In early January, Hachette will publish Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo, an insidery look by tech reporter Nicholas Carlson about the celebrity CEO's two-and-a-half-year tenure at the helm of one of America's biggest internet companies.
It's not going to be a flattering portrait, judging from an excerpt published in The New York Times. Although her hiring was celebrated by Yahoo shareholders, who thought they were getting one of Google's brightest minds, and cheered by those who wanted to see more women in charge of tech companies, Mayer has stumbled in ways big and small since taking over.
A few lowlights from Carlson's reporting:
- Having surveyed Yahoo's strategy upon taking over, Mayer identified search as one of the areas where the company could be doing better. At an all-hands meeting, she told employees Yahoo's share of the search market, then at 15 percent, could easily increase to 20 percent. Since then, it's fallen to 10 percent.
- She fell in love with the idea of premium content even though it meant competing with media conglomerates in an area where Yahoo had little expertise and no obvious business model. Reports Carlson, "She began pushing for deputies to commission high-quality shows, the way Netflix was doing with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. One Yahoo executive was forced to explain that only a company that sold subscriptions to consumers could expect to make money off such expensive productions."
- Mayer based her decisions about which celebrities Yahoo should hire on arbitrary criteria. She signed up Katie Couric, paying her more than $5 million a year, "after the two shared a stage at an advertising event in the Turks and Caicos." Couric's videos have performed poorly. Meanwhile, she declined to cut a deal with Gwyneth Paltrow because she "disapproved of the fact that Paltrow did not graduate college."
- Mayer makes an infuriating habit of standing important people up or keeping them waiting. She routinely required her European executives to stay up late for conference calls at 11 p.m. their time, then dialed in 45 minutes or more late. She tried to get her predecessor, interim CEO Ross Levinsohn, to stay with the company as COO, but angered him when she canceled an appointment he'd flown in for. In Cannes, she managed to infuriate the heads of two of the world's biggest advertising companies, showing up 90 minutes late for dinner with one and receiving a lecture from the other about not returning his calls.
- She hired a former Google executive, Henrique de Castro, who turned out to be a disaster and had to be fired. Mayer personally negotiated his contract, which ended up paying him $106 million for 15 months of work.
Carlson also tells a jaw-dropping anecdote to illustrate Mayer's occasional tone-deafness: After upsetting employees with a number of new H.R. policies, including a widely hated performance review system, Mayer held a town-hall meeting to address their concerns. Here's how she started it:
Mayer composed herself and began reading from a book, "Bobbie Had a Nickel," about a little boy who gets a nickel and considers all the ways he can spend it.
"Bobbie had a nickel all his very own," Mayer read. "Should he buy some candy or an ice cream cone?"
Mayer paused to show everyone the illustrations of a little boy in red hair and blue shorts choosing between ice cream and candy. "Should he buy a bubble pipe?" she continued. "Or a boat of wood?" At the end of the book, Bobby decides to spend his nickel on a carousel ride. Mayer would later explain that the book symbolized how much she valued her roving experiences thus far at Yahoo. But few in the room seemed to understand the connection. By the time she closed the book, URL's had gone completely silent.