Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Ross Levinsohn’s Yahoo Plan: Back to the Future

Ross Levinsohn wants to be known as more than a deal guy. Now he gets his chance.

Assuming Yahoo gives its interim CEO real power — either by making him its actual CEO, or at least letting him behave as if he has the job — then he’ll finally have full control of a giant media company. That’s something he’s been working toward for a long time, despite his rep as a guy who enjoys buying companies more than running them.

Just like his predecessors, Levinsohn will have to untie Yahoo’s knotty Asian problem. He’ll also have to spend time repairing relationships with Facebook and figuring out what to do with a Microsoft search deal that hasn’t been a huge success.

But if Levinsohn gets to run Yahoo the way he wants to run Yahoo, he’ll focus on getting the most out of its media business, because that’s his strength.

Bear in mind that this is still a huge business — the portal attracts some 700 million visitors a month, which helped it generate nearly $1 billion in ad sales last quarter. But that business is listing and under attack from Google, Facebook, and a swarm of nimble start-ups pulling eyeballs and dollars away.

If you want to get a sense of what Levinsohn may try to do next, it’s good to review what he did last year, when he had control of the company’s U.S. operations — and what he tried to do but couldn’t get done.

  • Ads: Yahoo used to have one of the Web’s best sales operations, but those days are long gone. Levisonsohn spent much of 2011 trying to fix that. Part of that involved restaffing his team, and part of it was a strategy that was supposed to cut out some of the ad tech middlemen and allow the company to increase its yield on the ads it sold. Those moves, which included a would-be alliance between Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft, all went into a holding pattern when Scott Thompson took over in January. Levinsohn will try restarting that again now.
  • M&A: Levinsohn has a reputation as a dealmaker because he’s made some pretty big deals. Most notably, he brought Myspace to News Corp. in 2005, then helped the company secure a $900 million ad deal with Google (News Corp. also owns this Web site). Last year, he tried to land another big fish, when he pushed to pursue Hulu. But Levinsohn couldn’t get buy-in from then-CEO Carol Bartz, and Hulu’s owners decided not to sell after all. I think Levinsohn would still be interested in the site under certain conditions, but he’d need more cash than he has on hand to do it. Selling off his Asian assets might make that possible. If he can’t land Hulu, I don’t see him chasing after Instagram-like companies with big price tags and no near-term revenue plans. I do see him making some plays on cheaper start-ups, as well as some technology plays, to shore up/replace the company’s very old infrastructure/platforms.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo