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Summary:

Ross Levinsohn has a lot of new responsibilities as interim CEO of Yahoo but one of the most important roles is as salesman-in-chief. He not only has to pitch the media company to advertisers — he has to sell the image of what Yahoo does right.

Ross Levinsohn
photo: Yahoo

Ross Levinsohn, appointed Sunday as interim CEO, doesn’t have to learn Yahoo — he’s spent the last 18 months immersed in it.

And he doesn’t have to learn digital media — from helping to create online sports powerhouses at CBS Sportsline and Fox, to building a $1 billion-plus digital portfolio for Rupert Murdoch, to launching and investing companies through his own private equity fund, he’s covered the digital media waterfront and then some.

He’s Hollywood and Santa Monica but he speaks fluent Silicon Valley.

Most important, he knows Yahoo is a media company — and he knows how to sell it that way. Of all the things he found when he joined Yahoo in late 2010, the most disconcerting was how much the company was doing right and how very bad it was at making that count. Here’s how he put it during an interview with paidContent last year as he emerged from a quiet period:

“I spent six months digging into the company making sure I’m not crazy — and I’m not crazy.

“Yahoo is the premier digital company in the world and embracing that isn’t a hard thing to do. That’s just fact-based. Tell me what other type of media can sit with you and say ‘I’ve got the top 19 #1 or #2 newspapers, I’ve got the top 20 shows, I’ve got the 19 of the top 20 radio stations, 19 of the top 20 magazines’?

“Duh. But you have to fully embrace that. You can’t half-ass that.”

Last fall, he took the stage at paidContent Advertising to pitch the company. The interview came just days after Carol Bartz, who hired him to head media and ad sales for The Americas, was fired. At the time, he was considered a leading internal candidate for CEO. He talked about Yahoo’s need for “a little bravado, a little swagger”:

“Yahoo is a huge, mature, gigantic business. Some of that is overlooked right now. Businesses grow at different rates. We’re 16 years old and we’ve been on top for 15 years. It’s hard to maintain that. When you think of entertainment and gossip, you think of TMZ, but OMG is twice as big with 30 million users a month and still growing. But no one knows that.”

Levinsohn’s biggest coup at News Corp. was acquiring MySpace from under Viacom’s nose for $580 million in 2005. In hindsight, given how MySpace panned out, perhaps it was anything but a coup — but, at the time, it was transformative, and as big a statement as News Corp. could make about being in the digital game.

Here’s how Levinsohn described it when we talked about why MySpace wasn’t a fit for Yahoo in 2011:

“We bought a social networking site in 2005, before anyone knew what social networking was and now look at where social networking is — so if you look at the trendline we were way head of the game.

“When we bought it, it was doing about $1 million a month; 24 months later we were on a run rate to do $500 million a year. You’d have to say that was a pretty good trajectory.

“Users went from, when we bought it, to 70,000 signups a day (which I thought was astounding), to the month I left about 450,000 signups a day. So again, trajectory, unbelievable.”

Levinsohn was replaced at Fox Interactive when it switched from M&A to operating mode. He’s been battling against perceptions ever since that that he’s not an ops guy.

In addition to rebuilding the internal sales organization and partnering with AOL and Microsoft in a digital sales alliance, and with his top media exec Mickie Rosen setting up a series of high-profile original content deals, Levinsohn has been out telling that story. Not the one of the company that can’t shoot straight — the one about the media company at its core.

Since then, he’s interviewed Tom Hanks to promote a new Yahoo original, been on stage with Katie Couric at the Yahoo digital upfront last month and a few days later being photographed with Sophia Vergara during the White House Correspondents Dinner festivities. He upgraded and expanded an existing relationship with ABC News.

Levinsohn hasn’t left M&A behind but he insists Yahoo doesn’t need a big acquisition to fix its problems, although, if he could have found a way, Hulu would be a Yahoo property. Look at him to focus on making the pieces Yahoo already has fit better, pick up tuck-in acquisitions — and finally decide whether Yahoo should be in the ad tech business or sell it.

Until now, everything he’s done at Yahoo has been in the shadow of CEOs making the final decisions on resources and setting the overall tone. Now — at least for the interim — Yahoo is Levinsohn’s Pottery Barn. He told Yahoos in a lengthy internal e-mail Sunday:

“I know there is one thing we should definitely all be doing in light of this news, and that is to focus on the momentum we’ve created over the last few months.

“Many of you have heard me talk about the possibilities we have, and about the opportunities in front of us. In spite of the very bumpy road we’ve traveled, we are achieving genuine and meaningful successes in the marketplace every day and heading in the right direction.”

What he’ll have to decide now is whether to spend the next months acting as CEO or auditioning for it. Here’s Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt’s advice, following a Forbes piece by outspoken Yahoo shareholder and tech writer Eric Jackson:

And, yes, that is the same Richard Rosenblatt who was the CEO that sold MySpace to News Corp., then bought back some of the pieces that helped build Demand Media.

  1. I know Levinsohn very well since our days at AltaVista, the first full text search engine (before Google, yes). He was horrid at AltaVista. When I learned that he was running things at Fox Interactive Media which is essentially myspace, I kept chuckling. Look where myspace is now (what about AltaVista). Yahoo is doomed with this all-talk useless executive.

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  2. Yahoo is a media company? That started under Terry and look at where their stock is now compared to then.

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    1. Staci D. Kramer Monday, May 14, 2012

      Yahoo as a media company didn’t really start with Terry but that is when it went more towards to the entertainment concept.

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  3. @Sam – was there at AltaVista with both you and Ross during those days. Not only horrid, but rampantly aloof and, towards the end, unethical in co-ordinating his departure. Half Hollywood / Santa Monica and half Silicon Valley translates into a power grabbing fame-whore.

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  4. Pulleasseee! How about some reporting. You know – journalism. The kind where you talk to actual director-levels he’s worked with! People he’s managed and find out what they are saying about him – his track record – and a very different “fail-forward” portrait emerges…

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