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@ pcAds: Levinsohn: AOL Merger Is Not Part Of Our Discussion At Yahoo

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Between having its CEO unceremoniously ousted by the board and current talk of a major ad alliance with AOL (NYSE: AOL) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) has made the headlines a lot more than usual lately.

Ross Levinsohn, EVP, Americas, Yahoo, sat down with paidContent editor Staci D. Kramer at the paidContent Advertising conference at the *Time* Life Building in New York, to deliver two messages. One: Yahoo is doing better than you think. Two: Don’t make too much out of a tighter combination with AOL, but don’t rule out further tie-ups, either.

There has also been a lot of talk about Levinsohn, the former News Corp. (NSDQ: NWS) digital exec who helped Rupert Murdoch invest about $1 billion on digital, succeeding Carol Bartz as CEO. But he waved off such rumors, saying he currently has the best job at the portal.

He made a big point of playing down the effect of Bartz’s abrupt departure last week, calling the executive team — all essentially Bartz appointees, including Levinsohn himself — “self-sufficient,” and therefore more immune to the changes it’s seeing at the very top. “If you’re transforming, it means you’re still in business,” he said.

“Yahoo is the most humble company I’ve worked for,” he said. “We need a little bravado in our staff.. .a little swagger.”

Levinsohn acknowledged that Yahoo didn’t manage to hit its numbers last quarter — “I didn’t set those numbers” — but added that the company is on target to make $3.5 billion in revenue this year in the U.S. “We’re growing, and we’ll continue to grow,” he said.

More stats and key points from Levinsohn’s talk:

AOL merger? Doesn’t sound like it. Although Yahoo is looking to launch an ad alliance with Microsoft and AOL — reported yesterdayit is not a prelude to a closer tie-up with rival AOL.

“In the old days, in this building, you would say that talk of AOL and Yahoo sells magazines — these days, it leads to clicks,” Levinsohn said. “But it’s not a big part of our focus. The opportunity is to increase the value of our inventory. As a partner of the agencies, I’d like to make it easier for them to buy premium advertising.”

Page views: He said that last month Yahoo had a little over 40 billion pageviews. Yahoo’s bigger task these days, in fact, doesn’t seem to be about driving more traffic — although it wouldn’t hurt — but about monetizing that traffic. That will mean getting people to spend more time on Yahoo sites, too. Minutes spent on Yahoo sites have grown 11 percent month-on-month, he said.

Hulu: A tie-up with Hulu — whose CEO, Jason Kilar, has been floated by some as a successor to Bartz — could be one way of getting more sticky users. Levinsohn did not outright deny that it has been exploring a union.

“You know my appreciation for Jason,” he said. “I know how hard it was to get Hulu started. The big old media companies should be applauded to have started something that is pretty revolutionary… I think Hulu is a terrific asset.” A Hulu tie-up makes a lot of sense for the kind of Yahoo that Levinsohn likes to tout to advertisers: he pointed out that Yahoo already makes nine of the top 10 original video content programs — something you can imagine it would like to reinforce.

Yahoo’s biggest property right now? News. It gets 81 million uniques and six billion pageviews. The average user on Yahoo News spends over an hour a month there. Yahoo Sports has been growing for almost four years. Year over year, it’s up – almost 60 percent from a huge base.

As with other parts of the Yahoo portfolio, it is putting a huge emphasis on putting more original content on those pages. Levinsohn noted that its University of Miami scandal story generated more pageviews for a single investigative piece than it has ever had before. Its Fantasy Football pages have reached record numbers for Yahoo: five million people more on them this year than before.

Right now, to put an ad on to Yahoo’s sports pages during, say, the height of an NFL football game, “You would need to spend in the significant six figures [range],” he said.

Lessons from his News Corp. days: “That was a different company, with different needs. News Corp. allowed me to see what the opportunities were, as they were trying to get deeper into the internet. 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.”

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