|December 23, 2002|
An Eccentric in Residence Aims for Harmony at Time
In a dark, mysterious place where kingdoms collide, a tiny figure possesses a prized power, one that could help bring peace and prosperity to warring corporate forces.
Mark Golin, the creative director at AOL who is on loan to Time Inc., occupies a middle earth between the antagonistic divisions of a media giant that has stumbled badly since the AOL Time Warner merger nearly two years ago. Partial to wearing a long leather coat and green shoes, he eerily resembles a punk version of the hobbit Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings." And his quest is no less arduous
Faced with a battered stock price and a troubled online unit, the new top management of AOL Time Warner is demanding genuine and immediate cooperation between the divisions. So Mr. Golin spends most days trying to get the two units to dance together without finding himself trampled underfoot.
Mr. Golin's gift an ability to speak the language of both the Internet and magazines, all the while creating material that consumers crave may just inspire a thriving coexistence. But Time Inc. has never played particularly well with other parts of its corporate parent, whether it was after the merger of Time and Warner Brothers, after the acquisition of Turner Broadcasting or after the deal with America Online. And there are some at Time Inc. who believe that Mr. Golin, best known for his stint as editor of Maxim, is all too willing to cater to the audience's lowest common denominator in pursuit of traffic.
Mr. Golin, 40, now a vice president at AOL, could not care less. He is too busy playing mad scientist in residence.
"I am part of a creative SWAT team where we run around in jumpsuits and parachute out of windows. For a while, I wore a helmet with a siren on it," he said, offering a maniacal laugh that serves as one of his trademarks. A telescope for spying on other buildings dominates the window of his 41st-floor office in New York. ("It's a lot better at night," he advised a visitor.)
After a bit, the prankster receded and was replaced by a deadly serious media executive.
"We need to take content and shape it, add functionality to it, surround it with community and line it up with other peripheral information," Mr. Golin said.
He thinks that the days when AOL can continue to grow by providing no-brainer access to the Web are over and that the service must offer information and interaction that people cannot get elsewhere. That is why the company recently announced that as part of its efforts to revitalize AOL, much of the material from Time Inc.'s magazines, including People, InStyle and Teen People, will be available on the Web only on its proprietary online service.
Mr. Golin is helping to rework the teen area, a critical component of the AOL audience, by allowing users to choose interest groups to join and customize their experience on the site. He will also be working with Ned Desmond, the former president of Business 2.0 who was recently appointed executive editor of Time Inc. Interactive, and many others at Time Inc. to insinuate magazine content onto the service in a way that pleases users but is consistent with the magazine's brand.
But the project that is closest to his heart, coming up with a new magazine for Time Inc., is writ large on the wall of his office a huge array of men's magazines decorates the space. For the last six months, he has been working to come up with another contender that will get the green light from Time Inc., but so far it is still on the drawing board.
His portfolio is broad and confusing enough to raise the question of whether he ever has to ask what his job actually is.
"More often, I go out into the hall and ask where my pants are," Mr. Golin said, before turning serious. "Mostly, we are making stuff for AOL. This is the nitty-gritty of transforming big ideas into things the consumer wants."
His résumé includes a few endeavors that do not generally appear in the histories of executives at either company. A pre-med student who tripped into publishing at Rodale, the publisher of magazines like Men's Health and Prevention, he is an accomplished violinist who once cavorted in Zen for Primates, an outré cabaret rock band.
After coming to New York as a deputy editor at Cosmopolitan in 1997, he became the editor of Maxim during its rise to the top of the magazine rack. When Mr. Golin left Maxim for an ill-fated attempt to make a success of Details for Condé Nast Publications, he was replaced by a hamster for a month by those nutty guys at the magazine, and he played along by writing an editor's note from the hamster's perspective.
While at Details, he created a fake company called the Erogenous Zone, and at a convention of sex marketers he took a booth that featured a room equipped with bondage equipment. Its business cards included the phone number of GQ, another men's magazine at Condé Nast.
After Details closed, Mr. Golin went to work at AOL Moviefone as its senior vice president and creative director. But he missed having some involvement with the publishing world and was eventually sent on loan part time to Time Inc.
He is conversant in the jargon of the Internet but glides seamlessly to the language of publishing, a skill that will help meet the demands of Don Logan, the former Time Inc. executive who was appointed chairman of the company's media and entertainment group in part to make the merged company behave like one. Mr. Golin's perennial outsider status also serves him well in the generally hermetic and relatively staid confines of Time Inc.
"We need a lot of bridge figures, and Mark is very important in that context," said Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc. "Mark knows and understands our traditions at Time Inc. but recognizes the truism that new media is new. He is not the product of either environment, so he is not unduly influenced by the thinking of the past. I'd love to have 10 more like him."
The leadership at AOL appreciates his versatility.
"Mark is a very creative thinker, and it doesn't really matter who the audience is," said Jim Bankoff, executive vice president of interactive services at AOL. "Women, men, teens, boys whatever it is, he has the ability to understand the needs of the consumer he is trying to target."
Not all of his colleagues at Time Inc. are enamored with Mr. Golin's pop culture literacy. For the past year, Mr. Golin has been one of the gatekeepers for the welcome screen of AOL, and he has created resentments when deciding which magazines receive placement and the ensuing firehose of traffic. And his willingness to introduce tabloid elements on the welcome screen, as well as urging the Time Inc. magazines' Web editors to do the same on their own sites, leaves editors of magazines like People and Entertainment Weekly wondering whether their content is in good hands.
"It's clear he has the ear of the bosses, but that doesn't always mean that we like what he is doing," one editor at a Time Inc. magazine said.
Longtime friends are surprised to see Mr. Golin, who once busked his way through Europe with his violin, on an executive perch. But his image as a rebel may be overplayed, said Felix Dennis, owner of Dennis Publishing, which publishes Maxim.
"He is really more of a responsible corporate employee than the facade he likes to put out," Mr. Dennis said. "This is a guy who has two kids and one wife and likes to play the violin on his time off." (Mr. Dennis, however, did take credit for teaching him not to play with chain saws in the office.)
Mr. Golin's rhetorical bombast is balanced by a fairly straightforward approach to consumers. He recently helped develope a feature for AOL about getting good sleep, built out of material from Time Inc.'s Real Simple magazine. The site included topics like "Sleep Thieves," "Sleep Solutions" and "Your Dream Bed," along with a quiz with links to chat areas, satisfying AOL's need for editorial features that generate reader-created content. Four million people have visited the site so far and half of them have returned, according to Fran Hauser, a vice president of programming integration who has an office next to Mr. Golin's at Time Inc.
"He is very creative, but he is very decisive," Ms. Hauser said. "In an environment where priorities are always changing, he always starts with what the consumer wants."
Mr. Golin still makes time to go out to Allentown, Pa., to record music with Mike Krisukas, his former bandmate in Zen for Primates. Mr. Krisukas has watched with some amusement as his friend has crept ever deeper into a dark world he once assailed.
"He always acts like he is going to make some money and get back to music, but he is closer to the black hole than he has ever been," Mr. Krisukas said. "He is as amused as everyone else to find himself where he is, but I think he enjoys the power struggle more than he admits."
Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times
Mark Golin, a vice president and creative
director at AOL, is on loan to Time Inc. to smooth out the rough spots in the combined
operations of the two companies.
Joyce Dopkeen/The New York TimesMark Golin says he has a telescope in his 41st-floor office in Manhattan so he can spy on other buildings. "It's a lot better at night," he says.