Q&A: Yahoo CMO Elisa Steele

In the past few years, Yahoo has been in the news more for its on-again, off-again potential deals with Microsoft (which is ultimately off) and its management changes than for its products and services. A TV, print and online campaign launched last September around the theme “It’s You” sought to change that by, in evp and CMO Elisa Steele’s words, getting Yahoo “back in the conversation.”

Despite criticism, notably from The Wall Street Journal’s influential All Things Digital blog, which noted that the effort was “widely considered a failure,” Steele says the campaign’s first leg, created by Ogilvy & Mather and then commandeered by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in October, has achieved its stated objective.

A new phase in the advertising, launched last week, looks to build on that by highlighting Yahoo’s customizable home page and other services. Steele discussed the campaign with Brandweek.

Brandweek: What are the changes with this iteration of the campaign?
Elisa Steele:
The first phase, which is now pretty much over, was about getting Yahoo back into the conversation, and it was a pretty high-level campaign in terms of emotion branding. It really impressed that Yahoo was a place consumers should consider. The second phase, which was really planned for January, is much more about getting aggressive around presenting our products and services. The second phase was always planned; it was just a little bit delayed.

Was that for tactical reasons or did it just take longer than you thought?
Around the December time frame when we were preparing for a second phase, we came to the conclusion that we really wanted to focus on search because at that point we were actually losing share. We stepped back from the bigger integrated campaign and put back a very specific search program into the marketplace. Since then, we have stabilized share. So now that we’ve got that back on track, we’ve gone back into the integrated marketing planning. I would also say we underestimated the time it would take to get the new agency up to speed.

You mentioned you wanted to get Yahoo back in the conversation. Why was it out of the conversation?
I’ve been at Yahoo for about a year. One of the things that was clear to me in coming to the company was that it was a bit [undefined in terms of branding]. So it was really important as part of the strategy to take any ambiguity out of that identity and declare who we are and what we stand for.

What was the source of confusion about Yahoo’s identity?
I think it’s a multifaceted issue, so there’s not one answer. But I think that for the previous couple of years there was a lot of activity around Yahoo. It was going to do this, that or the other thing in terms of partnerships. So we got into a place where we were perceived as unsure of where we were going. [CEO] Carol [Bartz] took her new position last February, and I came in March. One of the things we felt was critical was [addressing that]. We weren’t confused, and we didn’t want consumers to be confused either.

Why do a big TV campaign like this? Why not just improve your offerings and let the word get out?
You and I know word of mouth is tremendously important in this business. We got some attention from our advertising campaign, which in some cases was positioned as the one thing we’re doing and that’s just not the case. This campaign is highly integrated. It obviously requires product innovation, operations, a great sales strategy, strong marketing. There’s not just one thing we’re investing in. I would also say it’s kind of interesting around dollars being spent in the industry. We’re spending probably half of what [Microsoft’s] Bing is spending in the marketplace.

Since you brought up a competitor, you’re spending less than Bing but more than Google.
Google is the global market leader, and they have the No. 1 share in the space that they own. So it’s a great strategy for them. I also would expect — not a prediction, but a wonderment — based on the activity in the marketplace, that 2010 will have a different trend chart for Google on advertising spend than in 2009.

In an online video, you take aim at Google indirectly, but it’s obvious you’re talking about them when you mention a blank search page. Why go there?
It’s one video in a series of videos that are going to be released. I can tell you that not all of the videos take that approach. But this was an expression between us and Goodby about how we wanted to express the spirit of who Yahoo is. Since it’s the only video that’s out now, it’s getting discussed as the campaign strategy, but it’s not. I think you’ll find over the next few [executions] that Yahoo’s expression through video will be very interesting, thought provoking and fresh.

What does the Yahoo brand represent?
Yahoo represents bringing the best of the Web, the best of those experiences to individuals. So it’s about personal relevance, bringing those experiences that matter to you most. My home page is different than your home page. We serve up 32,000 homepages every five minutes, so we’re really delivering on personally relevant experiences. Everything we do going forward is going to showcase that.