My post yesterday about the treatment of former Yahoo sales chief Wenda Harris Millard as she left the company certainly resulted in a spate of calls to me from Yahoos past and present.
That included Millard herself, who called me back this morning from New York to talk about her leaving the company for another high-profile job as president of media at Martha Stewart Omnimedia.
Her quick exit last weekend caused Yahoo to lash back at her in a press release, essentially suggesting she was not qualified for her Yahoo duties anymore.
It’s one thing to think Millard was not quite right for the new challenges Yahoo faces in the ad business and a need to focus more on technical solutions, which she even seems to agree with, but it’s another thing to publicly give her a hard time for it.
In any case, the encounter ripped back the curtains on executive infighting at Yahoo, which is in the midst of some wrenching changes.
“I am very disturbed that Yahoo chose to turn my resignation into something that it was not,” said Millard. “I feel very sorry for Yahoo these days.”
Well, who doesn’t, given all the focus on its management turmoil and wobbly vision of late at the Web giant, capped last week by the news that CEO Terry Semel was giving up his job to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang?
Millard attributed the behavior toward her to the intense pressure top executives are feeling because of relentlessly bad headlines, and especially because of the even worse news about the business.
The company has been buffeted by competition from Google in the search ad arena and more recently has seen a hit in its graphical display ad business.
Even Yahoo sources hostile to Millard, an experienced online ad exec, said she deserves credit for revitalizing its ability to sell to major-brand advertisers when she came on in 2001.
But they also said she was probably about to get the lion’s share of the blame for an expected falloff in graphical ad sales at Yahoo in its upcoming quarterly report.
That’s an area Millard was in charge of, and she acknowledged that the company needed to overhaul the way it sold advertising.
She said she was, in fact, part of the integration that has been going on for over a year about how to bring all ad sales together to sell in a more efficient manner.
As part of those changes, she said she was, in fact, open to the idea that she would take over international ad sales. “I had done the U.S. for six years and I thought it might be interesting,” she said.
Yahoo sources tell a different version, of course, claiming that Millard had become uncooperative over the last year and resistant to the changes being made, especially the new focus on “performance” advertising rather than brand ads that she preferred.
“Wenda really excelled in the branded ad business, where it is all about the emotional links people have to products,” said one exec at Yahoo. “But this was an environment where now it was all about measurement of ad results, and she resisted.”
Noting that executives at Yahoo always debate alternatives and that she did not always agree with every direction chosen, Millard scoffed at the characterization that she had become obstructive.
And she denied especially one particular story Yahoo sources related to me as an example of her difficulty: That she got into an ugly public fight at a recent ad confab in Cannes with the man who took over for her.
That would be David Karnstedt, pictured here, who is now the head of Yahoo’s now-coordinated North American advertising sales and who used to be in charge of just the U.S. search ad sales.
“Don’t you think that would be in the papers given all the focus on Yahoo?” said Millard. “It’s just silly.”
Millard said that she was simply approached by MSLO CEO Susan Lyne about coming to the media company many months ago. More recently, she thought it was a better move than the international job at Yahoo.
Lyne backed Millard on this timeline and said in an email that she tried to work with Yahoo to coordinate the announcement, to no avail.
Both she and Millard were then stunned to read a remarkably sour-grapes quote in a press release attributed to Gregory Coleman, the executive vice president of global sales.
“While Wenda was a big contributor to our success in the past, the industry has shifted and requires a different set of skills to take the business forward,” he said.
That seems to translate into: She can’t get on board with this newfangled ad business.
That contention seems patently questionable and makes an old pro like Millard seem bizarrely stubborn.
While intense data focus in the ad business is clearly not Millard’s forte (but it is Karnstedt’s), to contend that all her skills were now obsolete seemed odd, too.
In any case, MSLO thinks she has what it takes, putting her in charge of a number of businesses, including online, publishing, TV and radio.
And so did many ad players who contacted me yesterday. “She is a star,” said one person, who was a longtime rival of Millard’s at another big online company. “And worse for Yahoo is that advertisers love her, so this makes them look really petty.”
Millard said she feels blindsided, noting that she did not think her relationships at Yahoo had become that frayed.
“I always had great relationships there and had six great years there,” she said. “So I am stunned.”
I am hoping to talk to both Coleman and Karnstedt today about all this–they are at another Yahoo ad confab in Long Island, where they are trying to figure out ways to get the company’s ad business back on track.
And that’s a big enough issue to deal with without all this self-inflicted noise.
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