British Press Hunts AltaVista's Elusive CEO

There's a manhunt in Britain - for the chief exec of AltaVista U.K. Andy Mitchell, appointed to run the company's British subsidiary in January, is absent from his post for the second time this summer, and his timing couldn't be worse.

Four national newspapers, a host of consumer magazines, and several British Web sites claim that AltaVista's much-hyped flat-rate Internet service is a fabrication (or at least they can't find anyone who's actually using it, despite the company's claim of 90,000 customers). Mitchell has instructed his spokespeople that he, and he alone, can comment on the service. However, he has been conspicuously absent for three weeks.

"To be honest, we are spending an awful lot of time with AltaVista at the moment, and we acknowledge the damage which is currently being done," says David Hargreaves, director of the AltaVista account for public relations firm Firefly Communications. "Fortunately, our reputation with journalists is such that it's not damaging Firefly per se. They know that we've got our hands tied.

It's hard to comment any more than that." Mitchell made headlines in March when he announced that AltaVista would offer flat-rate Internet access, saving Britons from paying hobbling per-minute charges that have been the norm for Net access in the region. Mitchell won accolades from none other than Prime Minister Tony Blair, who applauded AltaVista for bringing affordable Internet access to the country. The service was supposed to go live on June 30, and the company signed up some 250,000 customers in the months between the announcement and launch.

"The industry needs kick-starting here," Mitchell said proudly in March.

But on June 30, Mitchell was incommunicado (on a boat off the coast of France, his press representatives said). Customers who had signed up for the service were told that demand for the unmetered product meant that AltaVista could roll out the service only gradually. Company representatives told journalists that only Mitchell could comment, and Mitchell, somewhere in the Mediterranean, could not be reached.

June turned into July, and July into August, and there was still no sign of AltaVista's would-be customers getting Internet access. The company said it would have 90,000 of the 250,000 registrants online by the end of July but refused to produce a single customer testimonial to show that this had been accomplished.

British technology humor site the Register put out an open call on its Web site in early August encouraging any users of AltaVista's service to come forward.

That call was taken up by fellow humor site NTK.net. No customers surfaced.

Consumer technology magazines like .Net, Internet magazine and ISP Review called for any of its readers who had been allowed on the service to come forward. The silence was deafening. Four of Britain's largest national newspapers - the Guardian, the Times, the Mirror and the Daily Mail - urged their readers to join the hunt for any of the 90,000 customers AltaVista claimed it was servicing.

"All week we've been asking for anyone who is actually online with AltaVista's free-access package to get in touch," wrote the Mirror's Matt Kelly. "We'd have had more response by asking for volunteers for root canal work." Meanwhile, Mitchell left the country in early August and hasn't responded to press queries since. His spokeswoman at Firefly said that he left three weeks ago, first for some catch-up with the home office in Palo Alto, Calif., and then on a 10-day vacation.

AltaVista Europe, which oversees AltaVista.co.uk, is beginning to worry about what Mitchell's absence is doing to the value of its brand.

"Obviously we're concerned to make sure that the good brand of AltaVista is sustained," says Vesey Crichton, the marketing and strategy director for AltaVista Europe. "We're working right now to come up with a solution that meets everyone's needs." Mitchell joined AltaVista from DoubleClick U.K. in January, even though the two companies had signed a global non-poaching agreement. According to European press reports in June, CMGI (CMGI) , which owns AltaVista, is contemplating a public offering of AltaVista Europe before the end of the year. The company would be valued at $903 million. Mitchell said at the time that AltaVista had a huge opportunity in Europe to "leverage our brand equity." Neither AltaVista Europe's American parent nor CMGI responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Register has taken to paying unannounced visits to AltaVista's London offices in hopes of catching a glimpse of the ephemeral Mitchell, who is expected to return to Britain on Monday.

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