Tim Armstrong Plans to Grow AOL's Audience to 2 Billion by 2020

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Tim Armstrong, left, and Jimmy Maymann

The CEO and content executive Jimmy Maymann talk investing in live programming, growing the business and whether acquiring Yahoo could help with that 2 billion goal.

Exactly two weeks after AOL's 2015 NewFronts presentation, in which CEO Tim Armstrong pitched advertisers alongside stars like James Franco, the company announced plans to sell to Verizon for $4.4 billion. 

This year, Armstrong was back at NewFronts again and, unsurprisingly, the event took on a new tone. The former Google executive sat onstage Tuesday alongside newly appointed executive Jimmy Maymann, who oversees all content and consumer brands for AOL, and Verizon's consumer products senior vp Brian Angiolet. And instead of highlighting catchy new shows with big-name talent, the press-only event — advertisers were treated to tours of AOL's four-block outdoor interactive experience —  focused on the mission of Verizon-owned AOL to become a industry-leading mobile media company.

For Armstrong, that means setting out to reach an audience of 2 billion in the next four years, up from a total reach of 500 million unique users today. "We're sitting at the collision of the future of media and the future of advertising," he says, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter in an interview following the presentation. "The Verizon deal has given us an incredible opportunity to scale that vision to a degree that would have been impossible without them." 

Armstrong joined AOL in 2009 and is attributed with transforming it from the legacy technology company that entered into a disastrous merger with Time Warner into a multi-billion business attractive to Verizon because of its advertising platform and media brands. A big part of his vision for the company involves Maymann, who was promoted to his role running content in August after three years as CEO of AOL-owned The Huffington Post.  

"We invest heavily in content," says Maymann. "But at the same time, we've also known that scale is important. There are certain things we can do organically but we need to accelerate, and having Verizon behind you helps push through some of those things. We've been able to do a number of M&A deals over the course of the last year, and we still want to be very aggressive. We think there's a need for a media company to compete with the biggest [platforms] out there and we think we have a chance of being that company." 

On the content side, AOL is investing heavily in virtual reality and live programming.

Last month, it acquired VR firm RYOT to create a new content arm under HuffPost. Maymann says the technology is being integrated into all of HuffPost's markets and that AOL will have a video player with 360-degree capabilities within the next month. 

Meanwhile, the company is pumping resources into Build, a streaming series that shoots four hours of live interviews or other events every day. It announced at its NewFronts event that Build will get a new studio in downtown Manhattan that will be equipped with 360-degree filming capabilities. The 13,000-square-foot space also will be street-level to encourage audience interaction. 

"Live content is really important," notes Armstrong. "Most platforms that have been building around live content look at Snapchat and Facebook. But we've been one of the largest investors in live content for digital. Our belief is that content and human beings are going to connect on a more regular basis, and Build is content but there's also the ability to interact with it live." 

Another way that AOL could look to accelerate its growth is through the acquisition of Yahoo, which has a more than a billion monthly active users across its online properties. Verizon, which has expressed interest in the deal, is now reported to be among the bidders for the beleaguered tech company. 

"We don't control that process," Armstrong says of Yahoo's potential sale. "We think Yahoo is a big, strong company and we have a lot of respect for them and we work with them pretty closely. We want to compete and we want to compete globally, so we're going to make every move we need to make sure we can do that, whether that includes doing something with Yahoo or not, we don't know yet. But Jimmy and I — and the rest of the team — are actively trying to get to 2 billion users by 2020."