It’s probably fair to say it has been an unusual couple of months for Yahoo.
Between the huge hack attack it suffered, exposing the personal details of 500 million Yahoo accounts, to Verizon’s $4.8 billion acquisition of the company, which has still yet to close, Yahoo has rarely been out of the headlines.
But for Lisa Utzschneider, Yahoo’s chief revenue officer, everything is still “business as usual.”
When we join Utzschneider at Yahoo’s New York City office in the last week of September, that is certainly the impression the company’s sales boss is giving off.
Our interview takes place during Advertising Week New York, where she appeared on stage and other events during the four-day-long trade show, discussing everything from e-sports with former basketball player Rick Fox, to “the next era of programmatic” advertising, and how women can climb the ranks in business.
Our conversation, too, is varied. We asked Utzschneider for updates on the hack and the sales process, the things that make her proud to be at Yahoo, the differences between working at her former employer Amazon and her current company, her advice for working mums, and what it’s like working Marissa Mayer.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Lara O’Reilly: Is everything business as usual as far as ad sales is concerned?
Lisa Utzschneider: Everything is business as usual. It is. We have strong momentum in the marketplace. If I walked you two floors down to the sales floor it is humming, everyone is focused on finishing up third quarter and now gearing up for fourth quarter, which is a big quarter for us.
We are heads down, engaged with our marketers, delivering on their expectations, growing our partnerships. It’s business as usual.
O’Reilly: What do you say when marketers ask you, inevitably, about the Verizon deal? What can you tell them?
Utzschneider: What we say is: It’s business as usual, we are focused on growing our relationships with them. We are incredibly proud of the Verizon deal, we are in integration discussions now, and it’s scheduled to close Q1 in 2017, and that’s what we can say.
O’Reilly: Am I right in thinking the combined AOL/Yahoo offer won’t come to market until late 2017-2018? Do we have a timeline on that?
Utzschneider: We are focused, we are in integration planning now and we are focused very much on the close.
It’s hard to predict, following the close, when we will be executing against the plans. Also I know me and my role and my team are just focused on driving the business.
O’Reilly: One of the things Tim Armstrong mentioned [when Business Insider recently interviewed him] was that he was really impressed about with Yahoo was the culture and that people that work at Yahoo love working at Yahoo, and there is a real sense of loyalty. How do you convince people to stay? Because Yahoo will remain, but it’s going to change. What do you say to energize your teams and make sure they want to stay for the duration?
Utzschneider: I’m so incredibly proud of our team. Long-time Yahoos like to say they bleed purple. We are incredibly proud of the brand, we are proud of the business we built, we are proud of what we represent. Now the team knows that it’s Verizon and AOL, they are so excited and enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead and also our marketers are equally excited about the opportunities.
O’Reilly: Which particular parts of the business are you proud of?
Utzschneider: One area I’m very proud of is what we talked about on stage at Advertising Week with our live video strategy.
I’m proud of fact that as a company, heading into 2016, we streamlined and got very focused with our content strategy as a company. We are very focused on the four areas of: Finance, news, sports, and lifestyle. Those are core priorities.
On Monday we talked about live video in particular. We are seeing more and more consumers engaged in live video content. They love the fact that that can’t-miss video, or that game, or that finance event, they can access that content and view it in broadcast-like quality across any device. And many of these content experiences are global.
I’m very excited about that strategy and the fact we are executing against it successfully.
In the finance category, for example, [Yahoo Finance editor in chief] Andy Serwer joined me on stage [at Advertising Week New York] and one thing he talked about was this past spring, Warren Buffet asked Yahoo to stream Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting — an eight-hour event, like the Super Bowl of finance.
We had sponsors, being Scottrade and TD Ameritrade, and Warren wanted it set up like a Super Bowl event where you have a pre-game, and coverage, and sponsorship, and half-time, and post-game.
Over 1 million users watched it. Over 40% were outside the US, Asia in particular. Very high engagement, excellent flawless execution, and it was so successful Warren has come back and asked us to stream it again next spring.
What I love about that story is that I think at Yahoo we are thinking out of the box. We are not just assuming only in sport should we invest in live video. We want to test and learn and experiment and not underestimate what the consumer is looking for. These live finance events are really taking off and consumers are responding by keeping engaged and watching these events.
O’Reilly: What else is coming up from Yahoo in live video? What are going to be the big hits?
Utzschneider: In the finance space, we will continue to expand our slate of these sort of C-level engagements and interviews and coverage. There is opportunity there in sports, I had mentioned we have 400 live sporting events on the slate for this year. I think we will continue to double down on sports, and identify other sorting events if they resonate.
E-sports is another area. News is an area. On the political arena right now it’s right before the elections and Katie Couric and her team are covering the elections as much as they can and also expanding out in other areas.
