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Summary:

Former Google executive Marissa Mayer looks to some like the savior Yahoo and its shareholders have been waiting for. But her focus in the past has been on technology and product development, and that may not be what a media company like Yahoo really needs.

Marissa Mayer

In a bombshell announcement that sent shock waves through the entire technology sector, former Google executive Marissa Mayer has become the new chief executive officer of Yahoo: the fifth CEO the faded web giant has had in five years. Until her appointment was announced on Monday, many believed the company’s interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn, had the best shot at the top job because of his focus on media and the content side of Yahoo’s business, which Yahoo supporters believe is one of its few strengths. Mayer, however, is seen as being much more of a product-oriented and technology-focused manager, someone who came up through the engineering side of Google. What does that say about the future of the company as a media entity?

Much of the response to Mayer’s appointment in the technology blogosphere has had an almost reverential tone, which isn’t surprising, given her track record at Google (where she was employee No. 20). Some seem to believe she can turn Yahoo around simply through sheer force of will or that her status as a former Google executive means she will be able to accomplish things Yahoo’s previous five CEOs weren’t able to. But regardless of her experiences at Google, Mayer faces an enormous set of challenges, and despite her impressive resume it’s not clear she has the skills Yahoo requires if it is going to recover.

Does Mayer know what a media company like Yahoo needs?

One of those skills is an understanding of how a modern, web-based media company works and what is required in order for Yahoo to succeed in that market. Since it has either sold off its other assets — in the case of its search business — or de-emphasized them to the point of irrelevance (as it arguably has with properties such as Flickr), Yahoo as it exists now is primarily an online media company. And Mayer has virtually no experience with anything approaching the media business, unless you consider Google to be a media company whose content consists of search results.

That’s why some believed Levinsohn was the right person for the CEO job, since he has been running Yahoo’s media properties for some time now and comes from a digital-media background. Mike Walrath — a former executive at Doubleclick and the former CEO of digital-advertising company Right Media, which he sold to Yahoo in 2007 for $800 million — said in a blog post about Mayer’s appointment that he doesn’t think the former Google executive is a good fit with Yahoo. As he put it:

A CEO who understands the media opportunity, and understands that in the world of media “good enough” is good enough when it comes to technology, feels like the right leader for Yahoo. That’s what Ross Levinsohn (and his plan) felt like to me, and I think it was going to work.

Walrath’s fear — and that of some others who have been critical of Mayer’s appointment — is the former Google executive is too much of a product-focused and technology-focused person and that those skills aren’t what Yahoo needs right now. Yahoo-watchers may dream of the day when Mayer turns Flickr into the massive photo-sharing success it could have been a decade ago or talk about how she will help Yahoo attract better technology talent, but will any of those things help to ensure the company’s future success? If Mayer is going to focus on building great products, what products might those be?

She could try to focus on media products, but the approach she was known for at Google — where Mayer famously decided what shade of blue Google’s search links should be based on rigorous A/B testing of more than 40 different colors — doesn’t seem like a great fit for that task. As Walrath points out, media isn’t really about technology, so throwing developers at a problem may not be the best solution. Apart from understanding how search engines work, there hasn’t been much actual hard technology behind the rise of new-media giants such as the Huffington Post.

Media companies aren’t necessarily about technology

As Forrester analyst Shar VanBoskirk notes, one of the biggest challenges for Yahoo in the past has been defining exactly what it is. Is it a technology company? Is it an advertising platform? Is it an e-commerce player? Each one of the past five CEOs has had a different vision, and Mayer will need to have one too. But is that the kind of thing she will be able to provide? Says VanBoskirk:

Yahoo! needs a strategic visionary, not a product engineer. Yahoo!’s fundamental problem is that it has too many disparate products with no clear unifying thread that ties them all together. And Mayer’s background is in product development . . . not corporate strategy, not marketing, not brand definition . . . the areas where Yahoo! has the most critical need.

It’s possible Mayer could get up to speed fairly quickly on Yahoo’s media-oriented nature and come up with some innovative solutions to its problems, which for the most part have to do with monetizing the massive portals it has in products like Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Finance. That’s a similar problem to the one that another former Google executive, Tim Armstrong, has been struggling with at AOL, but he hasn’t had much success either, even though he came from the advertising side of Google. Mayer is arguably going to be at an even bigger disadvantage in trying to understand Yahoo’s challenges.

The company could try to buy its way into a financial turnaround, as AOL has done with the acquisition of the Huffington Post and a $150 million investment in its Patch hyperlocal news network: Mayer could acquire a host of niche media players like Vox Media, the Bleacher Report or BuzzFeed and try to use them as the foundation of a new kind of Yahoo media property. But without a vision of where that would take the company, it’s difficult to see such a strategy succeeding, and there are no signs that Mayer has one. Levinsohn does, but it’s not clear whether he is going to stick around or not.

