Mayer On Yahoo’s Future: It’s All About Personalization And Partnerships

marissaMaybe it’s the turbulence that has surrounded Yahoo for the last several years, or maybe it’s reflective of CEO Marissa Mayer’s general worldview, but when asked about the competitive landscape by Charlie Rose during a Q&A at the IAB Mixx conference, she said the portal is more of a potential partner than a challenger to companies like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and her former employer, Google.

“We have multimillion dollar — multibillion, in some cases — long-term partnerships with companies like Google, Microsoft, Samsung,” Mayer said during the closing session of the two-day Advertising Week event. “Because we are unique, operating between the worlds of technology and content, we look forward to partnering, not competing. That’s Yahoo’s strength.”

During the wide-ranging conversation, Rose asked Mayer about her decision to join Yahoo and how she “seduced” Tumblr founder David Karp into selling the company, as well as her views of gender issues in tech and how Yahoo expects to make money in mobile.

On joining Yahoo: Rose started off by asking if Mayer had any doubts about going from one of the world’s most successful companies to one that “many people were saying is troubled.” In response, Mayer said, “I just loved what Yahoo does and represents. And what it represents is everything people do on the Web and on mobile: reading news, stocks, sports, weather, sharing photos.” And as more consumers and advertisers turn to mobile and to personalization, she saw an opportunity to take an established brand and reform it to fit that fast-approaching future.

Mobile money: To the doubters about mobile monetization, Mayer told Rose that Google once faced similar questions around deriving revenue from search. Of course, she didn’t claim that Yahoo would reach such heights. But she expressed confidence that those doubts would turn around quickly. Pointing to Facebook, Rose asked if the social network has put the dismissive notions about sustainable mobile ad revenue to bed. Mayer agreed that Facebook has gone a long way to helping clear a path for mobile advertising being taken more seriously. But Google’s template is the one that started it all and can demonstrate how mobile may rise quickly.

“In the early days of Google, people say search is great but how are you going to make any money at all,” she said. “Now, that question is funny. What was needed was getting the right quality controls for the user experience. In our case, mobile advertising is about getting the right format, the right model in how advertisers want to buy on that platform.”

Mayer and RoseOn being CEO: “After a few years at Google, I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life being ‘the search girl,'” Mayer said. “So I moved to managing maps and local, which involved working with engineers and designers. I loved it. But what I loved most was change. I was ready to do something new. The same was true when Yahoo came along.”

On the Tumblr deal: Rose posited what he thought the $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr in May did for and said about the state of Yahoo: “Yahoo is here, watch us, we will do things that will surprise you. We’re not an old company. Silicon Valley players want to be be with us.”

Mayer: “We came to play, but that’s not why you do a billion-dollar acquisition. [Tumblr has] an amazing canvas, with every major media brand publishing and experimenting on the platform. It was about the content, user base. Tumblr is positioned as the most creative platform. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

She added that Karp saw advertising the same way Mayer did, namely that consumers should want to see ads on websites every day with the same enthusiasm as they do when the Super Bowl is being broadcast.

Yahoo beats Google?: During the end of the interview, Mayer made a point of saying she doesn’t read articles about her. “I know who I am, I know what I think,” she said. “Reading that someone thinks you said something smart or dumb takes you off your center. I care what my team thinks, but not these external forces.”

That inward focus was evident when Rose mentioned that Yahoo topped Google in Web traffic in April, causing Mayer to appear tongue-tied and uncertain. “You don’t know that?” Rose chided.

“We choose to be internally focused,” she said, stiffening her back a bit. “We covered our 2012 numbers. We erased the decline. That’s what I care about. There’s a lot of ways to measure these kinds of comparisons you’re talking about. What’s important is that we realized we’re getting 800 million users a month. That’s 20% growth since I joined. I wouldn’t have anticipated that when I first joined.”

Issues, Gender and Vogue: Mayer might not read the text of the articles that discuss her, but she is well aware of the photos.

Rose: “Would we see [Google CEO and co-founder] Larry Page lounging on the cover of Vogue?”

Mayer: “It wasn’t the cover… It was a nice photo.”

Rose: “Does gender matter [in the technology business]?”

After pausing and noting it’s a question she’s asked often, Mayer essentially said she never felt it, though she sometimes does realize, following a meeting, that she’s the only female in the room. But she doesn’t sense that being a woman in tech is an issue.

“It’s not an issue to you,” Rose said, summing it up, and noting that she also gave birth to her son a year ago, barely two months after becoming CEO.

“I’ve got two big projects,” Mayer said, “Yahoo and my son. And they’re both doing fine.”

Left unsaid: Mayer discussed Yahoo’s revenue strategy in broad strokes — mobile equals personalization and the two combined add up to valuable consumer data for advertisers. Still, at a time when both AOL and Microsoft are touting their programmatic capabilities around brand advertising, Mayer didn’t say — and Rose didn’t ask — how she would reform the company’s tech stack around its new focus on mobile. That’s not to say she doesn’t have concrete plans in that area — for example, in July, Yahoo bought mobile data and hyperlocal ad targeter AdMovate —  but her thoughts continue to remain elusive on the topic.

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