I try to let big news percolate for a few days before weighing in, and it seems even more appropriate to follow that playbook when it came to the scrum around Marissa Mayer joining Yahoo.
Yes, I’ve known both Marissa Mayer (and Ross Levinsohn) professionally, for more than a decade, but so do many other folks, and it seems nearly all of them – Steven Levy and Kara Swisher intelligently among them – have weighed in, multiple times, on what this all means. If you want a rundown, just search for “Marissa Mayer” in Google News.
The coverage has taken its usual course from “Holy Shit!” to “What Will Happen to Ross?” to “Wait, Is Mayer Right for the Job” to “Here’s Our Advice/The Things That Need to Be Fixed/What Mayer’s Focus Should Be” types of pieces.
This won’t really be any of those. Instead, I find myself thinking about the things I’ve not really seen much coverage of, at least in depth. And true to what I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, they all come down to the intersection of media and technology, and the role marketing plays in that landscape.
When I spoke to Mayer after she was named CEO, I asked the question, almost as a joke – “So is Yahoo! a media or a technology company?” She was quick to respond that she just does not get the debate – of course it’s both. What matters, she pressed, is creating great products that surprise and delight Yahoo! customers.
I couldn’t agree more, yet there is an important nuance here – just who *are* Yahoo’s customers?
Let me step back here and posit something that might upset more than a few of you: Yahoo has two sets of customers, and of course the “end user” is one of them. But the other is the marketer. And media companies – or “tech companies driven by media revenues,” or however else one might want to phrase it – sometimes ignore this fact at their peril.
I’ll let those of you who find such a statement anathema go ahead and click away – here’s a nice unicorn chaser if you’d like – or you can flame me in the comments (I do respond to most, as long as they’re in English and don’t employ more than the occasional insult).
But those of you who’ve continued to read probably know that I believe, deeply, that commercial publishing is a conversation between three key parties: The reader (or viewer), the publisher/content creator, and the marketer. And while it’s generally been true that this conversation has been all kinds of broken during much of the web’s history, the truth is, it needn’t be that way. Six years ago (!) I wrote a series of posts describing the rise of conversational media and imploring that marketers learn to join the conversation. I think it’s fair to say that this is happening, at scale.
Beyond the contributions of pioneers like Federated Media (yes, I had to plug us), the rise of “native” advertising formats is proof of this. Twitter’s promoted suite is one growing example, as is Facebook’s Sponsored Stories (and its attendant focus on getting brands to be true publishers on the Facebook platform). Pinterest, WordPress (in partnership with FM), and Tumblr are hard at work on “native” solutions for their services as well. All of these advertising solutions pale, however, in comparison to the original “native” advertising format of the Web: Google AdWords.
Many have pointed out that Mayer’s principle weakness, when compared to Levinsohn, is her lack of traditional media and marketing chops. I can say from very deep experience that the marketing business is very much a relationship business – CMOs and agency leaders live in a world driven by ideas, creative and content – and they want to know the people who they do business with, and trust them in a way that is difficult to model algorithmically. Mayer’s detractors point out that she’s not spent much time wooing Madison Avenue, or dealing with the inevitable headaches born of the complex, people-driven businesses that are agencies, marketing clients, and content partners.
While there is some truth in this criticism, I think it overlooks a few things. First and foremost, Mayer is a very fast study, and she already knows how important the traditional media business is to Yahoo. Hell, a quick overview of the company’s financials bears this out, as does a visit to any of its properties, which are dominated by advertising. Yahoo may have a lot of technology behind the covers, but its products are nearly all media products – content intended to gather an audience and provide a place for marketers to message to that audience. More than half of Yahoo’s revenues come from “display” advertising, most of the rest comes from search, which is also marketer driven.
Secondly, Mayer will be a big draw of talent, and not just engineering talent. She understands that if she can’t retain Levinsohn and/or his recent CRO Michael Barrett (I certainly hope she can), she’ll need to attract top tier media minds to the business. And I think she’ll succeed at doing just that.
But to me, the thing many are missing is that Mayer will bring her fanatical product focus to more than just Yahoo’s consumer-facing media offerings. She’ll also be staring at the company’s advertising products, and asking this simple question: How can we do better?
To answer that question, Mayer will need to do more than study the data (though of course, that will be important). She’ll need to sit down with a wide swath of Yahoo’s marketing customers and ask them what they want from their investment in her platform. She’ll hear an awful lot of conflicting advice, but it’s in the bricollage from all the feedback that the best ideas come out. Mayer can’t afford to immediately tack away from all those boxes and rectangles cluttering up the Yahoo! experience, nor should she – it turns out that display advertising does indeed work for marketers. But the larger question remains: Can we do better?
The answer lies in executing the subtle and ongoing iterative work of true digital publisher – improving the core product experience both sets of customers – consumers of the media experience, as well as marketers looking to be part of that experience in a more native fashion. And again, from a quick study of Yahoo’s products, there’s plenty of improvements to be made.
An important and related part of the work ahead for Mayer and her team will be deciding what role ad tech and search will play in Yahoo’s future. Despite purchasing Right Media back in 2007, Yahoo has never been seen as a leader in ad tech, and word on the street in the weeks prior to Mayer’s ascension was that Yahoo was about to outsource its ad technology platform to market leader Google. Of course, such a move is fraught with regulatory and business implications. And Mayer may well decide it’s in Yahoo’s best interest to invest in own its own destiny when it comes to the machine-driven world of ad serving and programmatic audience buying. But trust me, what Yahoo does here will be an extremely important directional indicator.
Which brings us to search. It’s been widely reported that Yahoo’s 2009 deal to outsource core search to Microsoft hasn’t worked out as well as either party wished it would. Given how important search is to Yahoo overall, and how deeply knowledgeable Mayer is in this particular field, I’d expect big changes in Yahoo Search. The company recently unveiled a new search product called “Axis,” which seems like a neat idea but feels a bit too complicated for most consumers to really grok. Mayer will likely take Occam’s Razor to search, and I expect the results will be quite positive.
But it’s the other side of Yahoo’s revenue equation – the branded display market – where Mayer will face her greatest challenges, and find her biggest opportunities. Yahoo isn’t a startup like Pinterest, Tumblr, or even Twitter, where founders can leverage massive user growth to raise enough capital to “figure out how best to implement appropriate native marketing solutions.” Yahoo is nearly 20 years old, and it’s got a very deep, tangled, and somewhat tarnished brand in the minds of its best advertising customers. It’s true that creating world-beating consumer-facing products will go a long way toward fixing that brand. But those products must be informed by – and even created for – both sets of customers – the consumers of content, as well as those who pay for them to be created in the first place.