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Ross Levinsohn Details Yahoo's Failures (And a Few Successes)

  |  June 8, 2011   |  Comments

Tough love for sales and marketing efforts.

100-0005Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo's top sales and marketing guy, has used recent speaking gigs to publicly lance his employer's biggest boils. An Internet Week appearance this morning was no different.

Speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Innovation Days conference, Levinsohn, who joined Yahoo late last year as EVP of the Americas, found a number of faults with the company's content marketing and sales strategy.

Among his criticism:

-Yahoo's sales force has grown lazy. Levinsohn said Yahoo must create custom solutions that don't simply rely on the company's vaunted audience reach and standardized formats.

"We talk internally about how to build partnerships with advertisers versus walking in the door and saying, 'Here's what we have,'" he told the audience. "I would love for us to be testing new formats and get a little bit outside the box."

He cited some successes in this area, including recent ads for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. But he said, "I'm still waiting for the first time I am emotionally moved by [online] creative."

-Yahoo fails to communicate its content successes. Yahoo has no shortage of content laurels. The problem: "We've done a mediocre job promoting them."

For example, Levinsohn noted Yahoo Sports distinguished itself in covering the Ohio State/Jim Tressel scandal, with reporting that was faster and more exhaustive than its main competitors, but he said the likes of ESPN later ran with the story and appeared to own it.

The dynamic with video is much the same. "We produce about 20 original shows a month. Those 20 shows (not counting what we license) have more unique users than all of Hulu. Our daily finance show - each [episode] has more viewers than any show on CNBC except for Cramer."

But media buyers and opinion makers wouldn't know it. Levinsohn said, "We've not done a great job of marketing."

-Yahoo fails to build brand. During his roughly 10 years at HBO, Levinsohn said, "We did a lot of things just for prestige. They [pulled] small audiences but were really defining." This programming reliably raked in rewards for the premium cable network.

Levinsohn did not explicitly state Yahoo should pursue awards through vanity content initiatives, but appeared to leave the door open. "I don't think there's necessarily been that philosophy at Yahoo."

By improving its reputation for original content, he argued Yahoo will be positioned to leverage that content to greater effect. "We've never had a content affiliate network," Levinsohn said. "We have 900 different deals with content providers that are one-way."

-Yahoo should more closely manage its ad inventory. Levinsohn hinted Yahoo could benefit from creating scarcity by further reducing ad placements on premium content pages. Yahoo already prevents ad networks from serving ads on its homepage and many channel section fronts.

Levinsohn recalled an episode from his time at Fox Interactive Media when MySpace made the difficult choice to cut off ad networks: "The biggest challenge we had at MySpace was infinite inventory and being arbitraged to death by 17 different ad networks. We took a stand and shut off the ad networks. In the first months, we took a big revenue hit."

He added, "You have to have real courage to do that, but nobody wants premium environments to be devalued by advertising that doesn’t fit."

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Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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