On Wednesday, Sandberg announced she was leaving her role as chief operating officer at Meta, which changed its name from Facebook last year, to make the metaverse a core part of its identity. The rebrand also came following an extended period of turmoil, while the social network was fending off critics who blamed the company for political tensions, societal divisions, brand safety troubles, and other ills. Sandberg will remain on the board of directors.
Sandberg’s C-suite exit creates an opportunity for the company to change its relationship with brands and advertisers by aligning its product and business teams. For Sandberg, it is a moment to double down on her advocacy work, particularly around women’s rights. On Thursday, advertisers were trying to decipher what it will mean for the company going forward, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that products and business will be more closely connected.
Sandberg has been close with the ad community for years, although the relationship has not always been smooth. Brands have mistrusted the platform, and at times, Sandberg. One advertising exec, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that it seemed Sandberg’s star had diminished. “This is a different Meta-Facebook, than what it was even three years ago,” the advertising exec said, “and the sense was that her influence had waned quite a bit.”
Mendelsohn said that she has received multiple phone calls from Meta's advertisers that reflect the positive impact Sandberg has had on clients. Advertisers are "talking about the extraordinary ways she partnered with them," Mendelsohn said. "It's almost impossible to capture the impact she's had."
Read more: Meta's Sheryl Sandberg steps down from COO post
Sandberg has presided over a company that has had tremendous success in advertising, and she was always the executive who spoke the most about new products for brands and businesses. At every quarterly earnings call, Sandberg came equipped with examples of marketers that were trying new products in areas such as video and commerce.
There also have been troubled times, though. Meta faces an antitrust inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission, which has claimed it operates as a monopoly in social media, and regulators could try to break the company up. Advertisers have rebelled over brand safety, especially in the news feed, the main source of posts that 2 billion people view daily on Facebook. In July of 2020, civil rights groups organized a boycott that led more than 1,000 brands to pause their ads on Facebook for a month, protesting disinformation and hate speech. Last year, Facebook began implementing new safety features that could help marketers prevent unsuitable topics from appearing near their ads in the news feed.
There have been lawsuits against Meta over reporting accurate information that was relevant to marketers; for instance, there were problems with inflated video and reach metrics. And there have been concerns about data security, especially after 2018, when Cambridge Analytica’s practices came to light. The third party had scraped information on about 87 million Facebook users, and the data was misused for political purposes.
With all that hovering around the company, there have been a number of course corrections. And Sandberg is the latest piece to change, although she will remain on Meta’s board of directors. Another 14-year Meta veteran, Javier Olivan, will move from chief growth officer to chief operating officer.
Olivan will craft a different role at COO than Sandberg served, Zuckerberg said in a message on Facebook. Meta has different needs now, Zuckerberg said. “[Olivan] will now lead our integrated ads and business products in addition to continuing to lead our infrastructure, integrity, analytics, marketing, corporate development and growth teams,” Zuckerberg said. “But this role will be different from what Sheryl has done. It will be a more traditional COO role where Javi will be focused internally and operationally.”
“Reading between the lines, it sounds like Zuckerberg wants to cut out the fat,” said one top digital media executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You'd be hard pressed to look at what Meta has rolled out over the last few years and say that it was done without an orientation towards business.”
Internet platforms, including Meta, are in a perilous moment, facing broad business challenges from a worsening economy, while also dealing with specific changes in digital advertising. Apple has been a thorn in Meta’s side, restricting access to data from iPhones and other devices, which were part of privacy updates that clouded Meta’s ability to serve targeted ads. At the same time, Meta is trying to compete with TikTok, the Chinese-based app that has become an obsession among U.S. teens, and among marketers looking to reach them. Also, Meta is trying to make its mark with the metaverse, which already cost the company $10 billion in investments in 2021, with an uncertain window for when that bet will pay off.
Read more: Meta calls out Apple
The right moment
“I suspect that Sheryl is exhausted,” said another digital advertising executive, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I suspect that changes need to be made to placate shareholders and she might have raised her hand.”
Meta’s stock price is down more than 40% so far this year, a sign of the concerns around internet advertising.
Advertisers also are looking back on how Sandberg affected the industry with her advocacy. Sandberg coined the phrase “leaning in” as it relates to women in the workplace, following her 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” On Wednesday, Sandberg said in a note on Facebook that she would focus “more on my foundation and philanthropic work, which is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.”
“It feels like the absolute right moment for her to shift focus,” said another ad industry executive, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I admire her. I think, like she said, it’s a critical moment for women, and she’s not wrong.”