Yahoo has a new honcho. Can the guy who helped Clint Eastwood find success after a start as the jet squadron leader battling a giant spider in “Tarantula” help the Yahoo crowd figure out how to make a fistful of dollars? I think Terry Semels move from Warner Bros. to Yahoo was a great choice for a company that attracts lots of clicks but has never been able to explain what it is.
Semel is the first of the digital rebounders: execs who burned through a lot of venture capital and investor dollars getting it all wrong in the first inning of the Web business. Although many observers focus on Semels experience at Warner Bros., where he was instrumental in creating such classics as “Ace Ventura” and “Police Academy,” he has also been kicking the tires on the Internet. He sank $2 million into the Digital Entertainment Network, a company that may hold the distinction of being the most screwed-up outfit ever before disappearing. So Semel, like lots of ex-Internet execs, got to make all his mistakes on other peoples money.
Yahoo is certainly an alluring opportunity. The companys stock is in the pits, but it still claims to have nearly 80 million registered users. Any time you can put 80 million people in a room, any marketing exec worth his M.B.A. should be able to figure out a way to make some money. To date, the best strategy seems to have been to throw enough banner ads and cookies at users to make them want to pay to exit.
Yahoo (the first thing Semel should do is make them drop the silly exclamation point) has a long history of trying to explain what it is by claiming to be everything to everyone. The latest goofy and very public mistake was allowing pornographic material to be sold on the site. Early last month, the company said it would stop selling that material but not until after a number of wags had renamed the site Yahooters.
The Yahoo management style always seemed to be a loosely allied confederacy that allowed individual managers to head in whatever direction they pleased with a vague sense of trying to make some money. If ever there was a company that adhered to the discounted New Economy strategy of more eyeballs rather than more revenues, it was Yahoo.
Semel, who knows a lot about building brands, the power of focus and the need to build industrywide multimedia coalitions, needs to bring that movie discipline to a company trying to be all things to all people.
Yahoo first made its mark by having its people go onto the Web, analyze the sites and try to categorize what had become a vast jumble—much like what Yahoo has become itself. If Semel can combine what he learned from making all those movies with the wisdom he gained from his first foray onto the Internet, maybe he can help Yahoo finally make a few dollars more on its bottom line.