Yesterday's announcement that co-Founder Jerry Yang would take over as CEO from Terry Semel signaled a return to leadership for the man who originally persuaded Mr. Semel to head the company in 2001. Former Yahoo Chief Financial Officer Sue Decker, who in December was handed reins to the publisher and advertiser group, was named president.
Traditional media company
Mr. Yang, writing publicly on the company blog yesterday, addressed a few of the concerns about the company -- not the least of which is that it's looking like, well, a slow traditional media company. The joint vision of Mr. Yang and Ms. Decker, he wrote, is "a Yahoo! that executes with speed, clarity and discipline. A Yahoo! that increases its focus on differentiating its products and investing in creativity and innovation."
But advertisers are still a bit skeptical, if only because they want to see change instead of only hearing about it -- and they know that Mr. Yang will need to stimulate a company that has had trouble attracting talent and invigorating its troops.
"Externally, my worry is Yahoo is still using a print metaphor," said Chan Suh, whose recent career trajectory follows Mr. Yang's a bit. Mr. Suh recently returned to helming day-to-day operations as CEO at the interactive shop he founded, Agency.com. He also noted the trend among portals is to act as a cultural rather than an informational destination, which was the principle Yahoo originally was based on.
"People are promiscuous about portals. ... They don't necessarily want to go to one place that has a little of everything," he said.
While Mr. Semel moved Yahoo into the media business and won praise for making it the most advertiser-friendly portal in the digital space, that doesn't necessarily fit within the current trend, said Jeff Marshall, senior VP-digital managing director at Starcom/Pixel. In an e-mail interview, he noted "the current trend for digital media companies is to swing back toward an emphasis on their users and what they want beyond content. The vision is to marry tools [such as] search, IM, email, etc., communities [such as] Flickr, Answers, etc. and content in ways that build audience and usage."
Mr. Yang, who has a technology background, co-founded Yahoo in 1995 with David Filo as Ph.D. candidates at Stanford. He has for the past several years shared the title of "chief Yahoo" with Mr. Filo and was instrumental in luring Mr. Semel to the company in 2001. In the past year, Mr. Semel's priority has been on implementing Panama, a quality-based search system that was meant to make Yahoo more money per click.
Even as recently as March Mr. Semel was dismissing talk that he would soon leave the company, but shareholders have grown increasingly rankled at a stock price that they didn't believe reflected the value of Yahoo's audience. In Wall Street's eyes, Mr. Yang seems right for the job, garnering praise from several analysts.
One former Yahoo-er wondered if Mr. Yang would, in fact, push innovation, citing a reluctance by the portal to pursue a maps product similar to one rival Google offers. But others, including Ed Montes, a Yahoo vet now at Media Contacts, said when Mr. Semel came on board Yahoo actually pared back its product development.
Mr. Montes called Mr. Yang a "charismatic person and leader" and said that when he was at the company there was a great affinity for him. Still, he noted, "Now you're talking about more than 10,000 employees ... it's very different being a leader of a company at that [early] point than it is now. Will his style carry him through that?"
"For Jerry, internally, it's about setting a direction, getting people to subscribe to it and conducting it with clarity and honesty," Mr. Suh said. "To have success internally ... people need to feel supported and empowered. They need to be able to make deals without having to kick it upstairs."
"School is out for Jerry now and he has learned a ton; he is a smart guy with great instincts," said Gaston Legorburu, chief creative officer at Sapient. "Consider Steve Jobs coming back to Apple. People are already reinvigorated at the Yahoo campus."
But several questions remain: Why anoint Mr. Yang instead of Ms. Decker, who was long-suspected to be the heir to the throne? And does the management change alter the likelihood that Yahoo might one day be part of Microsoft? Many have suggested Yahoo is more valuable broken up -- or as part of a larger entity, be it Microsoft, eBay or even cable company Comcast. Acquisition rumors would explain why Mr. Yang may have accepted the job after much speculation that he only wanted it on an interim basis, something he denied yesterday.
"The great thing about an e-business is it's a lot easier to retool than a manufacturer," said Mr. Suh. "I think Jerry can do it if he doesn't try to do it all himself, if he empowers people to do it."