Phil Whall: AOL UK

AOL UK head of legal Phil Whall believes the internet has crossed a frontier and is just starting to fulfil its potential. Matt Byrne reports

AOL UK celebrated its tenth birthday last year. Although the internet itself is now as familiar as television, it is still in its infancy. Ditto AOL.

“We’re like colonists on the internet,” says Phil Whall, vice-president and general counsel of AOL UK. “It’s just beginning to happen; we’ve just rolled our wagons in. All the cool stuff in 1997 or 1998, about how the internet was going to be fabulous and change everyone’s lives, it’s just starting to happen now.”

Whall is, as his comments suggest, rather enthusiastic about the internet. And as befits the head of a department in one of the world’s largest and most successful internet businesses, he is also massively enthusiastic about his company, its product and his role within it. Whall is just a teensy bit geeky – in the nicest possible sense.

AOL UK is up for sale, with BSkyB and BT rumoured to be the favourites to buy it. Whall’s enthusiasm will be particularly useful for AOL UK’s new owners, if and when a deal is done.

Whall is unable to talk about the negotiations but was delighted to wax lyrical about the opportunities created by the still-young internet.

“I remember seeing that Dennis Potter play, Cold Lazurus, a sci-fi thing with screens, pictures on walls talking,” he recalls. “That’s what we do. People take it for granted, but it’s happening. Jump forward another 10, 15 or 20 years, it’s going to happen more and more and more. And we’re making it, changing it. That’s why we love it.”

Whall is well aware how his infectious enthusiasm for his business could come across in print – “Don’t write me up as a psychopath,” he pleads – but it is patently obvious that this is one in-house lawyer who adores what he does. It is difficult to imagine him working as a lawyer except in relation to the internet.

“I know it’s a cliché, but the in-house lawyers we have are absolutely embedded in the business,” says Whall. “I’m always encouraging them to get their hands dirty and muck around with the product and pretend to be consumers, because although a lot of the value we add as the legal team is our legal knowledge, it’s also how that applies to the business. Why are we doing it that way? What would happen if we do it that way? That’s really how AOL operates.”

Although he is head of legal, Whall’s role is highly commercial, which is reflected in his approach to the job. The legal work he and his team handles (it keeps most of its legal work in-house) includes in-house or third-party IP rights negotiations and supporting AOL UK’s advertising and marketing teams.

Last year one of the biggest projects was AOL’s involvement in Live 8. This year the major issue has been the roll-out of AOL’s local loop unbundling programme – the famous last mile.

“We’re building a network, the biggest investment AOL has ever made in the UK,” says Whall. He refuses to divulge many details about the project, other than to confirm that Pinsent Masons is advising on it, but it is believed to involve a £120m investment by AOL.

Whall is head of the UK division of AOL, the mammoth internet company that was acquired by media giant Time Warner in 2000. For many, the $350m (£192.1m) deal defined an era of bloated valuations of unproven businesses.

Earlier this year a dispute led by shareholder activist Carl Icahn almost resulted in the break-up of Time Warner and AOL. Many outsiders, most visibly Icahn, have called for such a move, claiming that AOL’s performance post-merger has been disastrous for the media giant.

The US battle seems to have had little effect on the UK end of the business, however. Whall says he read what was going on in the newspapers “with interest”, but had no more inside track than anyone else. There was, he says, no UK involvement.

“One of the things Icahn was talking about was that AOL, as an asset, hadn’t been exploited properly,” says Whall. “From the UK perspective, I can hand-on-heart say that it played no part and made no difference in the way we operated. We’re part of AOL Europe, and that’s an unalloyed good news story for Time Warner.”

As far as Whall is concerned, AOL UK is doing very nicely, thank you.

“The negative press you read about AOL is almost all about the US market,” he insists.

Still, plenty of scope for enthusiasm then. AOL’s potential new owners will be pleased.

Phil Whall
Vice-president and general counsel

Organisation AOL (UK)
Sector Internet
Turnover £500m
Employees 500
Legal capability Eight
Vice-president and general counsel Phil Whall
Reporting to AOL Europe general counsel and senior vice president Tony Wales
Main law firms Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, Pinsent Masons
Phil Whall’s CV Education: Studied botany at Wadham College, Oxford
Work history: 1989 – joined Bristows as technical director; 1993 – gained training contract; 1995 – qualified; 2000 – joined AOL from Bristows