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(Don't) Look at Me! Marissa Mayer's Vogue Spread

Five reasons why entrepreneurs should not emulate Yahoo's Marissa Mayer's personal PR campaign.
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What do Martha Stewart, Andrew Mason and Paula Deen have in common? All three were celebrity CEOs when they imploded and damaged their organizations' images and reputations.

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer might be in jeopardy of doing the same thing. Her outsize Vogue spread, a hyper-inflated homage to a self-proclaimed geeky-glamour-queen-Valley-Girl, should be a fat warning to any entrepreneur thinking of following in Mayer’s Prada-clad footsteps.

Unlike Stewart and Mason, who alienated people with their patronizing, expletive-strewn ways, or Deen, who redefined the word racist, Mayer is a different kind of celebrity. She’s a talented engineer and leader. But her downfall may be the fact that she adores being in the spotlight and yearns for the approval of others.

Words don’t lie.

Witness these excerpts from a recent Vogue profile:

Mayer describing her geekiness: “I really like numbers, and I like heavily divisible numbers. When I turned 37, I put on a strong face, but I was not looking forward to 37. But 37 turned out to be a pretty amazing year. Especially considering that 36 is divisible by twelve!”

Really? That sort of childish banter is supposed to inspire employees, investors, and the general business community?

Mayer embracing her inner Valley Girl: “And I was like, 'Oh right, it would be nice to have an impact that’s bigger than just me.' It’s not like I had a grand plan where I weighed all the pros and cons of what I wanted to do--it just sort of happened.”

Like, how totally rad is that? Marissa just, kinda, like, suddenly rose through Google’s ranks, and was plucked away by a knight in shining armor (Daniel Loeb, an active investor on Yahoo’s board) to run the beleaguered tech giant.

Mayer displaying her inner glamour queen: On the day of the Vogue interview, Mayer was “...wearing a red Michael Kors dress with a gold belt and a brown Oscar de la Renta cardigan. This cashmere bolero is her work uniform--she has the same one in ivory, navy, black, hot pink, teal, red, and royal blue, and adds new colors every season.”

How better to communicate a “Let them eat cake” message to the average employee?

Do good work, but watch your image.

To her credit, Mayer has stirred the pot at Yahoo. According to the company’s head of mobile (and former Googler), Adam Cahan, “Yahoo has released more products in the last six months than probably in the last five years.”

That’s terrific. But multiple reports indicate Mayer is also the ultimate micromanager who totally controls every meeting and every decision. Mix that together with a personal PR campaign that would be the envy of Eliot Spitzer, and you have all the ingredients for an epic fall from grace.

Five reasons not to follow in Mayer’s footsteps.

Avoid the temptation to pursue Ms. Mayer’s brand of hagiographic personal publicity. Here are five reasons why:

  1. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Americans love to build up, and then tear down, an icon. The problem with Mayer’s celebrity CEO brand is that it has become too closely aligned with Yahoo’s. Mayer’s being given all the credit for the organization’s sudden improvements. She’ll also be the one shouldering all the blame if and when things go south.
  2. No man (or woman) is an island. Marissa is happily basking in the adulation of everything that’s gone right so far. That can’t possibly be the case. The odds are good that she’s surrounded herself with a strong bench that’s doing all the heavy lifting. Mayer will need those very same lieutenants to step up and support her when the sh*t hits the fan. Her look-at-me propaganda campaign isn’t just disingenuous--it alienates third-party ambassadors she’ll desperately need in lean times.
  3. Me, myself and I. The problem with a one-woman show, particularly for entrepreneurs, is the perceived lack of bench strength. As a result, larger customers will think long and hard about placing an order with a firm whose CEO seems more preoccupied with personal publicity than in nurturing next-generation management. Mayer should spend less time preening for Vogue, and more in creating a deep-and-wide team of Yahoo spokespeople who are empowered to generate just as much ink as the grand dame herself. It’ll forestall a palace coup and create a perception that other inmates are also running the asylum.
  4. Jobs fatigue. Another problem with the celebrity CEO syndrome is the sad reality of mortality. Should Mayer take ill, her company’s fortunes will take a nosedive along with her health. We’ve witnessed that phenomenon before with Steve Jobs, and it’s a very real pitfall for any public or privately held company. If the marketplace believes the sun rises and sets with you, and you alone, your firm could very easily flat-line when you do.
  5. Cultural arsenic. While Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Mark Zuckerberg undoubtedly surrounded themselves with sycophants, the rank-and-file deeply resented their CEO celebrity status. So when the going got tough, the employees got going elsewhere. The best way to poison a culture is to take credit for every success and to blame others for setbacks. I’m not suggesting Mayer is doing either, but the average, hard-working Yahoo employee might just think so. And those thoughts can easily foster a toxic culture.

So do yourself a favor. Share the publicity wealth. I’m sure you have superb executives in your organization. Each is undoubtedly a subject matter expert. Make sure each builds a profile with the media.

Don’t make the Marissa Meyer “Look at me!” mistake. It may be a major ego boost, but it’s not a sound business decision.

 

IMAGE: Flickr/
Last updated: Aug 20, 2013

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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