Why It's Time to Define the 'Who' in Yahoo

Before Next Leader Is Named, Company Must Reconcile Exactly What It Aims to Be

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Carol Bartz is finally out at Yahoo. Gone as well are investor and industry confidence, and nowhere to be seen is the $30+ share price offer for acquisition that Microsoft once made. The Bartz legacy will likely be summed up in the phrase "couldn't articulate a vision." That early postmortem comes despite the fact that what Yahoo got from Bartz would appear to be precisely what they hired her to give them. From day one to her final email, Bartz was a straight-shooting, organization-tightening leader with a history of success in the Valley.

The problem is Yahoo is less about the Valley and more about Madison Avenue and Main Street than any other major player in the space.

So, while bets are being placed on the next leader of Yahoo, it seems that Yahoo's board of directors must first reconcile what exactly a post Yang, Semel, Yang, Bartz really is . We know what it is not, a search engine. Bartz from day one went to great lengths to distance Yahoo from comparison with Google, and on that front one must declare her efforts a success. No one today would confuse what Yahoo has become with Google.

The efforts made over the past two years to publicly convince users, the street and advertisers that Yahoo was a representation of YOU and that its future was in premium display has been upended for any number of reasons. From multiple reorganizations that changed the legacy of an industry by defining sales culture to an identity crisis caused by forsaking the origins of the original tech company and search leaders, the talent drain and vision loss has been significant.

Before wagers are placed on potential successors to lead the battle cry of "YAHOO!", the question to be addressed is : Yahoo? Is it still the world's homepage? The numbers suggest Facebook and/or Google have a more legitimate claim to being the true owners of that doorway. Each certainly has found ways to monetize engagement both at scale and by influence better than Yahoo. There's little debate over the quality and depth in many key verticals (news, finance, sports), but what does that make them?

If not a search company and not a scale play that can monetize as effectively (the same problem that led to the still questionable Yahoo-Bing alliance), then where does Yahoo go from here? There's an "easy" answer and it's sitting 850 miles north of Yahoo headquarters. That, of course, is where Microsoft sits today, and for far less than what was offered a few years ago, Microsoft can finally cement their position as a player in the digital age. That's not to say a Yahoo acquisition is right for Microsoft -- but it's a viable end game for Yahoo.

But let's say Yahoo wants someone who can lead them to prosperity as a stand-alone. It was what they hoped for when Jerry Yang returned to the chair and what Bartz was tasked with doing. In both cases it appeared the end game (fending off Microsoft for Yang and right sizing the organization for Bartz) was just the wrong answer. It would seem the answer for Yahoo absent of acquisition is as the pre-eminent premium content play on the web. To do that properly the culture and components would need drastic attention. Acquisitions (AOL? Hulu?) would be in order and a return to a sales-driven culture that aligns with Madison Avenue, as described in this article on The Makegood.

Yahoo was the digital brand many in this industry grew up with and the depth of talent it has placed around the industry is staggering. Can it return to prominence without search, mobile and social at its core? That's a huge hill to climb for the next CEO, if that 's really the job. In honest assessment, when Yahoo does determine "the who," it will likely say everything about "the what" to come for the organization.

Chris Copeland is CEO of GroupM Search – The Americas, the search marketing specialist division of GroupM. Chris drives global search strategy for the organization to foster the innovation and application of search as an integrated channel for GroupM's communications planning agencies ( Maxus, MEC, MediaCom and Mindshare) and agency clients.
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