O’Reilly: I wanted to ask about ad blocking. Facebook has come out with quite a strong position, to block the blockers. You have a global “Better Ads” coalition that has formed. Google playing both sides of the field, paying an ad blocker on one side, then on the other, being part of this better ads coalition. What is Yahoo’s position?
Utzschneider: Ad blocking we take very seriously. It’s something that is discussed and debated internally. We are watching it closely, but our position is if we just focus on delivering great creative and ensuring we are delivering a great user experience, there will be less of a need for ad blocking.
So that’s what we focus on: Delivering a great user experience, keeping a very high brand bar, a high creative bar, just to ensure users have a great experience so they won’t want to use their ad blockers.
O’Reilly: Who decides on that high bar? And the great user experience? How do you get consumers involved?
Utzschneider: We do have a creative ad policy and a creative ad policy team. They monitor the creative and if there is creative that we deem as inappropriate or poor user experience, we will typically ask the advertiser — we will give them the feedback why, and we will ask the advertiser for alternative creative.
O’Reilly: So you decide? It’s your decision what would annoy a user or not? I guess what I’m getting it is there has been a lot of the ad industry saying “we need to do better” and “if the ads were better quality, better creative, better targeted then people wouldn’t want to block them” but it’s the ad industry saying that, as opposed to the consumer saying that. It’s the ad industry being the gatekeeper over what good or bad looks like and often there are other reasons users don’t like ads, like security or slowing down their web pages, or whatever.
Utzschneider: It’s typically a combination of feedback that users can give on creative but also, internally, we take a hard look at creative. [Yahoo users can give feedback via its “Ad Interest Manager” page.]
O’Reilly: Another thing has been a big topic in recent months is the ANA [Association of National Advertisers] report into media transparency and rebates. Afterwards there was lots of discussion, now we are seeing more brands auditing their agencies. While this was very much about the client-agency relationship, there are obviously intermediaries between this as well. What was your reaction to the report? And what was your reaction from clients?
Utzschneider: The conversations have been more with the agencies versus marketers directly. Throughout the years we have been really diligent about the agreements that we sign with agencies, the terms in those agreements. And because we have been so diligent about it, the conversation was very simple with them once this announcement came out.
Some agencies have been asked by clients to re-review their agreements and their terms. But we didn’t miss a beat because of that.
O’Reilly: Do you think there is still a place for rebates in the media-buying landscape? Is there still a benefit?
Utzschneider: I think that, first and foremost, transparency is paramount and that the agreement on what the marketer believes they are buying, both in terms of the expectations of what they are buying, what it’s being priced at, that it’s transparent to them. That’s how we service our marketing partners and our agency partners and I would think that marketers would want same treatment by all of the agencies.
O’Reilly: What’s the biggest misconception people have about Yahoo? What is the thing people get wrong that they shouldn’t? What’s the thing people don’t know that they should know?
Utzschneider: I think this is area where we made a lot of progress: The work we have done over the last 18 months with the integrations of our acquisitions, it has been really good work.
One example is Brightroll, which we acquired almost two years ago. And in 2015, both on back end and front end, the teams were so focused on integrating the platform, integrating the data sets, integrating the various teams, updating our value proposition, get that go to market out to clients — it was a lot of heavy lifting.
It was a big acquisition, an important one, a strategic one, and I couldn’t be prouder of that hard work by the team. Also, culturally, bringing the companies together. I think the output and the results have been really strong.
Tomorrow morning, at Advertising Week, [Yahoo VP of display and video ad products] Todd Sacerdodi is going to share our programmatic strategy in terms of the progress we have made over the past 18 months. I got to hear a bit of his rehearsal this morning and it’s a good reminder of the momentum we have in the programmatic space and how much we have gotten done in a short amount of time.
When we really sit with clients and share that story, share the progress we have made, encourage them to test the platform and they see the results, they are really impressed.
O’Reilly: When you think about how Yahoo and AOL fit together, where do they complement each other?
Utzschneider: The assets we have at Yahoo, and especially the assets we have been investing in this year, I think it’s critical that we leverage them and continue to leverage them.
So in the content space — sports, news, finance, lifestyle — those are such deep heritage in those areas, we have
millions of sports fans, and stock checkers, so we continue to leverage in that space.
I think technology, from ad tech perspective, the work I just spoke to in terms of how we are investing in the platform, continuing to leverage in that area.
Also from a data perspective, being able to leverage rich data like Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Search, Flurry Analytics, another acquisition, that’s been our core strategy this year: Content, data, and technology.
I think that there is such opportunity in those areas and I think they are really strong assets.
O’Reilly: What assets do you have that Facebook and Google don’t have?
Utzschneider: What really gets marketers excited is the fact that we continue to invest both in premium content and they can buy us programmatically at scale, that’s flexible, they love that and they are rooting for us: “Keep doubling down those areas, keep investing live video, keep investing in ad tech” — they love that.
They also love our first-party data. It is so differentiated. That combination of Mail, Search, and Flurry, and the fact that millions of consumers are on their smartphones and spending more time on mobile, [marketers] just see combination of the three as a very unique proposition for Yahoo.
