Agency Execs Optimistic About Yahoo's New Sales Leader

Former WaPo Exec Kevin Gentzel 'Could Be a Welcome Change'

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has hired help to pitch its premium ads
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has hired help to pitch its premium ads

A year ago Yahoo hired former AOL sales exec Ned Brody as Head of Americas in part to shore up the portal's programmatic problem. Now it's given Mr. Brody a deputy to tend to its brand advertising troubles.

Earlier this week Yahoo said that it had hired Washington Post Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel as VP-head of advertising sales for North America. Atop his task list will be reversing Yahoo's display ad declines and reigniting interest from brand advertisers in the portal's most lucrative ads. Agency execs think he should be up to the job.

Yahoo "is a whole different world and a different stage, but I think he could be a welcome change," said DigitasLBi chief investment officer Adam Shlachter.

Heading into next week's third-quarter earnings report, Yahoo is on the verge of going two years without recording year-over-year display ad revenue growth in a quarter. And its display ad rates have been in a tailspin since the fourth quarter of 2012.

A year ago Yahoo was plagued by programmatic. Advertisers' adoption of buying ads through computer-run auctions at bottom-dollar prices had undercut its display revenue and ad rates. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer admitted as much during last year's second-quarter earnings call.

Enter Mr. Brody. As head of AOL's ad-tech arm, he had prepared the portal for the programmatic uprising and turned it into a legitimate revenue stream. In the second quarter of this year, AOL made more money from its ad-tech business selling ads on others' sites than from display ads or search ads sold on its own properties.

He -- along with Yahoo's senior VP-advertising technology Scott Burke -- has started to put Yahoo on a similar path since joining the company last September, though its ad technology is still widely considered to lag competitors' like Google's. Earlier this year Yahoo began to sell its so-called native Stream Ads -- branded slots placed within an editorial content feed -- programmatically through its Yahoo Gemini marketplace. In the second quarter of this year, Stream Ads accounted for 40% of the ads Yahoo ran, but at the expense of its premium ads.

Now the issue is Yahoo's struggle to sell brand advertisers on its so-called premium ad products, like takeover ads on its homepage and branded-content slots on its digital magazines. Ms. Mayer said during the company's second-quarter earnings call in July that a "lower than expected contribution from premium advertising" was partially to blame for its lagging display revenue.

Mr. Brody may be considered a programmatic expert and a operational specialist, but he is not known to be a salesman, according to agency execs. But now he has Mr. Gentzel, who will be reporting directly to him.

"Unfortunately [Yahoo has] had some inconsistency in their sales leadership for a few years now," Mr. Shlachter said.

Throughout the aughts, Yahoo's sales org was led by a string of successful sales execs, including Wenda Harris Millard, Joanne Bradford and Ross Levinsohn. But under Ms. Mayer, Yahoo's sales team has been run by execs such as Mr. Brody and ousted COO Henrique De Castro, both of whom agency execs describe as "ops guys" whose skills are better suited to managing internal matters than winning over advertisers.

That's where Mr. Gentzel comes in. With a résumé that spans traditional media titans like The Washington Post and Forbes as well as digital media upstarts like online video service News Distribution Network, Mr. Gentzel has a history of pitching premium ads.

The same year he took over as Forbes' revenue chief, the publisher rolled out its BrandVoice product, which back then was called "advertorial" but is now part of the so-called "native" advertising trend. He oversaw the introduction of a similar ad product at The Washington Post as well as the creation of the paper's in-house creative agency.

Mr. Gentzel's experience at The Washington Post and Forbes working with print advertisers and negotiating large-scale deals with deep-pocketed advertisers and agencies should be an asset, said Jitka Petrickova, managing partner of MEC's West division. "Budgets over time are not inflatable. For Yahoo to grow share [of ad spending], it has to come from other means than digital advertisers. It takes a person with the understanding of how these processes work," she said.

"It's part of his heritage, working with brands in big ways, around content, to activate around tentpole and marquee events. He's done it with some of the biggest brands at the time when Forbes was in its heyday, and this would present new opportunities to continue that," said Mr. Shlachter.

But Mr. Gentzel may need to sell advertisers on more than Yahoo's premium ad packages.

"Actually I think they sell quite well, but we don't get what we need on the backend," said one agency exec who asked not to be named in order to preserve relationships. "When you spend a lot of money with an individual media partner -- whether it's Yahoo or Google or Conde Nast or Hearst -- just getting great positioning is not enough anymore. Now the data and ability to leverage that data is so important, and I just don't see a lot of that from them."

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