Amazon hunting again for marketing chief

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It's tough to keep someone in the top marketing job at Amazon.com when the real top marketer is Jeff Bezos.

Last week, Jaleh Bisharat, Amazon's VP-marketing since just last summer, said she would leave the company and Seattle to return to San Francisco, where her husband is a law professor.

Ms. Bisharat's predecessor, VP-Corporate Marketing Allen Olivo, shifted late last year to a part-time post. Last week, he was named chief marketing officer at Robertson Stephens, the San Francisco investment bank owned by FleetBoston Financial Corp. (AdAge.com, Jan. 26). Mr. Olivo declined comment on his move from Amazon.

Amazon's first VP-marketing, Mark Breier, left in April 1998 to become president-CEO of software e-tailer Beyond.com. (In an unrelated move, he resigned that job earlier this month.)

STRING OF DEPARTURES

Turnover at Internet companies is common, but for those watching Amazon, the string of marketing departures is a sign that the hands-on style of Amazon founder and Chairman-CEO Jeff Bezos is becoming a liability, not an asset.

"[Being Amazon's top marketer is] a very difficult job," said Vito Bialla of Bialla & Associates, the recruiter who placed Mr. Olivo at Amazon. "The CEO is the brand manager. That's something that's never going to change with high-powered CEOs."

Mr. Bezos' vision seemingly knows no bounds. The company has formed partnerships with numerous online retailers in recent months; its most recent is last week's deal to give Drugstore.com, in which it owns a 28% stake, a shopping "tab" on Amazon's home page -- the first time it's given a retailer permanent placement there.

Amazon's analytical attitude toward marketing and customer relations is legendary. Rather than coddle customers with feel-good advertising, Amazon precisely engineers the shopping experience.

It's been a successful strategy, but it's worlds apart from traditional marketing.

PERSONAL DECISION

Ms. Bisharat, while acknowledging the difficulty of the job, was adamant that she is leaving the company for personal reasons.

"My children were getting to an age where it was hard on them to have two parents in different cities," Ms. Bisharat said.

An Amazon spokesman said the company is sorry to accept Ms. Bisharat's resignation. Ms. Bisharat is well-regarded as a technology marketer, but did not have a high profile in the Internet community. Amazon quietly named her VP-marketing last summer after it bought an e-commerce company she co-founded, Accept.com. Prior to that, she led marketing at push Web content pioneer PointCast and at Lotus Development Corp.

Ms. Bisharat decided to leave during the holidays, after a grueling period in which she launched Amazon's Wish List gift registry and an estimated $90 million holiday marketing campaign.

WELL-RECEIVED BUT COSTLY

The ad campaign, from FCB Worldwide in San Francisco, was well-received, but its cost hurt Amazon's bottom line. The company's stock has been pummeled in recent weeks, off from its December high, as investors lost faith in the company's ability to turn a profit.

"A lot of marketing execs are drawn to the dot-coms with the hope of coming up with the golden ring [in stock options], but the 24/7 existence often takes a toll on their personal lives," said an executive familiar with Amazon's marketing.

Ms. Bisharat, who will lead an external search for her successor, plans to stay on until her replacement is hired.

Indications are that Amazon will look to bring on a world-class marketer along the lines of Joe Galli, the former Black & Decker Corp. executive who became Amazon's president last year.

MARKETING EXECUTION FOCUS

But recruiter Mr. Bialla said Amazon may have a tough time. Though Mr. Bezos has been compared to another notoriously hands-on CEO, Apple Computer's Steve Jobs, Mr. Bezos' focus is on execution of marketing, not creation of it.

In an analytical environment where the company's focus is on efficient customer service rather than creating feel-good ad campaigns, Mr. Bialla said, "You're not going to get world-class marketing people."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo

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