‘BE BOLD’: Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer has taken her fair share of lumps over her ongoing strategy to turn around the struggling Yahoo, and on Monday night she turned up at the Time Warner Center in New York to talk about it at Fortune magazine’s “The Most Powerful Women” dinner. The event welcomed successful female leaders in business, philanthropy, government, academia and the arts.
Fortune senior editor at large Pattie Sellers interviewed Mayer on stage, as media types such as Martha Stewart, Katie Couric, Poppy Harlow, Norman Pearlstine, Alan Murray and Dana Perino looked on.
“Speaking of creating content, you’ve made some very high-profile hires, including one high-profile hire,” Sellers said, as she summoned Couric to stand up. “Katie was the queen of television news…and has had just the career that we all dream of. Last summer, when Marissa hired Katie to come to Yahoo to become a global anchor, people both said: ‘huh?’ and people said: ‘wow, maybe the Internet is the new television?’ So, why did you hire Katie and how do you measure Katie’s return on investment?”
Sellers’ pointed and shrewd question drew much laughter from the audience, including an embarrassed shrug from Couric, who immediately sat back down to hear her boss explain her value to the media giant.
“When I first arrived, it was very important to me that we raise the quality of content at Yahoo,” Mayer said, stumbling a bit for her words. “But, I also wanted to be able to create some of our own content because otherwise we’re just republishing other publishing partners, and that’s good but it doesn’t give you a voice, and it doesn’t necessarily differentiate you. We had been working really hard to raise that journalistic standard, raise that quality bar of our content.”
Mayer explained that she approached Couric after the journalist mentioned at a conference that she wanted to work in the digital world.
That answer didn’t satisfy Sellers, who reiterated her original ROI question as it pertained to Yahoo’s expensive hire.
“You can do things like measure the ads that we have sold against those programs and the following views. And by all means, it’s a very profitable and good investment,” Mayer said. “But I will say, to me that it was really more about raising that journalistic standard, getting our name out there, as people who participate in news and participate in the dialogue in ways than just republishing content.”
The ceo said video was a big draw as well as Couric’s personality.
Still, Mayer’s move to hire big names such as Couric, Matt Bai for Yahoo News or Joe Zee for the company’s Style vertical hasn’t been enough to turn around Yahoo and enable it to keep up with buzzier contemporaries like Google and Facebook.
Sellers moved on to a recent deal that helped reimagine another tech titan from the yesteryear, AOL, which was acquired by Verizon for $4.4 billion.
“How does that change the landscape, and do you think about the opportunity to partner, to whatever extent, with a carrier or distribution platform?” the editor said.
“While some people from the outside saw similarities between the companies [AOL and Yahoo], we didn’t really,” Mayer said. “AOL made a big bet on programmatic advertising, while we are really making our bets on mobile, video, native, social. There was some overlap in the video space.”
Mayer added that Yahoo is looking for new partnerships, referring to a recent deal with Mozilla. She also underscored the importance of the company having a unique voice that moves beyond that of its distribution partners.
The ceo’s parting shot came when Sellers asked her to provide her best career advice.
Mayer relayed a story about her last meeting with Google cofounder Sergey Brin before she left the company to become Yahoo’s ceo.
“As I had my hand on the door, he said, ‘Marissa, wait,’ and I turned around, and he said, ‘don’t forget to be bold,’” she offered. “I actually hear that in my head every single day that I’m at Yahoo. That has helped me in so many different moments.”