50 Shades of Purple

I just finished reading Marissa Mayer and The fight To Save Yahoo! (Nicholas Carlson). I loved it and even reviewed it for Amazon. But, I must confess, I missed the big idea in focusing too much on what was in the book. I missed what wasn't in it. And that missing element was the marketing of the brand.

Do You Yahoo? was perhaps the finest and most successful advertising campaign for a 'tech' product ever done. It was so simple. The promise was invisible; allowing the viewer to insert his or her own benefits. The campaign was intentionally wordless to enable it to run in every market, in any language with minimal adaptation. And boy was it memorable. Even today, when I walk down the street with a Yahoo! hat or jacket, people yodel at me with a big grin. So what happened? How and why did Yahoo! discard great advertising in favor of bland, unmemorable drek, discard a great brand in favor of ultimately me-too products.


I worked at Yahoo! from 1998 to 2007. For the last 7 or so of those years I was responsible for the marketing of Yahoo! to the 'trade'; the advertising and marketing industries. For virtually all of those years our business (especially in the United States) grew in both volume and share of ad dollars. We were held in high esteem. Mostly we tried to listen to our customers and make life easy (easier) for them, especially in terms of coming to grips with the new technology and Yahoo! especially.


Before the dot.com.bomb most of our clients all had that same last name (.com). And, with enormous hubris we took money from them and their VC's, and gave them, in exchange, permission to issue a press release. Carlson documents this really well. Here are some of the little major stupidities he didn't talk about:

  • We demanded a financial disclosure form from clients before we would run their ads. Essentially we needed to be sure the check wouldn't bounce. OK, perhaps, when you're dealing with provolone.com, but not when you're dealing with Ogilvy & Mather. And besides, the person we dealt with at Ogilvy (a media planner/buyer) wouldn't have known how to get that financial form anyhow.
  • We insisted that ads be small and not take advantage of the emerging 'rich ad' technology. An image could not rotate more than 3 times. Then it had to stop. Agencies make intrusive ads. By fighting that reality we made enemies where there were none.
  • Yahoo! resisted all the important ad tech advances. Even size was resisted. CNET introduced the l-rec (large rectangle) and we pooh-poohed it, mostly because we hadn't invented it.
  • Advertisers and their agencies wanted simplified reporting. DoubleClick represented such simplification but it required them to serve the ads. We fought it tooth and nail believing that DoubleClick was stealing information and data and that, like the earth in a pre-Copernican universe, everything revolved around us. Of course, we lost that battle before it even began.
  • We displayed arrogance where none was called for. One relatively senior sales person actually sent his 1040 to a client at J Walter Thompson saying, in effect, I am so rich and you're not. That's why you have to 'buy' from me.

After the collapse of the market we lost more than half our sales, literally overnight. That's when Wenda Harris Millard was brought in to run ad sales in the US. Did she ever! She turned the team upside down, got rid of a lot of superfluous players and professionalized the operation; and especially focused us on real, adult advertisers - Kraft, Kelloggs, General Motors and lots of other folks who actually spent real dollars and who appreciated the promise of greater accountability and transparency. The numbers spoke for themselves.


The woman responsible for the brilliant Do You Yahoo? campaign, Karen Edwards, was forced out. The head of sales, Anil Singh, took on the marketing responsibilities until he, too, was pushed out in the change that brought Terry Semel to Yahoo! Terry and Greg Coleman brought John Costello in as acting-CMO. It mattered so little to him that his tenure doesn't even appear on his LinkedIn profile, but between his years at Sears and The Home Depot he 'ran' marketing at Yahoo!


The marketing department grew and was the political football between the business unit managers (responsible for individual or groups of properties), the technologists and the sales team. With no clear understanding of the business (was Yahoo! a media company or a tech company?) the department grew from a few dozen to hundreds and hundreds. And the seeds of our destruction were sewn.


In July, 2003 Cammie Dunaway came in as the permanent CMO. She joined from a 13 year run at Frito Lay and, I believe, at The Martin Agency (at that time a small agency in Richmond VA). She was a good, by the numbers, packaged goods marketer where each brand got its own message, budget and story to tell. But the overall story of Yahoo! simply got thrown out in the trash. Her boss, Terry Semel, was supposedly a brilliant marketer from Warner Brothers, but in the film business brands have an 8 week life span. The idea of nurturing a corporate brand was something absolutely alien to this new group.


The yodel disappeared. The purple/yellow color scheme and the David Shen-designed iconic type face disappeared. Do You Yahoo? disappeared and was replaced with "life engine" which lasted about an hour and never really ran anyhow. But mostly the notion of marketing the brand to consumers disappeared. The only place where the totality of the brands parts came together was with media sales; a place held in the highest disdain by the technologists and the media people alike (except when they needed to show revenue). Sales marketed Yahoo! as a total brand. We didn't subdivide it into its fifty shades of purple. We were Yahoo! We yodeled. We laughed and even made fun of ourselves. And boy did we sell. And the Yahoo! brand frankly lasted longer with the media community and our advertising partners than it did for consumers.


Google, of course, was a quintessential brand. Like Yahoo, its sub parts had generic names (maps, glass, etc.) and they understood the value of turning their brand name into a verb. "Google that" became the way people talked about it, while, at the same time, they were Yahoo-ing and yodeling less and less. And Google never made that tragic error of thinking that each of its parts were somehow more important than the brand as a whole.


So, at the end of the day, Yahoo! shot itself in the foot, not by not innovating enough technically (though they certainly didn't) nor by ignoring their role as a media company (though they never figured out that an internet media company is somehow different). I believe Yahoo! lost its way because it lost its brand centricity. It lost the brand.