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Yahoo's earnings call: A eulogy, or perhaps a job interview

By Kevin Kelleher , written on April 20, 2016

From The Earnings Desk

It came and went, Marissa Mayer's last chance to prove she's turning things around at Yahoo before a big showdown at the company's shareholder meeting this June.

And the way things are looking, the earnings call that Mayer held with analysts and investors Tuesday afternoon may be one of her last, not to mention one of Yahoo's final earnings reports. Fittingly or not, Mayer made her case a little more than 20 years to the day of Yahoo's IPO.

Few had expected any bombshells from Yahoo. Mayer was not going to make any announcements about the bids Yahoo had received from suitors interested in buying the company. And she didn't need to – that's what the countless (and often contradictory) leaks about the bidding process had already accomplished.

And so all Mayer had to offer along the lines of good news for investors was that the company beat Wall Street expectations in both revenue and profit. And it beat only by a whisker on both counts. Yahoo stock rose less than a percent in after-hours trading on the news.

The flipside of that good news was that Wall Street's expectations for Yahoo had been lowered to a dismal level. Here, Yahoo didn't disappoint, with revenue declining 11 percent to $1.09 billion and revenue excluding traffic-acquisition costs falling 18 percent to $859 million, thanks to a 44 percent increase in those traffic costs.

Mayer's turnaround has been pinned on the dual-pronged strategy of, first, trimming underperforming legacy businesses. Yahoo is aiming to reduce its employee headcount to 9,000 this year from 14,200 in 2012, while reducing its number of contractors from 2,800 to 1,000. It also plans to shut down 27 global offices from Burbank to Buenos Aries.

But any CEO could have come in and cut fat at Yahoo, so Mayer was hoping her legacy would be built on the second prong: pushing Yahoo into the 21st Century with products that could compete with Google, Facebook and others. Three months ago, Mayer pointed to four areas -- mobile, video, native ads and social, collectively named with the ungainly acronym Mavens -- as the businesses that would propel a long-delayed Yahoo turnaround. Mavens, Mayer said then, would “overpower” the legacy businesses of Yahoo, which had caused a “rather intense drag” on the entire company.

Mayer is delivering on that first prong by shedding staff, cutting capital spending and selling off real estate and patents. Sales and marketing costs are down 14 percent from a year ago, while product development costs are down 15 percent and administrative costs are down 11 percent. Note that while these costs are falling, they are not down as dramatically as Yahoo's revenue after traffic acquisition costs. As a result, Yahoo's operating loss last quarter increased 87 percent year over year to $1.3 billion.

As for the Mavens businesses that Mayer had been building since 2012, they are already seeing a dramatic slowdown in growth. In 2015, these businesses grew revenue by 45 percent to $1.6 billion, with $1 billion of that coming from mobile alone. The growth rate was already slowing late last year, with Mavens businesses growing 24 percent year on year. This quarter, Mavens grew by only 7 percent. For all of 2016, Yahoo is forecasting growth in these businesses of only 12.5 percent.

Mayer gave several reasons for the slowdown in its newer businesses, with most of them centering around a longer-than-expected process of transitioning from the old to the new. Mobile revenue, for example, grew by 11 percent last quarter but as Mayer pointed out on the call, “We're seeing some headwinds overall in mobile search, because mobile search monetizes at a slightly lower rate than desktop search.”

In video, growth is being hampered by an increase in video content. Although video can be a lucrative ad format, Mayer said, “We have added a lot of video supply to the BrightRoll marketplace, and that has caused what we view to be some short-term price pressures overall, though we think that will improve.”

But perhaps the strongest headwinds are coming from programmatic ads, which come with lower prices but are in demand among advertisers. “About 70 percent of Yahoo!'s overall [display] inventory is sold either programmatically or at auction. That's a marked increase from just a few years ago, when it was probably somewhere around the 10 percent range,” Mayer said. “We have been bringing large pockets of our inventory over into marketplaces, auctions, and programmatic offerings, in order to meet our advertisers more modern demands for programmatic access.”

This shift isn't surprising, but it's interesting because one company that mastered the programmatic-ad market is AOL, which since last summer has been a part of Yahoo's chief suitor, Verizon. Verizon has been itching to scale up its programmatic -ad business, and Yahoo has been on Verizon's shopping list for a while.

At this point, Mayer's strongest argument for an independent Yahoo would be that the shifts that have delayed Mavens growth are beginning to pass. But that argument relies on pleading for more time, which Mayer doesn't have anymore. Activist investor Starboard Value has a shadow board ready to propose at the June 24 meeting if Yahoo doesn't arrange a sale of its core business.

Mayer made some prepared comments about the bidding process Tuesday before clamming up on the subject in the Q&A part of the call. In them, she said she has daily calls and meetings with the committee overseeing the strategic alternative process, spoken with interested parties regularly, and even assembled “a robust data room,” whatever that is.

These comments received some coverage in the press, but what struck me were the final comments Mayer made in her prepared remarks. Her words read like something you'd hear at a eulogy, or perhaps at a job interview. Or both.

“I have long respected Yahoo as a pioneer in our industry. Over the past 3.5 years, we took a company that, despite its rich history, faced legacy revenue declines, and we forged a Yahoo that is stronger and more modern... We created a $1.6 billion Mavens business from scratch. That business by itself would rival some of today's fastest growing start-ups. We saw the potential of Yahoo and we continue to believe in it. The high level of interest throughout the strategic alternatives process validates those efforts, and has been both humbling and inspiring to see.”

The last sentence in particular holds a surreal spin. It is like saying if you're eaten by a shark, you can take inspiration from knowing the shark valued you as a snack. The humbling part, though, seems like less of a stretch