verizon work that is helping both Oath and Verizon build out the future of global services and revenue,” he added, saying he would be spending more of his time “spread across strategic Oath opportunities and Verizon… leading our global strategy, global executive team, and corporate operations”.

At the start of the year Oath also named a new CFO, Vanessa Wittman, after the existing officer, Holly Hess, moved to Verizon to head up the aforementioned cost-saving program.

Reaction to the rumour of Armstrong’s imminent departure has sparked fresh speculation about jobs cuts on the anonymous workplace app Blind — with Oath/AOL/Yahoo employees suggesting additional rounds of company-wide layouts could be coming in October.

Or, well, that could always just be trolling.

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