Imagine an NFL team without a head coach — and the front office calling all the plays on the field.
That’s the current game plan at Yahoo. CEO Marissa Mayer, lacking lieutenants to develop the company’s media strategy, has been personally wooing big-name entertainment talent and journalists to come work for the company.
Those include Mayer’s courting of Katie Couric, who is bringing her talents to Yahoo after exiting her deal with ABC News.
But Mayer has many other fish to fry, including continuing to shore up search and expanding into mobile. She’s also concerned with proving her shiny new acquisition, virtually revenue-free blogging site Tumblr, was worth the $1.1 billion she spent on it.
Without a senior leader focused on building Yahoo as a destination for premium content — and original video in particular — the firm risks that side of its business continuing to slide.
In July, Yahoo global media head Mickie Rosen, a former Disney and News Corp. exec, left the company. Then earlier this month, head of video Erin McPherson exited to join Maker Studios; she had been responsible for inking key media deals with ABC News, NBC Sports and Broadway Video for exclusive rights to clips from the “Saturday Night Live” archive.
Yahoo is now looking for an executive from the TV or entertainment biz to step into the breach, sources say. (The company declined to comment.)
Yahoo has no time to lose, as its video audience has shrunk over the past year. In October, Yahoo’s sites had 42.3 million U.S. unique visitors who watched 357 million videos, down considerably from 55.3 million uniques and 496 million video views a year earlier, according to research firm comScore.
Meanwhile, Yahoo’s overall revenue and earnings have continued to drop. Revenue for the third quarter declined 5%, to $1.14 billion, with display advertising sales down 7% to $470 million. Net income dropped 24% to $358 million (excluding a net gain of $2.8 billion last year related to Yahoo’s sale of shares in Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group).
Mayer has helped Yahoo boost traffic and user engagement by beefing up homepage and search features, launching mobile initiatives and redesigning key product areas. The strategy has worked, insofar as Yahoo’s audience in the third quarter grew to more than 800 million monthly users, up 20% over the past 15 months. And the stock has zoomed up more than 80% this year on her watch.
But the company can’t drive real growth in its core business without acquisitions.
To be sure, Yahoo has tried to go big on Internet video. It was in the bidding for Hulu, reportedly offering as much as $800 million, before Hulu’s media-conglomerate parents ultimately decided to hang on to it. Yahoo also made a play to acquire a majority stake in video site Dailymotion, but that was spiked this spring by French regulators who didn’t want to sell the Gallic success story to Yanks.
Yahoo certainly has the coin to acquire video assets. At the end of September, the company had $842 million in cash and equivalents. Last month Yahoo announced plans to raise $1 billion in debt financing. And it will get an additional cash infusion with the upcoming IPO of Alibaba, expected in the first half of 2014; Yahoo expects to sell 208 million of its 523.6 million remaining shares in the e-commerce company. That mounting war chest has fueled speculation that Mayer has a large takeover in mind.
However, how fully Yahoo will embrace an entertainment future remains to be seen.
In discussing video on the Q3 earnings call, Mayer acknowledged that “we still have a lot of work to do as we create more value for our users and our advertisers,” reiterating that Yahoo has been constrained on video inventory. She also touted growth prospects for user-generated video, noting that Flickr recently added the ability to upload 3-minute videoclips.
But there’s no clear indication of where Yahoo will be placing its next big bets. It needs a senior strategist who thinks less like Google — Mayer’s alma mater — and more like a media company.