Keeping a secret is a mighty task in a time when whispers are heard ‘round the world but Yahoo pulled one off by naming Google executive Marissa Mayer as its new CEO. While not an obscure choice, Mayer is a less than obvious one with her engineering and product skill set more of a match for Yahoo’s needs a decade ago rather than its current needs as a technology-based media company. For all its strengths, no one would claim media was one of Google’s strong suits.
On the other hand Mayer brings a lot to the table: great presence, a strong technology background, proven product successes and knowledge of the Silicon Valley power game. But for Yahoo, that’s half the battle as the company has become divided with its media minds based in Santa Monica and its engineering/product talent in Sunnyvale. With its publicly pronounced shift toward media, the smart money was on Ross Levinsohn to move from interim to fulltime CEO. Passed over twice (the previous time as part of the Scott Thompson debacle) for the top spot, it will take a minor miracle for Levinsohn to stay, but locking Ross in as media chief should be Mayer’s first order of business. Ross has brought in some key media minds such as Mickie Rosen to build a winning strategy at the Santa Monica office, and his departure would likely result in a leadership exodus that would be very damaging to the company’s media strategy.
Given her credentials, Mayer will be given a brief honeymoon period after which pundits and cognoscenti alike (not to the mention the board and Wall Street) will want to see some tangible results in the form of a new product or service that helps restore Yahoo’s long-dormant image as an innovator. But are underachieving products and services or lack of innovation the reason for Yahoo’s malaise? If you look at the numbers, Yahoo still is powerful in news, sports and finance and has pulled off some successful “tentpole” events such as the Royal Wedding. This line of analysis suggests two possibilities: one is that Yahoo is just in need of solid leadership to create a unified organization marching somewhat in step or, and this is not good news, while still financially viable, Yahoo’s time as a industry icon has come and gone and even one of Google’s top minds cannot fix what has gone down in the court of public opinion. If the issue is the former, and Mayer is able to pull off a turnaround, she is a first ballot tech industry hall of famer.