That combination of Mail, Search, and Flurry, and the fact that millions of consumers are on their smartphones and spending more time on mobile, [marketers] just see combination of the three as a very unique proposition for Yahoo.
O’Reilly: Since you came on to first-party data, can you give me an update on where we are with the hack investigation? I imagine clients are asking about it.
Utzschneider: I can’t speak to the hack situation. We did release a public statement to our users to instruct them how to reset their passwords. I just can’t speak to it.
O’Reilly: Does it affect some of the first-party data you have for advertising? For example, if users haven’t reset their passwords?
Utzschneider: Again, I can’t speak to it.
O’Reilly: You joined Yahoo from Amazon. What’s different about working at the two companies? What’s the same?
Utzchneider: What’s different between the two cultures is I would say that advertising is the core business for Yahoo. The business revolves around advertising, it’s our core revenue stream, it’s a core part of what our engineering team focuses on, in terms of investing in our platforms and ad products.
At Amazon, advertising was a small part of the company’s business. So it’s a big difference.
What’s similar is the obsession with consumers and advertisers and ensuring we are delivering the best experience possible.
O’Reilly: You and your boss, Marissa Mayer, are both very high-profile working mums. What do you advise people, working their way up through the ranks and starting a family. Is there anything you wish you had done, or anything you’d advise people that you were happy you did?
Utzschneider: One thing I would say is it helps to get very clear on your professional and personal priorities and recognising you can’t do it all. With those priorities, both professionally and personally, stay committed to them. And personal priorities, something I share publicly and whole team knows is one thing I call my sacred time.
We have a 7-year-old daughter and when I’m in New York, no matter what, I do everything in my power to get home to read to her before she goes to bed. Everyone knows what those hours are.
O’Reilly: What are you reading at the moment?
Utzschneider: We read all kinds of things: The “Little House on Prairie” series — which I love — we just read “Charlotte’s Web,” but I really consider that sacred time.
Also be present, whether its personal or professional life.
Personally, one of my goals is that my 7-year-old never asks me to put my phone down. I make such a concerted effort, when I’m home I’m home and I’m with her until she falls asleep.
It’s really important to get your priorities clear and that you also share them so your team understands: “Oh OK, so calling Lisa at 7.30 at night isn’t great, but you can call her after 8.”
O’Reilly: What else do you and Yahoo do to encourage women to succeed?
Utzschneider: We do all kinds of things. We have a head of diversity and she leads lots of initiatives to raise awareness on diversity.
We have lots of policies to support both new mums and new dads, working mums, and working dads.
I’ll host panels here, or other leaders will, where I will invite several clients in who are working mothers and have discussion about work-life balance and time management.
Also, personally, I’m big, big believer in leading by example and, again, being transparent and open. I get asked by employees all the time: “How are you doing this, how are you managing it?”
And just being really honest: This is how I’m doing it, but it does take a village. And supporting other employees to figure out what works for them so they can be productive at work and equally feel they can be present at home when they’re at home with family.
O’Reilly: A survey was recently published by the 3% Moment about sexist things that continue to happen to women working in the advertising industry — one of which was feeling like they were being overlooked in meetings or spoken over by men. Has that ever happened to you? Do those things ring true? Are they common events even with high-profile, successful people like yourself?
Utzschneider: Sure. Early in my career I worked for companies that were male-dominated companies. I worked for companies where, I have always lived in New York, but the headquarters based on the west coast, so I have been on lots and lots of calls and meetings where I am the only women in the room and/or the only woman and the only person remotely on the call.
So I remember, early in my career, forcing myself and pushing myself to speak up, to speak often, to make sure I was heard, that I was articulate, that I was contributing to the conversation, to make sure that if I was getting cut off I would call the person out on it. Or speak to them after the meeting and say: “Hey, this just happened, and I ask, moving forward, to give me space in meetings so I can speak up.”
It’s similar to exercising, the more you develop that muscle, the stronger you get and it gets to point where it becomes second nature.
I knew throughout my career if I wasn’t able to find my voice it would be very difficult to be successful in a senior level job.
O’Reilly: What’s the most surprising thing about working with Marissa Mayer?
Utzschneider: I would say that, Marissa, as a working mum and as a senior female leader in the company, she is incredible. She has been incredibly supportive of me in managing both my personal and professional life and has been supportive from day one.
O’Reilly: Beyond being empathetic, has there been an example of how she has been supportive?
Utzschneider: The other thing, in terms of being supportive, is she recognises that different people have different work styles and everyone gets to the finish line a little differently. She does what she can to support and nourish that work style and she encourages me to approach the business in the way that I think is the right way to approach it. I couldn’t say enough about her in terms of how supportive she has been to me in my role and also of our sales organisation.
O’Reilly: Finally, which Yahoo apps do you use the most?
Utzschneider: Finance, weather, sports. In that order.
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