NEW YORK Former Yahoo! chief sales officer Wenda Harris Millard gave a blunt assessment of the current state of her former employer: It is suffering from a case of Google envy.
In her view, Yahoo! has decided to chase Google in the search and direct response ad markets, abandoning its position of dominance in brand advertising programs that helped boost the company's revenue from $720 million when she joined in 2001 to $6.4 billion by the time she departed a year ago.
"It's a classic case of forgetting what you're really good at," she said in a talk with Federated Media Publishing founder John Battelle at the Conversational Marketing Conference here. "Business is about 'and' not an 'or.'"
Yahoo! has focused on improving its search advertising system to better compete with Google, while also building a new platform to make it easier to run display ads. Similar efforts are under way to build wide-ranging platforms at Google, Microsoft and AOL.
"You don't need to choose a single competitor," she said. "I never competed with Google in the brand space."
Yet Yahoo! executives have objected to the idea that trying to build search and remove "friction" from the buying and selling of online advertising have taken lessened its focus on brands. At a lunch last week in New York, Yahoo! president Sue Decker said it would actually play into the hands of brand advertising.
"What this can do is unleash the creativity of the industry," she said.
Millard views the situation differently. She sees a focus on the cool efficiency of technology coming at the expense of the emotional creativity that has been key to building brands. Talk of making display advertising as efficient as search listings threatens to confine Internet advertising to a direct-response medium measured only by clicks. While Google is "a wonder," she saw the TV networks as her competition, she said.
"Technology is very important, but where many companies go wrong is when they think technology is the answer or primary solution to proving a business solution to a marketing problem," Millard said. "The business of advertising is still a business of persuasion. Machines can't make art."
Without Yahoo! as a leader in pushing advertisers to believe that brand advertising can be done online, the industry risks being marginalized, she said.
"I'm extremely disturbed at the commoditization of Internet advertising before we've had an opportunity to establish its value proposition," Millard said.
The needs of brands for integrated campaigns led her to take the position of president of media at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, where she traded a company with over 500 million users for one with 4 million. But with its magazine and TV properties, as well as a strong brand in the person of Stewart herself, Millard was attracted by the opportunity to create truly integrated brand programs, she said.
"I was hearing from marketers that they wanted to know how it all ties together," Millard said.