There’s no question Marissa Mayer is a smart and capable manager, and she clearly has an appetite for risk or she wouldn’t have taken the Yahoo job in the first place. But she is going to need more than that in order to turn around a company that has now become the poster child for failure and missed opportunity.

  1. Thomas Vander Wal Tuesday, July 17, 2012

    Yahoo is a mix of media and platform/product. But, to run the media side well the platform and product need to be done right and most of the properties at Yahoo! that are left are long in the tooth and need serious focus on the product and platform side.

    Being a media company takes content and solid delivery. If one of those two is lacking the overall result is poor. Yahoo still has one of the most heavily used email services and it the top finance site and 2nd sports site.

    The addition of Marissa Mayer indicates the understanding that product and platform need focus, which is something she has proven she is capable of getting done as a manager at scale. With this focus sorting out the longer term goals can come into focus. Keep what is still good and profitable running well and to current expectations and beyond is a good thing.

    The addition of Mayer also gives Yahoo credibility again to attract top talent to get what is needed done.

    It will be interesting to watch.

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    1. Thanks, Thomas — I agree that Yahoo probably needs product and platform expertise. But media is also a very specialized kind of product, with unique properties that make it unlike the products Google is familiar with (which is why it mostly sucks at media) and that makes me wonder whether Marissa is the right choice. I agree it will be interesting though — thanks for the comment.

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      1. Not sure I buy the “specialized kind of product” bit. Apple has a dominant position in the media business and got there buy building a successful product/platform. Ross L would never have been able to bring that Yahoo and their media business would be the same with him running Yahoo as it is today.

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      2. Yahoo internally is a morass of homegrown content management systems, apis, formats, and code bases. If Meyer can get the platform streamlined, she will increase the possibilities available to Yahoo as a media company.

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  2. Yahoo needs all the technical help they can get at the top.

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  3. I think she’s good. It would seem that someone used to dealing with gigantic egos and still getting great things done would be a good fit for Yahoo.

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  4. 5 un-technical CEO’s have failed in 5 years.
    I think it’s a quite good move of Yahoo to try Mayer.

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  5. Josh Stearns Tuesday, July 17, 2012

    I’m encouraged by Marissa Mayer’s participation and leadership on the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities – where she and other commissioners traveled the country holding 10 events and public forms and drawing on input from over 100 citizens, educators, community leaders and others.

    The Knight Commission report (http://www.knightcomm.org/), while a few years old, still charts an important public-interest oriented path forward for the future of news and information. Not many tech CEOs have traveled the country listing to and considering the needs of local communities. I hope that experience shapes Mayer’s perspective on the future of Yahoo.

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    1. Thanks, Josh — I didn’t know about that. That’s encouraging. Appreciate the comment.

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  6. Flawed argument. This is the kind of stuff that got Jerry Yang out..I’d bet Yahoo would have been in a much better state if Jerry Yang was still at the helm.

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  7. I think people far too much emphasis on background. Certainly, there’s a learning curve, as I know first-hand moving from IT to Marketing recently, but I’m a firm believer that a smart *leader* can accomplish whatever goal they want so long as they understand how to be a good leader. She is but one individual, certainly the most important in an organization of 18k, but still just one. The most important thing isn’t whether she’s knowledgeable in media, advertising, marketing, content, etc; it’s whether she has the ability to recognize internally and extract externally the top talent she is going to need to transform that organization. I know nothing of her other than what I’ve read in the blogs, but it seems she certainly has a better chance than the last few CEOs they’ve run through there.

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    1. Agreed re too much emphasis on background! Yet it’s one of the only ways of trying to build a prediction, but a bit futile ultimately

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  8. What’s yahoo? comon now, they haven’t been relevant for years. It’s already in the #deadpool

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  9. I think the decision to choose a product person for the next CEO of Yahoo is the right one. The product needs a strategic overhaul, and there’s no reason why Mayer can’t bring in a few people who are media savvy.

    Having said that, it’s always been a little unclear to me what Mayer’s claim to fame was at Google. Employee number 20 and first female employee sounds good, but so what? How does that help the portfolio? It’s also interesting to note that Mayer has been eased out of the Google inner-circle over the past 6-9 months and there are no plans to replace her.

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  10. That quote from Walrath is dominated by, “good enough” which exactly what Yahoo has had enough of. When you shoot for just good enough, you tend to fall way short of even that. Mayer’s perfectionism and attention to giving users a great experience is exactly what this company needs. And it’s that kind of work that will again attract the talent that has been leaving Yahoo in droves.

    Yahoo has had their CEOs with media, corporate strategy, and marketing backgrounds and that hasn’t done much for the company. Ross, with all his talents, would have just been another cog in that wheel and a year (or less) later, we’d all be talking about the new CEO following him.

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