RIP Yahoo, and Mayer Out? Not So Fast


Over the four and a half years since Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo, one thing has remained consistent: absolutely nothing. Since day one, Mayer’s Yahoo has been one strategy-du-jour after another. The wild wild west of turnarounds.

Wait. That’s not entirely true. Whenever there’s a new plan, you can always count on Yahoo to confuse the heck out of everyone. And yesterday’s news that sent the stock up more than 2% was no exception. Except this time, it was the media that got it wrong.

The Register tweeted YAHOO! IS! DEAD! Not true. BuzzFeed reported that Mayer “is resigning and the company is changing its name to ‘Altaba Inc.’” Also not exactly true. And a Reddit thread saying that Mayer was fired is absolutely not true. Even the headlines that got it right were misleading. Here’s what’s going on.

Yahoo the company will change its name to Altaba if Verizon goes through with the planned acquisition of the company’s core internet and advertising business. Meanwhile, Yahoo the brand, meaning all the assets Verizon is paying $4.8 billion for, will not change. Yahoo’s sites will all continue to carry the familiar purple logo.

As for Mayer, she’s still chief executive of Yahoo, and that’s not likely to change until sometime after the acquisition closes. That is, if it closes. At that point, the publicly traded holding company comprised primarily of shares of Alibaba and Yahoo Japan will become Altaba. And I will never get used to that name.

Of course Mayer, co-founder David Filo and several others will no longer be needed on the board of what will essentially be an investment company with no products and few if any decisions of that nature to make. That’s what Yahoo’s SEC filing that started all the hoopla was about. That and the dumb name.

Then again, none of that will happen if Verizon decides to kill the deal. After two massive hacks of a combined 1.5 billion Yahoo accounts – that’s billion, with a “b” – I wouldn’t blame them one bit. More likely they’ll negotiate some concessions, complete the acquisition, merge Yahoo under AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and call it a day.

But you never know. Not with Yahoo. Never in tech history has a company been through so much, had so many strategies, announced so many plans and accomplished so little. Come to think of it, that’s not entirely true. It did manage to turn a historic internet brand once valued at more than $100 billion into a has-been worth pennies on the dollar.

After a stunning parade of ineffective CEOs, from Jerry Yang to Scott Thompson, Mayer was hired in 2012 and hailed as the great purple hope. Never mind that she’d never been a c-level executive, having topped out at the VP level at Google, and had never faced a turnaround situation – an extreme challenge for the most experienced CEOs, let alone a first timer.

It should come as no surprise that Mayer failed to pull off what would have been a remarkable turnaround. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

If nothing else, Mayer’s tenure has been eventful. She’s certainly been busy spinning one strategy after another. There were spinoffs and reverse spinoffs. Dozens of acquisitions and write-offs. Every web property torn up and rebuilt. Top executives hired and fired. And there was Katie Couric.

The problem is, you can’t turn around a tech company by trial and error. You have to focus. You have to come up with one strategy and stick with it. Did I forget to mention that it also has to be the right strategy? There’s that too.

Mayer’s most recent strategic plan had Yahoo focused on three global platforms (search, mail and Tumblr), four verticals (news, sports, finance and lifestyle) in key geographies, and four revenue growth drivers, aka Mayer’s renown mavens (mobile, video, native and social).

That was the plan; I kid you not. The only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree.

Nobody will ever know if another CEO could have saved Yahoo from the junk pile, but then, that’s never stopped anyone from debating the question. And who knows if the Verizon deal will close. One thing is clear, though. Mayer has a bright future ahead of her. There will be no shortage of board seats and chief executive opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see where she turns up next.