what choosing marissa says about yahoo’s future

So Marissa Mayer is Yahoo’s new CEO. There’s a lot of positives in that — she’s had a strong and successful career at Google where she was a very early engineer. It’s another crack in the glass ceiling of major US company CEOs, not to mention the thicker glass that has kept so many qualified candidates out of Silicon Valley corner offices.

What’s interesting to me is what the choice of illustrates about how Yahoo’s board wants to be seen, and how their ongoing choices reflect how Yahoo is in denial about what it really is.

Yahoo is a media company that wants to be a technology company, and in particular it wants to be more like Google.

Ross Levinsohn, who has been the interim CEO at Yahoo is a media company guy. Besides focusing on media at Yahoo he’s been at Fox Interactive, CBS and HBO. He’s a guy who really knows consumer media services, and the advertising models that drive them, incredibly well. I got to know Ross briefly and in a limited way via a company I consulted and lead in the digital advertising space.

That’s not to say that Marissa doesn’t know advertising. You can’t be one of the top 10 people at Google and not eat, sleep and breathe online ads. But Google isn’t, at least in my mind, a media company. It doesn’t create content. It crafts services like search, Adwords, Play, and technology like Chrome, Chromebooks and Android. Yes, Google has YouTube but how much of that is really a premium video experience? For example it took Vevo building on top of YouTube for music videos to be a profitable business there.

Choosing Marissa means the Yahoo board wants to be a technology driven company like Google and away from being a media driven company like Viacom, News Corp or even Hulu and Netflix. If Yahoo was going to distinguish itself it was going to have to be in the content creation business, as well as do a better job monetizing content from others. Yahoo isn’t going to out-search Google. It’s not going to out-aggregate YouTube. It’s not going to create it’s own mobile operating system, it’s own social network, it’s own home electronics.

The Yahoo board is showing us, after a series of choices like Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Scott Thompson and now Marrisa that it deep deep down wants to be just like Google. It yearns to be a technology focused company no matter how closed that road looks to them. Picking someone like Ross Levinsohn, or even someone from outside Yahoo, who will really understand the new world of digital media monetization and the social web is a move away from technology, away from the historic role that Yahoo sees for itself in Silicon Valley. The Yahoo board just can’t bring themselves to choose a media leader, and instead looks to people who have dealt with technology problems, not content distribution ones.

I just hope the board gives Marissa the support necessary to do whatever is required to turn Yahoo around, not just to follow the board’s dreams of former tech glory.

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