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More on ASK.com's Decision to Replace Jim Lanzone as CEO
Monday, January 14, 2008
Last week we reported on the announcement that former ASK CEO Jim Lanzone was being replaced by Jim Safka. The news about Mr. Lanzone's departure from ASK was a bit surprising. However, Lisa Barone over at Bruce Clay had an interesting post as to why Jim Lanzone may have been replaced. Here in it's entirety is that post:

Jim Lanzone Booted For Focusing On Core Search, Not Ads

Posted by Lisa Barone

Funny thing, I’m not so great at hiding my emotions. I know; this is something you’ve probably picked up on over the past two years. If you read the blog or follow my Twitter feed, you know when I’m mad, you know when I’m sad and you know when I’m excited about something. Some people like that about me, others wish I’d just shut up.

Lisa stalkers probably know that there was one piece of news that greatly affected me last week. It was the surprising announcement that search guy Jim Lanzone would be stepping down as CEO of Ask.com and replaced by Jim Saffka, a marketing guy and the one responsible for Dr. Phil’s annoyingly mushy Match.com commercials. The announcement was a really big shock to a lot of people. As Barry Schwartz noted, many viewed Jim Lanzone as the heart and soul behind Ask.com. He’s the guy who pushed for Ask3D. He was making things happen and he brought an incredible amount of excitement and passion to the team. I’m sure the new Jim will do a great job, but people will definitely miss the face of Jim Lanzone and the huge smile he always carried.

So why was Jim Lanzone replaced?

Today the New York Times gave this reason:

“…the move reflects Mr. Diller’s belief that what Ask needs was better high profile advertising. Mr. Safka, indeed, is seen as more marketing oriented, while Mr. Lanzone was more interested in building Ask’s core search engine as well as creating flashy features that will differentiate it from that other very very very large search engine.”

Wait. So we lost Jim because he was focused on improving the core functionality of Ask.com and making it a better search engine instead of just creating gaudy ads? Are you serious? It seems to me that it was Jim Lanzone’s job as CEO to improve Ask, not just to use advertising to “trick” users or promise things Ask can’t deliver. The idea that he would be chastised for that seems completely appalling and makes me wonder if Barry really just killed the bright face leading Ask simply because of his marketing team’s inability to create commercials. Maybe he should have reorganized the marketing team instead.

It just doesn’t make any sense, and to be honest, it makes me incredibly sad. We need people like Jim Lanzone to keep challenging us. Say what you want about Ask.com but it’s inarguably better since the release of Ask3D, a concept that was largely spearheaded by Jim Lanzone and is being mimicked by every one of the major search engines. Sure, we’ve all given Ask crap about their, at times, offensive commercials, but I don’t think the answer to Ask.com’s problems is to put a marketing guy in charge to give us something to chuckle over. Ask needs a search guy who understands users and what they want and fights for them. That’s how you build brand loyalty and trust.

This new strategy outlined by Barry Diller is somewhat confusing. Does he really think that he’s going to build his search engine through advertising? That he’ll be able to build trust in a brand by focusing on smoke and mirrors without having someone there to fight to better the actual product? If Barry is so worried about increasing revenue and building market share maybe he should take some notes on how Google built their brand. They sure as hell didn’t do it through advertising. They did it by creating the most relevant search engine and then layering other applications on top of that.

Ask’s focus should be on building out their verticals and specialty tools. That’s where they’ve always been the strongest. I know Ask.com wants to be seen as an all-purpose search engine but the way to get people in and attract eyeball is to show them the flashy stuff first. Let them trust you before you try and sell them the whole farm. Use the verticals to reinforce the relevancy you’re looking to build.

The news of Jim Lanzone’s departure from Ask was saddening, but the reason provided is even more disconcerting. It makes me question whether or not the people behind Ask really get it at all. I know people like Gary Price get it. I know his vision for the search engine is very much aligned with what users want. But what about the higher ups and the ones making the important management decisions? Does Barry Diller get it or did he just throw away the soul of Ask on a misstep? I once questioned Barry’s reasoning for firing Jeeves, but I get that now. I wonder if I’ll look back at this decision a year later and finally get that too. Maybe, but I don’t think so. If Ask is going to suddenly become all flash and no heart, I’m not sure I want to watch that evolution.

Interesting indeed. I have always liked ASK.com, but the move to replace Jim Lanzone as CEO is a strange one. Was it simply a matter of ego? Does Barry Diller actually understand search and the importance of it? Is this another case of "what have you done for me lately?" Or is Jim Safka a brilliant marketing man who can help thrust ASK into the spotlight as one of the top four search engines by acquiring market share from Google, Yahoo and Windows Live Search? From all accounts Jim Lanzone was this man. Jim was/is a search man. You can bet he will continue with his passion for search. Don't be surprised if he ends up working with one of the industry's major players sometime soon.

It looks like corporate red tape and politics has painted this story. After a great 2007, it will be interesting to see what ASK does in 2008. They may have just taken a step back.

Editor's Update: It had been brought to our attention that we forgot to link to Lisa's article. We think that this was a fantastic post from Lisa! We have since updated the post to reflect that with two links to the post. Original article can be found here: http://www.bruceclay.com/blog/archives/2008/01/jim_lanzone_booted.html

We apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused. Thanks to anonymous (we have a good idea who you are) for pointing this out :)

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posted by PlanetNim Caretaker @ Monday, January 14, 2008  
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