Before Yahoo’s board replaced him with star Google executive Marissa Mayer six months ago, interim CEO Ross Levinsohn’s plan to save the company was to turn it into something like a cable TV provider.
Yahoo, Yahoo Finance, and Yahoo Sports apps, and Web pages would carry premium content, mostly video, from third-parties.
Yahoo would sell ads against this content, splitting revenues with content owners.
Long term, he was looking at deals with content providers as varied as the companies currently making videos for YouTube and the professional sports leagues.
The idea was simple: Leverage Yahoo’s existing 700 million users to attract great content to the platform. Leverage that great content to attract new users.
Lots of people were very excited about this plan for Yahoo.
But then the board hired Mayer.
The main reasons:
- The board believed Levinsohn had, for two years as an EVP at Yahoo, already had a chance to pursue this content strategy, and that it had failed to move the needle with Yahoo users, who continued to visit the site less frequently.
- The board believed that Yahoo should not be a content company like Comcast or Time Warner. The board believe Yahoo should be a technology company like Facebook or Google. One that made low-cost, high-margin consumer products like Google Search or Facebook News Feed. The board believed that Mayer, a Google veteran, would be more capable of hiring the kinds of people and buying the kinds of startups who could make that happen.
After the board hired Mayer, Levinsohn stayed a few more weeks at Yahoo before collecting a big check and walking out the door. He took a few months off, and is now pursuing his strategy at the helm of a media company backed by a deep-pocketed private equity firm.
Mayer, meanwhile, seemed to pursue the products strategy. She pushed Yahoo’s product teams to iterate faster and meet more deadlines. In her first six months, she accomplished a lot. Yahoo updated Yahoo Mail on four platforms, completely overhauled social TV-watching app IntoNow, and launched a stunning Flickr for mobile.
But as far as consumer usage goes, it’s hard to say how much Yahoo has progressed during Mayer’s first six months.
And now a funny thing is happening.
Details of Mayer’s strategy are trickling out – and it sounds like it incorporates an awful lot of Levinsohn’s plan.
First there was Yahoo’s recently completed deal with CBS to bring new content into its gossip site, OMG. Mayer also signed a deal with Rolling Stone publisher Wenner Media.
Next, there were the remarks Mayer’s recently-hired number two and fellow ex-Googler, COO Henrique De Castro, gave over at a conference in Germany.
He said that “the desktop portal needs to transform itself” and that the best ones going forward would “aggregate premium quality content at scale, and distribute it in a personalised way.”
And now there’s a report from All Things D’s Kara Swisher about a secret project Mayer has Yahoo working on called “Project Zed.”
Multiple sources tell Swisher the plan is to make Yahoo a “destination where people go to find content regardless of where it originates from; the better Yahoo gets at making it more relevant, the more it becomes part of people’s everyday routine and the more repeat visitors there are.”
Another says it will be a “trusted destination to get them to where they want to go and keep going back.”
Swisher says that this means “more partnership deals from third-party sources” to bring video content to Yahoo and distribute it “across a number of devices and platforms.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It also sounds smart.
For one, media companies have, in the past year or so, started to look very healthy and stable in comparison with the up-and-down technology industry.
- Stock prices near all time highs.
- Their median next month PE multiples holding steady at ~15X versus ~15X three years ago.
- Their median projected long-term EPS growth rates up to 14% today versus 9% four years ago.
- They were, on average, trading 42% off their all-time highs.
- Their median next twelve months PE multiples contracting, down to ~15X today versus 24X three years ago.
- Their median projected long-term EPS growth rates trending down, at 19% today versus 22% four years ago.
But the main reason Mayer is smart to quietly adopt some of Levinsohn’s strategy is that the best past forward for Yahoo was also going to be a mix of content and products.
Ever since Yahoo Sports proved to be a real rival to ESPN on the Web and Yahoo Finance beat back Google Finance more than 5 years ago, it became obvious that Yahoo content brands were incredibly strong and able to stand up to anything from massive, rich competitors. They are, in short, actually loved by consumers. Mayer would be silly to ignore that.
Meanwhile, you have to look at what made those content properties so strong in the first place. The answer is that they both have excellent, consumer-facing products built on impressive design and technology. Yahoo Sports is powered by fantasy sports, which used to be the class of the industry. Yahoo Finance still has the best stock data and charts available. Yahoo built great content brands because of its focus on the user-experience, Mayer’s “products” specialty.
So there you have it. So there Mayer has it.
A successful Yahoo turnaround will follow these steps:
- Attract excellent content from third parties with the promise of Yahoo’s still huge audience and revenue splits.
- Attract new users with that excellent content.
- Engage these users with high-margin, low-cost technology products like fantasy sports.
When Mayer was hired, people thought that meant Yahoo was going to be a “products” company. It’s not. It’s not a “media” company either. With Mayer running the show, and some of Levinsohn’s ideas moving forward, it’s becoming what it always should have been – a media + products company.
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