Yahoo’s new chief melds tech and media
When Ross Levinsohn joined Yahoo Inc. in 2010, he moved into a spacious corner office that had stood vacant since the departure of its last occupant: former Chief Executive Terry Semel, who tried to build the company into a digital media powerhouse.
In a throwback to Semel’s cigar-smoking tenure, Levinsohn threw a rowdy shindig in his new office, with staffers smoking and drinking. The signal was clear: Media was making a comeback at Yahoo.
Levinsohn, who was tapped Sunday as interim CEO to replace the outgoing CEO Scott Thompson, will split his time between the Sunnyvale, Calif., company’s headquarters and its offices in Santa Monica and New York. He has the backing of activist investor Third Point, which got Thompson bounced for padding his resume and, as part of its settlement of a proxy fight it threatened, now has three seats on the Yahoo board, people familiar with the situation say. Thompson left without receiving a severance package.
The board has made it clear to Levinsohn that he has a shot at keeping the job, said a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
A veteran of the entertainment business, Levinsohn has drawn from his relationships in the traditional media world to enhance Yahoo’s digital offerings. As head of content and advertising sales for Yahoo’s Americas region, he signed a partnership with ABC News to provide content to Yahoo’s websites, including a series starring news personality Katie Couric. He also plans dedicated coverage to major news events such as the Olympics, the Oscars and the 2012 presidential election.
Yahoo runs one of the Internet’s most visited websites, but its business has struggled to grow as it faces rising competition from Internet search giant Google Inc. and social networking phenom Facebook Inc.
Levinsohn represents Yahoo’s fifth CEO in as many years. The onetime Internet leader has been in perpetual turnaround mode since balking at a $47.5-billion takeover offer from Microsoft Corp. in 2008. Its plunging fortunes have infuriated investors, whose ire has intensified as the string of CEOs failed to restore Yahoo to its former glory.
In making his pitch for Yahoo in remarks last week at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, Levinsohn described the website as “an untapped jewel” that reaches more than 700 million users around the world every month, even as Facebook closes in on 1 billion users and its initial public stock offering looms.
In a presentation to advertisers last month in New York, Levinsohn cited a barrage of statistics that underscore the site’s dominance in 11 categories, including finance, news, sports and entertainment lifestyle. Yahoo has 20 out of the top 25 most popular video programs on the Internet.
The interim CEO has spent his career straddling technology and media, working in senior positions with search pioneer AltaVista, as well as CBS Sportsline, where he oversaw content and development. As president of News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media, Levinsohn was responsible for the media giant’s digital media strategy. In 2005 he championed News Corp.'s $580-million acquisition of Intermix Media, parent company of Myspace -- then the dominant social network. (News Corp. sold Myspace for $35 million last June.)
“He is the perfect meld of both media experience and high-tech experience,” said Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s former chief operating officer. “I can’t think of anyone else out there who melds those two things as well as he does.”
Another executive who has worked closely with Levinsohn said he is a good deal maker who long ago recognized the promise of the digital media, before it became part of people’s everyday lives.
“He’s not just a good deal maker, he’s a smart deal maker, because the people he has to make deals with, be it Facebook or Microsoft, are people you’ll be working with every day of your Internet life,” said News Corp.'s chief digital officer, Jonathan Miller, who was Levinsohn’s partner in the Fuse Capital investment firm.
Levinsohn, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is currently touting Yahoo’s news service as a reflection of its investment in high-quality content. Major events, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the marriage of Prince William, are “tentpole” events to which Yahoo’s audiences respond. Indeed, 36 million people watched the royal wedding on Yahoo, he said.
“When stuff happens in the world, people are turning increasingly to Yahoo,” Levinsohn said in an interview last year. “It doesn’t mean they’re not tweeting or posting on Facebook, but those are actually lead generators for more profound coverage -- and that coverage seems to be coming more and more to Yahoo.”
In a presentation to advertisers in New York, Levinsohn talked about the site’s plans to send 25 journalists to cover the 2012 Summer Olympics. He also announced a deepening of Yahoo’s relationship with ABC News, through a weekly online series hosted by Couric. The news show was one of several original digital series, including those produced by “CSI” creator Anthony E. Zuiker, actor Tom Hanks and the creators of the Broadway show “Rock of Ages.”
Levinsohn’s content strategy is similar to the path Yahoo pursued under former CEO Semel and former ABC Network executive Lloyd Braun, who was head of Yahoo’s media and entertainment division. The duo sought to create original programming that would exploit the website’s broad reach -- and fuel advertising.
“Terry and Lloyd were early, but they were right,” Levinsohn said. “My job would have been a lot easier ... if Yahoo had stuck to that mission, because they were spot on.”