When asked "Either/or?" Marissa Mayer says "Yes"

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 26, 2013

From The News Desk

For all the people outside the Valley who lose their minds with rage whenever Marissa Mayer speaks, the tech world is clearly enamored with her. I've asked about Mayer's chances of saving Yahoo at nearly every PandoMonthly since she took the reins, and the answer has consistently been a variation of: "If anyone can, it's her."

She's made it palatable to sell your company to Yahoo again and delighted employees with perks like free food and UP bands and iPhones. And Wall Street likes her too: The stock is up north of $30 per share -- a price not seen since Jerry Yang turned down Steve Ballmer's $40 billion acquisition offer.

But let's just all admit: There is no great plan here. She's doing it with more aplomb and Wall Street cover, but Mayer's efforts to save Yahoo look as random and flailing from the outside as they have under previous CEOs. Mayer hasn't evolved what Yahoo stands for much from when previous CEO Carol Bartz couldn't answer the question of what Yahoo was on stage with Michael Arrington.

This morning Yahoo board member Max Levchin was on "CBS This Morning," and when asked about Mayer and her job at Yahoo he said, "Marissa loves simplicity." Really? Then she must be in hell right now, because her approach to saving Yahoo seems to have more in common with the kitchen sink than a Zen Garden.


Katie Couric.

A new logo!

A million other acqui-hires we've never heard of.

None of this ties into a strategy, unless that strategy is everything. Are you doubling down on user generated content or expensive premium content? Video or mobile? Deep or broad? Youth or an older demographic? If Mayer was hoping to figure out a way to make Yahoo relevant again for the younger, mobile-first generation -- as analysts hoped with the pricey Tumblr deal -- Katie Couric doesn't make much sense.

Then there's the central angst that has been stymieing Yahoo for decades: Are you a media company or a technology company?

Meanwhile, she still can't seem to do deep enough layoffs to bring the company's costs under control, and the company is just as fragmented and siloed as it's always been. A "strong No. 2" in a myriad of disconnected categories-- master of none.

I've read a handful of stories on yesterday's announcement that Yahoo is hiring Couric, full of reporters who are telling us why it makes sense and we shouldn't be surprised. I'll say it: It still makes zero sense to me. That is unless we consider "the new Yahoo" is simply trying to keep people coming to the site everyday by putting a shitload of varied stuff on there. The more options the better. Let the dysfunctional fight over each homepage pixel rage on.

That's not exactly a focused mandate. Unless you compare it to the "focused mandate" of her alma mater Google. I guess Katie Couric and Tumblr have more in common than search and extending human life. The difference is Google is wildly successful in its core business and can afford moonshots.

The most cogent reason I've read for the Couric hire is that Mayer says video inventory is selling out too quickly, so she needs more. This is the problem when non-media people take over media companies. They see content not as the core of the business but an inventory problem to solve. You don't arrange editorial to fill an ad hole. You arrange editorial that speaks to an audience. If you do it right, money follows.

You can understand why Mayer is hesitant to pick media or tech. Neither strategy has gone well for Yahoo, so the right answer isn't obvious. But when the board surprised the world by not naming uber media exec Ross Levinsohn CEO and hiring product expert Mayer instead, the world assumed the answer had finally been settled. Yahoo was gonna be a tech company.

That seemed to be backed up early on by some cuts made on the content side and Mayer's comments that she'd like to see the search deal with Microsoft un-done. That deal was the ultimate capitulation that Yahoo wasn't gonna win on tech.

But then it started to get weird. Mayer's first articulation of what the new Yahoo was came in the form of the "Daily Habit"-- and essentially just described a portal. Later, in an exclusive sit down with Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum, she described Yahoo's core assets as exactly what people wanted on mobile. There was no new vision for mobile -- just a sense of repackaging what they had already. With a new logo, and some new design of course.

Then there was the no doubt pricey, star hire of New York Times columnist David Pogue. And then hiring Couric for even more millions.

Is Yahoo a portal? Is it a world-leading microblog? Is it... nightly news online? Every time we think we've got it; her next move makes less sense.

For what it's worth, plenty of smart people have been predicting she'd combat the video ad inventory problem by building or buying a YouTube competitor, not hiring a $40 million dollar TV personality. Who knows? Maybe that's next week. The wide diversity of predictions on what she might do next proves just how random her strategy has been so far. It's simple like the human nervous system is simple.

Early on, Mayer referred to content v. media as "the wrong question," which perhaps should have been a clue that her tenure wasn't going to be about making surgical cuts to the has-been parts of Yahoo. Judging at the crazy quilt of acqui-hires and mega-talent hires, her answer to every either/or question Yahoo was facing has been "yes."

We thought that, under Mayer, there would be decisive moves about what Yahoo would be and, more important, what it would not be. It seems Yahoo is still a confused mess of silos, product, and content. It's just leveled up on the content name and talent and made the employees and shareholders happier. This is, at best, a short-term fix.

We all keep waiting to see what she's going to do. The sinking feeling in the Valley is: Is it just more of this?

Beyond a myriad of things it's pretty good at, Yahoo has two core assets: The first was its Asian assets, which Mayer -- to her great credit -- finally unlocked to the delight of shareholders. The second is it still commands a huge, huge audience. Its homepage is one of the strongest firehoses of traffic anywhere on the Web.

I can't help but think a focused plan on where to shoot that firehose would be more efficient than hooking it onto a sprinkler.

[Image courtesy Schill]