The Internet forefather has had an eventful decade defined by bold moves in a volatile industry. Its general counsel, Julie Jacobs, has been there for all if it, and was the catalyst for one of the most lucrative deals that set the comeback company on a path to make history.
Studies have shown a correlation between the demographics of executive leadership and bold strategic changes. The younger a team, both in age and time spent working together, the more likely it is to give strategic redirection a try. Even before AOL made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in December 2009, some of the key players who would eventually drive its shift from a subscription-based Internet-service provider to an ad-supported content provider were assembled. Jacobs joined AOL in 2000, became general counsel in 2010, and brought with her a keen awareness for not just the risks of the business but, more importantly, opportunity.
AOL had been a trailblazer in the delivery of web services in the early days of the Internet, but by the 2000s, changes in market standards painted it as more of a fast-follower. It wasn’t until 2006, with dial-up usage significantly diminished in the face of broadband and competitors offering e-mail and instant messaging among other technologies for free, that AOL announced its strategic shift into content.
When she arrived in 2000, Jacobs’s first charge was extending the company’s international business through joint ventures with major media players such as Cisneros Group, a Venezuelan media and entertainment giant, and Bertelsmann. However, in 2010, Jacobs’s international efforts were slowly pulled back in favor of domestic growth. A string of acquisitions followed, including the Huffington Post, but Jacobs’s biggest play for the emerging media brand company came on the heels of landmark litigation underway in Silicon Valley.
On the July 4 holiday weekend of 2011, news broke that Apple, Microsoft, and Sony, among other tech companies, had paid $4.5 billion to Nortel, a telecom company, for its intellectual property. “It was basically the perfect storm,” Jacobs says of the nature of the events, which led to AOL selling 800 patents for $1.1 billion. “I called my head of IP [intellectual property] and we walked through our patent portfolio, [which included] Netscape, MapQuest, and AIM [AOL Instant Messenger]. We knew we had valuable technology that we had acquired and developed just sitting under the couch cushions.”
Jacobs and her team kept those patents core to the company’s future growth, and those that supported the historic model were put up for sale. “The patent market was incredibly hot,” she says, “and ours had such early priority dates and had never been licensed, so we knew they would be invaluable to others in our industry.” Through a closed auction in June 2012, Jacobs was able to negotiate a deal with Microsoft, giving AOL a significant boost to continue its strategic objectives.
In early 2013, the debut of AOL’s in-the-black, fourth-quarter 2012 earnings report was a milestone that proved wrong those who doubted that the Internet vanguard could play catch-up with its contemporaries. Not merely treading water in the advertising space, AOL is taking its share of the market unapologetically. “We’ve been very consistent with our core strategy,” Jacobs says. “We see the shift from TV and other media to online, and we want to be on the forefront of that change.” With such a goal in mind, Jacobs and her department helped broker a $405 million acquisition of Adap.tv, one of the largest digital video advertising platforms, the addition of which helped AOL top Google in recent reports of online video ads served.
Adamant that legal be a strategic partner to the business, Jacobs continues to ensure her department supports just such success. And as the legal landscape of the technology world evolves, she and her team will be there to continue what AOL started—pioneering in the still undefined realm of the World Wide Web.