Kara Swisher

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To Stanch Layoffs, Yahoo Has Been Shopping Its Ad Technology Platforms to Google, Microsoft and Others

In an effort to minimize the impact of massive layoffs that Yahoo’s top management has been planning, according to sources close to the situation, one of the latest ideas to save costs and presumably jobs by new CEO Scott Thompson is to sell off much of its advertising technology platform, including Right Media.

And among the possible buyers Thompson has been targeting in recent visits: Google and Microsoft, as well as Silver Lake, the private equity firm that had once been talking to the Silicon Valley Internet giant about making a large investment in the company.

(That particular deal has gone south, but there is always yet another scheme on the horizon at Yahoo!)

The concept behind such a sale, according to several sources inside and outside the company, is to turn a cost center into a revenue source, with Yahoo essentially outsourcing a business that was a cornerstone of its strategy. A negotiable number of employees affiliated with those units would then move over to the new owner.

The most ideal plan, said sources, would be to sell Yahoo’s whole advertising technology “stack,” including the Right Media Exchange, a marketplace for advertisers, publishers and ad networks to trade online ads. Yahoo bought it for $700 million in 2007.

According to info on the company’s site, it has “300,000 active global buyers and sellers and more than 11 billion daily transactions.”

Also part of the possible package is APT, a system Yahoo has built to make buying and selling online advertising easier. In addition, Yahoo’s technologies for display-ad serving have been mentioned as a possibility for sale.

It’s unclear what the potential sale means for the new ad strategy that U.S. boss Ross Levinsohn and his lieutenant Jim Heckman have been pursuing since last summer. That plan included its own acquisition of ad network Interclick and an attempt to sync up with rivals AOL and Microsoft in an effort to fend off Google and some third-party players, like ad networks.

But the reason for contemplating much a major move — which has been considered before, but never has been seriously offered — are obvious: While Yahoo once dominated this arena, it has steadily lost ground, especially to Google. The search giant has made almost all of its money in search-related ads, but has been moving aggressively via its DoubleClick and other ad-serving entities into higher-level ads.

Microsoft has also been trying to compete, as has AOL, but it’s getting to be an expensive race, and one where Yahoo would have to make major investments to once again gain momentum. Building up this business again had been the aim of co-founder Jerry Yang, who wanted to go big in the arena in a number of ways before he left the company earlier this year.

But those days seem to be over at Yahoo.

“A lot of what has happened so far under Scott [Thompson] has been trying to find more revenue anywhere it can be generated, and get out of businesses that are not growing,” said one person. “Right now, it’s a lot about what we shouldn’t do rather than what we should.”

That has meant visits to see both Google and Microsoft about possible deals by Thompson, with the involvement of CFO Tim Morse and Chief Product Officer Blake Irving.

Thompson (pictured here) has also recently been talking to Silver Lake about the ad-platform sale, in a deal that might include the Andreessen Horowitz venture fund. This would be a different kind of transaction, said sources, in which a separate company would be formed, with Yahoo owning a piece and contracting with the new entity to provide ad technology.

All this activity is related to the layoffs in the works of perhaps thousands of employees, which were to have been communicated to the company this week.

Sources said those have been delayed for some weeks for several reasons, including whether to consider more deeply if certain larger business units can be spun off, sold or somehow transformed. (To be clear: Major layoffs are still being planned, but now might take place in two parts, said sources, in what is a quickly changing and volatile atmosphere at Yahoo.)

Another area being looked at, said sources, is Yahoo’s search advertising partnership with Microsoft, which has not been as successful as had been expected. While Yahoo has been working with the software giant about improving the results, Thompson has apparently been contemplating other possibilities, including working with Google (calling all regulators!) and/or laying off up to 900 employees who work on the company’s search offering.

Any of these moves could, of course, cause a firestorm of controversy, which Thompson appears to not worry much about. He was the driving force in Yahoo’s patent lawsuit against Facebook earlier this week, which is largely attracting a negative reaction across the tech landscape.

A number of prominent voices have spoken out against the legal action, including well-known VC Fred Wilson, who yesterday penned a poisonous blog post, titled “Yahoo Crosses the Line.”

It ends thusly: “I am not writing this in defense of Facebook. They can and will defend themselves. I am writing this in outrage at Yahoo! I used to care about that company for some reason. No more. They are dead to me. Dead and gone. I hate them now.”

Ouch!

Also weighing in publicly via Twitter was former Yahoo director Eric Hippeau, who was one of the company’s first investors, which is embedded below:

Double ouch!

All I can say is that Thompson certainly has a lot of gumption. That has actually been his M.O. from the start, said several sources, with the former president of eBay’s PayPal payments unit and dark horse cold-emailing his way into the Yahoo CEO job.

True story: He had not been among its list of possible candidates — largely because he had been placed in his job at eBay many moons ago by Heidrick & Struggles, which was conducting the Yahoo CEO search, and that’s a talent acquisition no-no to poach someone you placed.

That did not stop Thompson, who thought he might be good for the job and reached out directly to board members at the end of the selection effort, which then led to the search committee and soon enough to the job in what was a very quick vetting and secretive (although not secretive enough!) hiring process.

Since then, Thompson has been on a tear, from working on a restructuring to trying to assuage activist shareholder Dan Loeb to helping put the kibosh on its Asian stake sale talks to suing Facebook. And now this sale effort, too.

If the peripatetic Thompson — who might need a dose of Ritalin before this thing is over — wanted to get noticed by the tech powers that be: Mission accomplished!

“He’s definitely someone who appears to have decided on shooting the moon with a lot of these actions,” said one person close to the situation, referring to the move in the card game of Hearts, which is a risky gambit to capture every penalty card worth 26 points in order to win. “I just hope no one loses an eye in the process.”

(That would be triple ouch, by the way.)

No comments all around, but everyone was certainly cordial on this rainy morning.


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— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post