Commentary

With Mayer, Yahoo Chooses Product Over Content

Adweek’s headline reads “Digital Industry Cheers …” and the first observer quoted in the New York Times’ front-page coverage of Google’s Marissa Mayer ascendancy to the CEOship of Yahoo is WPP Group’s CEO Martin Sorrell. He doesn’t say very much of interest, but it’s an interesting choice of commentators to feature.

“It’s a very interesting departure and a very interesting choice,” Sir Martin tells Andrew Ross Sorkin and Evelyn M. Rusli. “She comes with a formidable reputation, but we’ll see how she analyzes it all.”

With more than 700 million users, Yahoo still garners mucho page views but it has generally been criticized for developing too many inferior products and not keeping up with developments such as social media and mobile. 

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“That fact has not been lost on Yahoo’s advertisers,” writes Nicole Perlroth in a separate analysis for the New York Times. “Yahoo, once the biggest seller of display ads in the United States, ceded its crown to Facebook and Google last year.”

Yahoo’s problems with previous CEOs has been widely covered and copiously commented upon.

Mayer, 37, is a Stanford grad with an M.S. in computer science, specializing in artificial intelligence. She worked for UBS and SRI International before joining Google in 1999 as its 20th employee and first female engineer. She is credited with creating much of the "look and feel" of the Google user experience and most recently has been vp in charge of local, maps and location service.

In April, Mayer became one of four women on the board of Wal-Mart Stores, underscoring the retailers’ direction toward ”more digital, more local and a greater mindshare of social media,” as Bloomberg Businessweek reported at the time.

“My focus at Google has been to deliver great end-user experiences, to delight and inspire our end users,” Mayer tells Perlroth. “That is what I plan to do at Yahoo, give the end user something valuable and delightful that makes them want to come to Yahoo every day.”

She “intends to restore Yahoo’s stature as a technological innovator and will not shy away from tough competition to that end,” the Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw and Richard Waters report after an interview. 

“To me, it starts with being relevant to consumers in their everyday lives -- email, search, the homepage and now mobile,” she tells them, “and really innovating in some of the verticals like finance, sports, video and messenger.”

Mayer has been “the public face of Google,” Jeremy C. Owens points out in the San Jose Mercury News, “speaking at prominent events while cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stayed at the office.”

Vik Kathuria, managing partner of corporate strategy and digital investment at GroupM/MediaCom, was not alone in thinking that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn, with strong media and advertising creds, was a lock for the job. Kathuria is also not alone in applauding Mayer’s appointment.

“Wow,” he tellsAdweek’s Tim Peterson. “Having Marissa at the helm now means a return to the core focus on the Yahoo user, not only on the homepage but also in their key verticals ….”

Levinsohn was not talking yesterday but indications are that he will not remain with Yahoo, Kara Swisher reports in a round-up for AllThingsD.

Netscape-developer-turned-venture-capitalist Marc Andreessen tellsBusiness Insider’s Nicholas Carlson that either Mayer or Levinsohn would be an excellent choice and that the decision to go with the former is more an indication that the company is choosing product over content.  

"It's a huge statement on the part of the board that they want the company to be product-led. I say that because they had a great CEO if they wanted to be media-led. It's a huge double down on product."

Mayer covered all bases, of course, in a statement released by Yahoo. "I look forward to working with the company's dedicated employees to bring innovative products, content, and personalized experiences,” she says.  

Mayer also tweeted (@marissamayer) yesterday that she and her husband, attorney-turned-financier Zachary Bogue, are expecting their first child in October. She notified Yahoo directors that she was pregnant a few weeks after first being contacted to interview for the CEO position on June 18. None of them exhibited any concern, she tells Fortune’s Patricia Sellers, showing “their evolved thinking.” 

Mayer was notified that she got the job Thursday and begins at Yahoo today. "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it," she says.

Forbes contributor Robert Hof rounds up the mostly positive reactions of analysts (though Citi’s Mark Mahaney is quoted as worrying that he company is pursuing an aggressive Growth strategy rather than a Value strategy) as well as some former colleagues to the appointment.

Hof -- whose bio reads “I cover the collision of advertising and the Internet” -- suggests that one of the advantages Mayer brings to the job is the fact that she is a “techie, not a marketer,” pointing out that “it seems clear that Yahoo needs strong technical leadership in its executive ranks to compete with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a new wave of startups.”

As for us, we’re firmly standing ground with Sir Martin, who didn’t get to where he is by betraying his hand prematurely. Interesting.

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