Since its founding four years ago, the Santa Monica-based Yahoo Media Group, which houses all of the company's content production, has seen three executives come and go: Former ABC president Lloyd Braun and two of his deputies, Vince Broady and Scott Moore, who each minded the store for about a year before moving on. Braun pushed and the company abandoned a plan to produce network television-caliber programming. Broady's attempt to build "brand universes," destination pages built around top media brands like Harry Potter and Halo, was equally unsuccessful.
At the same time, Yahoo has had three CEOs -- former Warner Bros. chief Terry Semel, co-founder Jerry Yang, and current office holder Carol Bartz, who took over in January. There have been numerous reorganizations and executive shifts, along with layoffs, in an attempt to stem a slumping stock and challenge nimble competitors like Microsoft, Facebook, and of course Google.
Jeff Dossett is ready to put chaos in the rear view mirror. Tapped in November as senior VP of U.S. Audience -- a post that puts in charge of the Santa Monica office along with some businesses in the Sunnyvale corporate headquarters -- he oversees every consumer-facing business, from entertainment to news to the front page to search. Recruited from a similar job overseeing MSN for Microsoft (a post that was ironically filled by Scott Moore), he has brought a decidedly non-Hollywood style to the job, streamlining operations and focusing his staff's efforts on using technology to enhance their content and attract audiences, rather than try to compete with Hollywood programming or adopt their brands as his own.
There isn't even a Yahoo Media Group anymore, for all intents and purposes. Yahoo Santa Monica simply houses the content production components of the audience group, like movies, television, news and sports.
In his first major interview since he first took the job, Dossett spoke to Variety about how Yahoo can handle its competitors, work with traditional media, and produce original series in its own unique way.
In part one of a five part conversation, Dossett explains why leaving Microsoft for Yahoo was like moving to the "big leagues" and how Yahoo can improve its content production and presentation by focusing on delivering key audience segments exactly what they want.
Ben Fritz: So how much time do you spend down here in Santa Monica?
Jeff Dossett: I live in Seattle, but I spend Mondays in the Sunnyvale head office, and then Monday nights I fly to LA and stay here for the rest of the week.
So basically four out of five days, and then multiple times, including this weekend, I stay through the weekend and – my wife's flying down, and one of my kids is flying down, and we love it here.
BF: Well before we get into what we're doing and how you see things, I wanted to sort of start with your coming here, which I think was November?
JD: November fourth or fifth.
BF: It seems you went from one job that was somewhat similar in scope to the same job at a different company. I'm kind of curious what motivated the move.
JD: I wanted to play in the big leagues. Really, that's the essence of it. I was executive producer of another major online portal, but really – this is Yahoo, and Yahoo is literally number one or number two in virtually every category it competes in, and that was an incredible opportunity to work with the largest, most engaged audience online. I think it's an amazing time in the industry, and leadership matters. It matters for the audience, and it matters for the advertisers, and really, being able to work with the assets Yahoo has, and figure out how to better package them and present them to meet the needs of audience and advertisers, was really just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Despite all the time I'd spent in a previous role with a previous company, it was a very, very easy decision for me to make once the opportunity became available.
BF: Yahoo has obviously been through numerous shake-ups in the past few years. What made you feel comfortable when taking the job that you’d have the resources and stability you need to do your job. Did you feel that the problems were over and there was a lot of potential?
JD: I saw opportunity. I knew that Yahoo had the audience assets upon which we could continue to extend a leadership position in the marketplace, and so really, it came down to the people. The leadership, and the alignment and the commitment to continue to invest to build the largest, most engaged audience online, and to create environment in which we could serve the needs of advertisers, and really extend that leadership – and when it was clear to me, meeting with [co-founder and former CEO] Jerry [Yang] and [president] Sue [Decker] and [exec VP North America] Hilary [Schneider and the other leaders of the team that the passion was still there, and the commitment was still there, and the investment dollars were still there, it really all came together and it was clear that despite anything that had happened in the company's history to date, there was still a passion to lead and innovate, and that's all I needed to hear.
BF: And under [CEO] Carol Bartz now, and with the structure as it stands – in terms of what's under you, who you report to – do you have all the assets you need?
JD: I'm very enthusiastic about the organizational changes we've made over the last four months, including the most recent under Carol's leadership. I think it sets up for clear roles and responsibilities, clear accountability, faster decision making and really, in a market like this in particular, there's an opportunity to act in the interest in the interest of the audience and advertisers, take market share, and sort of gain on our competitors in this marketplace. The organization enables that, so I'm totally excited about the organization change and I think it unlocks a lot of potential for Yahoo.
Specifically to my role at heading up the Audience Experiences Group for North America, I absolutely believe I have all of the teams and the talent and the resources necessary to innovate and continue this path of leadership.
So one of the key things that we did at the beginning of the year was shift responsibility for editorial content and programming of the front page, or the homepage of Yahoo into our group. This was once known as the Yahoo Media Group, focused on a subset of all the products and experiences that Yahoo brought to market for audiences and for advertisers. And the change to the audience-centric group is really quite profound. Our whole team now sort of sits back and looks at all of the audience, all of the different consumer touch points across all products and experiences, not just those that we build and lead here within this particular facility.
