41. Lynda Clarizio – making the case for AOL, Nielsen and The 98

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Lynda Clarizio is an attorney-turned-ad tech exec who was a leader at AOL for a decade, running its consumer web sites, ad sales and operations, and its Platform-A rollup. She later ran Invision and Nielsen’s US media business. She’s co-founder of The 98, an early stage venture fund advising and investing in tech businesses founded by women.

Growing up in an intensely Italian-American milieu in New Jersey, Lynda was early interested in international relations and studied it at Princeton and Harvard Law School. After a bivouac at the State Department, she joined Arnold & Porter in Washington D.C. and became one of its first woman partners.

Her connection with AOL began at Arnold & Porter, where she was outside counsel. Twice refusing offers to join AOL as an attorney, she eventually took a role as SVP Strategic & Financial Planning in 1999, at the height of AOL-frenzy. Although she was working on a different deal at the time (eBay), she was present during the lead-up and consummation of the ill-fated merger with Time Warner, which marked the peak of the dot-com boom in March, 2000.

As Lynda tells Jill and Marty in this behind-the-scenes episode, there was compelling rationale behind the merger, driven by AOL’s need for access to distribution pipes and its imperative to diversify beyond the Internet. It was ultimately doomed by the economic downturn and severe cultural constraints.

She rode out the aftermath, ultimately rising to EVP of AOL’s Audience Business. Nurturing a longstanding “obsession” with Google, Lynda says she felt an outsourcing agreement with the search engine in its pre-revenue days — while lucrative for AOL and catalytic for Google — was a strategic misstep, preventing AOL from building its own search capability. She was determined AOL avoid a similar fluff in display, so she found Advertising.com, a successful Baltimore-based ad network co-founded by our previous guest John Ferber and his brother Scott.

She shepherded the acquisition of Advertising.com by AOL in 2004 and became its president two years later, as revenue doubled and accounted for 25% of the portal’s total. AOL later acquired behavioral ad platform Tacoda (founded by our previous guest Dave Morgan) and contextual targeting company Quigo, both in 2007.

As the Wall Street Journal said in a story from 2008: “Her reward: She gets to try to clean up one of the Internet company’s messiest divisions.” The article referred to her appointment as President of Platform-A, a mash-up of the Ad.com network, Tacoda, Quigo and other elements that were intended to accelerate AOL’s transition from an ISP to a proto-programmatic ad business.

It was a difficult time to assume this responsibility. As an eMarketer chart from 2008 shows, all the ad players were struggling amidst another economic downturn:

And Lynda tells us she “did my best” but “was fired on the front page of the Wall Street Journal” in early 2009. Somebody had to take the fall.

As an interesting omen, New York Times columnist Saul Hansell wrote a piece when her promotion was announced that began: “Here’s a warning to Lynda Clarizio: There may be a curse on your job.” He pointed out that since 2001, seven people had been head of AOL’s ad sales group.

She joined Invision as CEO and then briefly linked up with our previous guest Brian O’Kelley at AppNexus in 2013 before signing on to Nielsen as President of the US Media business, leading the Watch measurement product. At Nielsen, she tried to expand Watch from its core TV and Cable roots into digital and streaming channels — which would require “considerable investment,” — and she left in 2018. (Invision was acquired in 2016 by MediaOcean.)

A pioneering woman throughout her career — her Princeton class was only its eighth co-ed cohort, — Lynda focuses today on advising measurement companies and on helping women in business. She co-founded Brilliant Friends in 2018 as an advisory and investment club, and more recently turned it into The 98, an early-stage venture fund for women.

The name “The 98” refers to a sobering statistic: only 2% of venture dollars today go to start-ups founded by women.

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