Levinsohn's Expertise Can Transform Yahoo
Clearly, ailing big media needs him more.
Cashing out of start-up and mid-stage investments has been challenging in a languishing economy for companies such as Fuse Capital, which Levinsohn helped build into a $1.5 billion interactive media portfolio. It recently sold the entrepreneurial blog site True /Slant to Forbes and includes Next New Networks and Publish2.
As Yahoo's new executive vice president of American operations, Levinsohn will waste no time bringing more interactive technology, social and hyper-local commerce elements to Yahoo's underrated $6 billion-plus platform and 640 million unique visitors to strengthen its advertising and content hand. He won't be shy about tapping his broad media experience and contacts to attract new talent and partnerships to the world's biggest Web portal.
While Levinsohn is declining interviews about his new gig, sources say that's what he's discussing with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, after being contacted by headhunters about the job. Yahoo has been beset by a parade of high-profile executive departures and a languishing ad business. Takeover speculation has been revived -- this time about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong reportedly speaking with investment bankers about merging his rebranded Internet service with Yahoo.
But Levinsohn is a builder.
The nine-person team he built from scratch at Fox Interactive has yielded seven major chief executives, including Twitter president Adam Bain. The two men remain good friends, raising the prospects for Yahoo to at least speak with the popular micro blog about what they can accomplish together. Levinsohn was building out MySpace (from 17 million to 80 million strong) as part of Fox Interactive's new presence when cost and other constraints prompted him to leave News Corp. and the heavy hand of CEO Rupert Murdoch.
Ironically, his former Fuse partner, Jonathan Miller, now oversees Fox Interactive and other News Corp. businesses as its digital chief. Just last week, MySpace announced plans to revamp as an entertainment portal targeting consumers ages 13 to 35.
It is not clear whether Levinsohn will remain as a limited partner of Fuse, as Miller did initially, after starting with Yahoo in November. Miller and Levinsohn, who remain close friends, are likely to operate as both allies and adversaries in the fast moving media marketplace.
In a conversation I had with him several months ago, Levinsohn talked about how the dynamics of all media are changing. That digital revolution is coupled with the looming generational change in leadership at News Corp. and Viacom, and the mega merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
As mobile interactivity becomes the universal platform, all content production and distribution players will be forced to shift into digital mode. That presents risks and opportunities for broadcast and cable networks, cable system operators, Internet search and content aggregators. That means bold new partnerships, consolidation, business models.
Levinsohn can utilize his 15 years in the Internet trenches and his cutting-edge understanding of those new dynamics to move Yahoo into the center of the action, positioning it as a more relevant player -- provided the mighty Bartz doesn't get in the way.
Yahoo recently outsourced its search business to Microsoft and is focused on building email and instant messaging, which could begin to pale in the shadow of mobile texting, unofficially American's favorite pastime.
The real challenge will be finding ways to use social media and hyper-local interaction to forge new interactive marketing that takes advertising to the next level - and eventually to e-transactions.
Levinsohn has talked for years about the need to build a new commercial media platform buttressed by interactive marketing and content subscription fees. That is likely to include bringing Yahoo back into the interactive TV arena (where it made a weak start some years ago). Toward that end, it could work with Best Buy or other companies with whom Fuse has recently partnered.
It's a great time to be a scale player with resources to experiment and innovate, Levinsohn told me recently. "Two years ago, that was real time and social games. Now it is social recommendations, search, emerging platforms, synched with mobility. Mobile digital with physical retail becoming more relevant to users," Levinsohn said last month.
If digital manages to realign the time and money spent on marketing and content, then Levinsohn will find a way to capitalize on it. He would have done the same with MySpace and News Corp.'s $1 billion digital investment, before leaving in 2006, had he not become frustrated with a lack of enterprise autonomy to complete the build out of Fox Interactive.
This time, he's playing outside the traditional media box. Somehow I can imagine Levinsohn saying, "Bring it on."