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Business Analysis & Features

Dana Dunne: AOL chief keeps the personal touch as he integrates Bebo

A Day in the Life: Dana Dunne is spreading the word about AOL and its $850m purchase of Bebo, a move that he sees as a return to AOL's roots


The beginning of Dana Dunne's day will be familiar to many. After his alarm chimes he spends five minutes or so with his eyes closed in bed, wishing he could return to slumber. Unlike those who then stumble into the kitchen in a dressing gown looking for coffee, however, Mr Dunne quickly blows his cobwebs away, changing into his running gear and warming up with a stretch. He runs marathons and takes the training very seriously.

Every morning will start with a work-out along the Thames towpath, near his Fulham home, 45 minutes for distance training, 20 to 25 minutes if he is doing sprints. "I train quite seriously, and one of the things you learn is to vary your training. The length of the run depends on whether I'm doing distance or sprint work. In the summer the towpath is a lovely dirt track. In the winter it's a mud bath," he laughs.

The run, he says, gives him thinking time, and he will have a lot to think about today. Despite the general doom and gloom about all things financial, AOL has suddenly decided to get busy, and Mr Dunne has overseen its expansion into a string of new countries in Europe in double-quick time. Centre stage is the $850m (£417m) purchase of the teenagers' online social networking site of choice: Bebo.


After another stretch, Mr Dunne will get together with his family for breakfast. "We spend a brief amount of time just talking, either about yesterday or today, what the children are doing on the school day, or about something on the news, because my wife will have the radio on," explains Mr Dunne. He leaves for work an hour later for the short car journey to AOL's European headquarters in Hammersmith.

He says he likes to listen to the football news on Radio Five on the way – Mr Dunne might be an American but his 15-year-old son is a huge fan of the English form of the game, and he refers to the sport by its proper title rather than resorting to "soccer".

"My son is mad about it, so I try to catch up with the football news so I can engage with him," he says.


Mr Dunne arrives at his office. He spends the first part of the day on informal calls with people reporting directly to him, but says he also takes a tour of the office to meet different people. Despite running an IT company, he much prefers personal, face-to-face ways of communicating rather than technology.

"I like to just go and see people as opposed to having people come to my office. I'm quite spontaneous. If you do everything by email you lose the connection with people," he says.

The most important meeting this morning will be with operational director Jonathan Lister. He describes Europe as "massively" important to AOL and says of Mr Lister: "Jonathan is at the core of our services and products, so I want to know how we are doing with our customers. It might be our search, it might be email, it could be the content pages, for example."

There is a particularly pressing issue today – his son found the AOL link through to a football result did not work. "Football is a key page driver, and it didn't have the result up there, the link was down," he explains.

Mr Dunne actually spends quite a lot of his time perusing websites, and claims: "My son and his friends think I have this great job because I spend so much time during the day looking at cool stuff."


Mr Dunne assembles his senior management team to brief them on Bebo, talking them through the rationale of a deal that has got people paying attention to AOL again after several fairly traumatic years following the merger with Time Warner. "I discuss the rationale, what it means to AOL, our employees and to our customers," says Mr Dunne.

He describes the purchase as "a return to AOL's roots". "Chatrooms are what AOL was all about. They were really the creator of chatrooms, profiles, buddy lists, that was really the beginning of social networking, and to bring AOL back to that is bringing it back to the roots. It is part of the DNA of the company, what the company believes in. So the employees were ecstatic, they understood the rationale for it."

He dismisses critics who wonder whether, given Bebo's youthful user profile, it will generate the sort of ad revenues needed to make the site a worthwhile purchase for such a substantial sum. "Advertisers still want to target them [teenagers]. They do spend lots of money targeting the youth market, and over time what was once youth someday becomes more established and evolve to another stage of their lives. This is the perfect medium to get to them. This part of the marketplace is disproportionately engaged online, and advertisers love these sort of people. They spend more time online than they spend watching television. If I'd said that to you five years ago, you'd have thought I was crazy. You wouldn't have believed it, but that is what has happened." He is coy, however, on how AOL wants to develop the site.


It's lunchtime and Mr Dunne has gathered a group of employees who joined over the past two months, putting himself up for questions and answers in a meeting room at the company's offices.

AOL is a very different beast now from when its ubiquitous start-up CDs were so common they were used by some as coasters and attracted the ire of environmentalists. The company sold its UK internet service provider to Carphone Warehouse, and is now concentrating on its "web portal" operation and ad repping businesses – whereby it fills space on a plethora of sites with ads. Many of its people have changed, too. Of the lunch, Mr Dunne says: "I like to get each of them to introduce themselves and tell me what their favourite cartoon was when they were a kid."

He actually trained at the fearsome management consultancy McKinsey, which churns out business leaders in the same way that Australia churns out world-class cricketers. It's a fair bet that he was never asked his favourite childhood cartoon at lunches there, but he says: "Once you get the child out, it brings the barriers down. It's a great ice-breaker."


Mr Dunne now has to shoot a marketing video, extolling the virtues of AOL's ad-repping services to clients. "I want to review what we are doing, but it's important to me that we actually get the product to be better than the perception of the product," he says. "So I will also spend time talking about that."

He also has a meeting with a major client to discuss business. He then takes another walkabout, before calling Ariel Eckstein, who has been at the centre of the company's move into the eight new countries, Spain, Italy, Sweden Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Poland.

He will also take time out for a snack – the running keeps him rake thin, but he says the energy expended means he is constantly snacking throughout the day.


It is time to discuss the company's office refurbishment plans. Mr Dunne talks of making AOL "a fun environment". He wants to install at least one Nintendo Wii (he's gained a passion for the console from his son) and give the café a "Starbucks kind of feel". He won't leave until at least 7.30pm, heading home for dinner with his family.

The CV

Name: Dana Dunne

Age: 44

Job: Chief executive, AOL Europe

Personal: Married with a son and a daughter


1988-1990: Wharton Business School (MBA); University of Pennsylvania School of Arts (MA). Fellow of Joseph H Lauder Institute.

1987-1988: Postgraduate school in Madrid

1981-1985: BA Economics, Wesleyan University, Connecticut, US



2007 to present: CEO, AOL Europe

2005-2007: Head of AOL transformation programme (Dulles, US)

WebTV Europe

2001-2005: Chairman and acting CEO of mobile music and private investment company (London)


2001: President of retail, domestic and international carrier services unit for Belgian telco (Brussels)

1999-2001: MD of business division (Brussels)

US West International

1999: President and VP strategy development (Denver, US)

1997-1999: VP strategy development (Denver)

McKinsey & Co

1990-1997: Telecoms consultant (London, Brussels, Madrid)

JP Morgan Chase

1985-1987: Assistant treasurer (New York, US)