Ross Levinsohn May Be Just the CEO Madison Ave.’s Been Waiting For

Digital media execs optimistic about Yahoo

Score one for Team Media at Yahoo, which finally seems to have won the ad world's blessing with the interim appointment of Ross Levinsohn as CEO.

While relieved that Yahoo might actually move past the telenovela-esque tenure of Scott Thompson, media and agency executives are surprisingly hopeful—in some cases even delighted—over the appointment of Levinsohn. Their assessment might be summed up as follows: Finally we’ve got somebody at Yahoo with companies like HBO and CBS on his resume, rather than Autodesk and Inovant (as well as several legitimate degrees, one assumes).

Of course, nobody believes that Yahoo will solve its myriad problems overnight. But at least the company has somebody in place who gets media and advertising. Said a Yahoo insider: “People are excited. Thompson was almost like hiring an IT manager as CEO.”

Instead, with Levinsohn, who’s been with Yahoo since 2010 and held a key decision-making role between former CEO Carol Bartz's tenure and Thompson’s hiring, the company should be able to move quickly. “He’s an ad guy and a media guy. We welcome someone who embraces that role. We haven’t had someone like that at Yahoo in quite some time,” said Adam Shlachter, MEC managing director, digital. “He seems to at least understand that advertising drives their business.”

It hasn’t always been clear whether Yahoo's previous engineering-oriented CEOs got that. One agency executive described what he called a “come to Jesus meeting” about a year and a half ago with top Yahoo executives. During that high-level sit down, this person recalled, agency officials were quite direct. “We told them, ‘You need to focus. You need to bring something valuable to the table,’" said the official. "We saw some interesting things…things that were very encouraging.”

But then Yahoo’s ongoing CEO drama, not to mention shareholder battles and layoffs, sidetracked many of those projects. But the good news is, not all is lost, since “Ross has been there through all of that,” said the agency head. “He’s about getting things done. Boy, if they ever needed that, they need it now.”

Indeed, those who know Levinsohn don’t describe him as any sort of Zuckerbergian genius or visionary. Rather, he’s a deal maker, a relationship hoarder and a sharp leader.

While having logged time at Yahoo and Fox News Interactive, Levinsohn’s career took off at places like HBO and CBS Sportsline. He’s no advertising-averse Silicone Valley dreamer.

“When he worked for me, he was a young guy with a lot of talent,” said Mike Levy, founder of Sportsline. “He was very outspoken and did a hell of a job. He showed a lot of maturity and leadership. When he was working for me at Sportsline, he was dealing with the CBS TV people all the time—people like [CBS Sports president] Sean McManus."

Of course, Levinsohn is best know for his tenure in 2005 through 2006 when he served as president of the now defunct division Fox Interactive Media. During that period, Levinsohn led News Corp. to acquire, IGN and, of course, the infamous MySpace.

That deal was seen as revolutionary at the time, then as an embarrassment for News Corp. So what to make of Levinsohn’s role?

“Ross knows how to call the right plays at the right time. The Google MySpace advertising deal was brilliant in both concept and execution, and it was his playbook,” said Dr. Christos M. Cotsakos, a former eTrade CEO and longtime News Corp. consultant.

Cotsakos said that Levinsohn possesses many CEO qualities. “Ross balances chutzpah with practicality in his leadership style,” said Cotsakos, now CEO and president of EndPlay. “He can wheel and deal and run and gun while still delivering on his commitments. He knows what he doesn't know and will reach out in any direction to gain better insights in order to make the best informed decision for his shareholders.”

In between the Bartz and Thompson tenures, Levinsohn seemed to use those leadership qualities to push Yahoo toward more bold media partnerships and toward a focus on premium content. “Ross gets big media,” said IGN president and general manager Roy Bahat. “Look at the ABC News partnership, what they’ve done with original video, and you can see it germinating.”

Of course, Levinsohn was also said to be the force behind Yahoo’s sales alliance with Microsoft and AOL, as well as its acquisition of Interclick, perhaps indicating a fondness for ad technology and more sophisticated digital targeting. It was rumored that Thompson was moving Yahoo away from the ad tech space entirely.

It’s not entirely clear which direction Yahoo will head—and that’s perhaps the most crucial thing on Levinsohn's plate during his interim tenure, however long it lasts. Articulate a strategy and stick to it.

"In the past there's been a lack of focus at Yahoo, and for them it's crucial to keep things moving," said Mark Pavia, evp of digital at Starcom. "Ross has been changing that and the good thing is he doesn't need six weeks to figure the company out. He can move forward and provide the consistency they need."

“What Yahoo needs to do is focus,” added Shlachter. “They’ve definitely been spread too thin. When I think of Yahoo, I don’t even know what that means anymore.”

It’s Levinsohn’s job now to figure that out. At least for the company’s sake, he can hit the ground running. As one source close to the company put it, “In many ways Yahoo is lucky. Can you imagine if they had to conduct a CEO search again?”

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