The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite

'Hunger Games' interview, Vogue shoot isn't what the Yahoo CEO should be doing

Yahoo Marissa Meyer New Image
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Now that she’s been booked for a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer should look to it as an opportunity to present a different side to her than what she’s shown the public lately.

Take last week, when “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence did a whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley to promote the franchise’s latest installment. She made all the requisite stops: Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo. While she reached out to millions of fans in interviews streamed to each brand’s global audience, Lawrence also made time for a special audience of one, chatting privately with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

But Mayer managed to one-up Sandberg. When Lawrence and the film’s director, Francis Lawrence, visited the Yahoo campus, it was Mayer herself who conducted a Q&A, in which company employees and the streaming public got to see her relaying questions from the Internet to the actress for 40 minutes on everything from her new hairdo to her teen crush.

Lawrence’s tour crystallized the contrasting styles of Silicon Valley’s reigning queens. Limiting her exposure to just a single photo sitting opposite the star, Sandberg was aiming for tasteful restraint (undercut somewhat by a framed image of the title of Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,”  on the wall behind them).

And then there was Mayer, who seemed to be auditioning to be an “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent.

In and of itself, Mayer’s interview could be dismissed as a forgivable indulgence. But a CEO assigning herself the ridiculous task of fawning over Jennifer Lawrence is the latest indication that Mayer is losing her grasp on the optics of her public persona.

You can’t play the hero if you’re coming across like Nero.

For every coup she scores, like the acquisition of Tumblr, Mayer also has a knack for getting attention that seems more about promoting herself than the company. There was that second-quarter webcast in which she and chief financial officer Ken Goldman announced Yahoo’s earnings in a setting that looked like a local news anchor desk.

And how about that Vogue spread in September in which she posed as if she were modeling for, well, Vogue. Then there are all those headlines about her interests in fashion, parties, real estate.

Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.

Whether or not Mayer is consciously cultivating this attention, it seems inarguable that the CEO of a company in turnaround mode should do anything short of everything to keep from being misinterpreted as vain or frivolous. Yahoo’s stock has been on the upswing since she took over last year, but there isn’t an analyst alive who will tell you that the online giant is out of the woods. Now Mayer is practically handling ornery stockholders the ammunition to shoot her down with in the future.

It’s not as if she could be accused of inaction given all that she’s doing on so many different fronts at Yahoo, but the company’s extended song-and-dance regarding its redesigned logo seems to serve as a fitting metaphor for Mayer’s tenure to date: for all the theatrics involved, not much really changed.

It’s not as if Mayer isn’t conscious of maintaining the right image. She publicly expressed her regrets about the Vogue shoot, for instance, but focusing on the photo misses the point. An executive sitting down with Vogue period sends a message: She is preoccupied with her own stature, perhaps at the expense of attention best paid to the company.

Even if an executive believes he or she has a divine right to enjoy the perks of an exalted position, to do so too publicly is to risk giving the impression of misplaced priorities. The reality of what Mayer is really like is irrelevant; it’s the perception of her that’s the issue.

Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of “Fast and Furious 14.”

Oddly enough, it was precisely what defined Mayer as a woman at the beginning of her time at Yahoo — her giving birth — that she used so masterfully to mold her public image as a focused CEO. The press was filled with tales of how disciplined she was about maintaining the seemingly impossible balance of embarking on motherhood and a career at Yahoo. Even the subtext of her first controversy at the company, in which she nixed allowing employees to work from home, sent a message to the marketplace that working at Yahoo demanded the utmost professionalism and dedication.

It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.

She’s not the first visionary to miss the blind spot staring at her in the mirror.  Before CES comes along, Mayer has to realize the one thing she’s lost sight of at Yahoo: herself.