So we take a very holistic view of the audience, trying to understand needs, wants and intent, and where they interact, regardless of entry point to the network, and try to craft experiences that reflect all of these different touch points. So it's a very important shift in perspective, and it's more holistic, and it's more audience-centric, and I think it's going to power a whole new generation of innovative experiences that sort of stitch together the best of all of these different Yahoo experiences, to serve a user's needs as they flow through and across the Yahoo network throughout the day, or throughout their experience. Bringing the front page programming team into the audience group enables us to use the front page as an opportunity for managing the audience throughout the network.
Our job is to build and engage the audience. How do we do that? Present the right content, to the right user, in the right context at the right time. Having all the pieces for editorial content and programming in one group gives us the ability to think holistically about the audience and to make sure wherever they're interacting with the Yahoo experience, we can serve up the best we have to offer. It's very powerful.
BF: It seems that in terms of consumer thinking, that makes a lot of sense. I know that talking to people here in the past, there would sort of be this weird thing where they were producing video, but the Yahoo Video group was somewhere different, because that was user-generated. Or they had to pitch stuff outside the group in order to get it onto the homepage.
On the flipside, you now have people under you now who are doing very different things -- Some who are producing editorial, others who are producing tools that let consumers do user-generated stuff, or bringing in content from other places. It seems like you must have a more diverse set of employees under you than under the previous structure?
JD: Well I think we've added a new perspective. First of all, it's still important to lead in key categories. Today, Yahoo is number one or number two in virtually every category in which it competes, and in the strategic audience starting points – front page, Mail, News, Sports, and Finance – we're clearly number one, and so it's going to be critical to maintain domain expertise and to extend that leadership. But we've also formed a new team to take on a broader, more holistic, audience-centered perspective on the network. This is a team that's not grounded in a particular vertical or category-specific property, but instead looking at priority audience segments who interact with many, multiple experiences across the network. Their job is to ask, “How do we better serve that audience segment?”
An audience segment might be defined sort of demographically, like “mothers with two children who hold professional jobs as well.” They interact with many different parts of the network during the day, but we've historically programmed experiences in the context of individual properties. Stepping back and thinking about that audience, they may begin their day with us on front page, in the middle of the day they may look at Mail, they may move over and upload some videos on Flickr, etc. Having that sort of holistic view of their priority needs, the question is, “How can we make it easier for an individual user or consumer to discover the content or the people that are most important to them, wherever they're interacting with the Yahoo network?” I think that's a powerful new perspective. It's what advertisers have asked us for.
We think that way with respect to advertising; presenting the most relevant advertising to a particular audience member at a particular point in time. We should think the same way about content. When I go to a particular experience on Yahoo, say Yahoo Finance, my needs, wants and expectations may be different from some unique, actionable audience segment, and so we should be able to present the most relevant perspective on that story or that information so we better serve the audience and create an environment where the advertiser can present the most relevant advertising to that user. That's the next phase of growth and success for Yahoo, to add to the success at the property-by-property level, and think more holistically about the audience.
BF: The property-by-property approach seems like more of a Hollywood, or old media way of thinking. “We're a TV network so we produce this,” or “We're in movies,” whereas it sounds like what you're saying is “This is what you can do online that you can't do in other media,” which is think about your audience no matter what they're doing.
JD: I think both perspectives are relevant, and it's important to lead in both, so we'll continue to lead. Some people benefit from, want and need the navigation, the ease with which you can go “I'm interested about some information about cars,” and having a destination called Yahoo Autos. It's helpful. It helps navigate an individual to a category of content. But the reality is, not everybody has exactly the same need or expectation with respect to that particular content. If we know more about you, because you've signed in, because we've been able to anonymously monitor your interests and needs across the network and we can present a better, more relevant Autos experience to you, versus someone else, that's how we win with audiences.
The goal is to build the largest, most engaged audience, because when we do that, we create an environment where leading advertisers want to associate their brands or their performance offers with that audience. I think that's sort of the great new enthusiasm around Yahoo, is to blend the best of category leadership with the more audience-centric view thinking about all the different touch points across the network. We have a team of people who are going to be focused on that, freed from any boundaries.
BF: So they're working on the experience for, say, 35-year-old men or women who are interested in cars?
JD: Exactly. We have so much data from which we can extract audience insights. What are their needs, what are their interests, what are their expectations of Yahoo? With all of the different touch points, with the size of audience we have, the wealth of data which you can turn into insight is unbelievable. And with that, that's what sort of defines the objective of the experiences we're going to create. Then, the next most important thing is being able to serve up – like we do with ads – serve up the most relevant content, to a particular audience, at a point in time.
So if you're interacting with one of our leading audience experiences, say OMG for celebrity news, and we know from your other interactions with Yahoo that you have an interest in some other content across the network, we will create an opportunity to make it easier for you to discover content that exists elsewhere on the network. There's some technology enablement here which is very important because we are a consumer online media company, no question. We're all about building audiences and engaging that audience. But at Yahoo, we look to see where technology can enhance what our human editors and programmers do, and so we're going to create the capability of serving up the right content to the right audience, wherever they interact with us on the network. I think that's very powerful.
Tomorrow: Dossett explains what audience and content areas Yahoo is prioritizing, why it's approaching some areas like celebrities different than others like music.