Dawn Airey predicts a 'renaissance year' for Yahoo

'We need to get bigger and we will get bigger,' Dawn Airey, the tech company's EMEA boss, tells Arif Durrani in a rare press interview since taking the job.

Airey: ‘Marissa Mayer is very clearly the leader of the business. But she’s storming it. Don’t think she doesn’t know anything… [She is] 30 IQ points smarter than anybody else in the room’
Airey: ‘Marissa Mayer is very clearly the leader of the business. But she’s storming it. Don’t think she doesn’t know anything… [She is] 30 IQ points smarter than anybody else in the room’

This summer will mark two years since Dawn Airey became the senior vice-president of Yahoo’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Campaign has finally landed an interview.

There is some solace in the fact that this is, somewhat surprisingly, only the second time she has formally spoken with the press away from conference stages since joining the company. The low profile is remarkable for someone who made her name as an outspoken, provocative executive during three decades in commercial television.

Predictions of a return to the spotlight after a quiet spell in Europe with the broad­caster RTL, along with any talk of Airey becoming this con­tinent’s tub-thumping equivalent of Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, have proved to be wide of the mark.

For many, it’s symptomatic of what happens to European leaders once they are subsumed by US tech behemoths whose heart and soul – meaning product and leadership – remain run from the West Coast.

But Airey is unapologetic for any perceived absence from the coalface. Much of her time is spent visiting offices in EMEA, and she also religiously spends one week a month at Yahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California.

In the digital age, taking an 11-hour flight every four weeks might seem excessive, but Airey is adamant the trips are worthwhile. Her blue/grey eyes light up when she describes the "hive of activity" and "industrious small breakout groups" that typify the Sunnyvale campus.

"My boss [Mayer] is there, all of our product guys are there and, to be honest, it really helps just being in the thick of things," she says. "There are always reasons to go. It is important EMEA has a voice. We have video-conferencing all the time but, actually, there’s nothing like the personal exchange."

'When I joined the business it was a mess. The structure just wasn't working'

She is quick to reject any suggestion that her internal focus has come at the expense of an understanding of, or ability to maximise, commercial operations in EMEA.

Airey is the first to admit she is not in and out of agencies every day – "far from it" – but assures that the local markets run "very effectively" and points to a significant restructure since her arrival as proof that she still has an ear to the marketplace.

Airey says: "When I joined the business, its UK operation was moving away from having an agency focus to being very much client- and vertical-focused, and it was a mess.

"It just wasn’t working in a country where 86 per cent of revenues come straight through agencies. That was done because I’ve listened to what the agencies were saying."

There was certainly a period of upheaval in her first year, most notably punctuated by the loss of the managing director, James Wildman, to Trinity Mirror, quickly followed a month later by his successor, James Flint, who jumped ship to Microsoft.

Most agencies concur that the UK operation, now led by Jason Talley, is back on track.

Suzy Ryder, a managing partner at OMD, is among those who say that reverting from having vertical specialists serving automotive, fashion and finance brands to one point of contact has enabled Yahoo to better understand the bigger picture, resulting in more responsive, strategic solutions to briefs.

Airey points to the arrival of Marc Bignell in the newly created role of head of trading, EMEA, as another "significant hire". The former chief investment officer at Omnicom Media Group is a seasoned trader by any measure.

"He’s serving agencies in a way that we didn’t do before and I saw there was a massive opportunity there," Airey says. "He’s a heavyweight. He knows the boys. He’s part of that culture."

Assessing Yahoo's financial performance

But what impact has the new structure had on revenues? Frustratingly, but following the blueprint of all US tech companies, official figures for Yahoo's UK operation are a closely guarded secret.

The company benefits from high levels of granular detail afforded by its logged-in e-mail users, which are believed to number about ten million in the UK. It’s early days for many of Yahoo's newer platforms, though, with limited commercial opportunities currently available.

Sources suggest search still makes up the lion's share of revenues, responsible for about 60 per cent, with display ads accounting for the remaining 40 per cent. Combined, the company is believed to have made in excess of £100 million from sales in the UK last year, but not much more.

Growth is believed to have been slower than hoped in 2014. An increase in the low single digits is thought to have been largely, if not wholly, negated by advertising partner commissions.

'I need to step-change our revenue and would like to reach double-digit growth'

This would suggest that Yahoo's UK operation, which comprises about 400 people (and 1,100 across EMEA), now makes less than a fifth of the display sales generated locally by Google (including YouTube) and Facebook. Of course, none of this can be verified.

No longer a tier one partner?

Matt Adams, the managing director of Dentsu Aegis' specialist digital agency iProspect, is among those who say the widening gulf between Yahoo and its tech rivals is an ongoing concern.

"They used to be a tier one partner," Adams says, whose agency of some 100 clients is one of Yahoo's biggest search spenders. "However, they have not been as open or easy to deal with as some of their rivals. You want Yahoo to succeed but it remains a harder business to codify. Among such large and quickly evolving competition, they are now more a tier two partner."

For Airey, who is marked out of five for her performance every quarter by CEO Mayer herself, there are no illusions about where her challenge lies.

"We need to get bigger and we will get bigger," she says.

Drawing on last year’s global growth of Yahoo’s so-called MaVeNs – the not-so-cute acronym the company applies to its fast-growing mobile, video, native and social businesses (see box below) – she believes the products and the team are now in place.

Airey says: "I want to – I need to – step-change our revenue and I’d like to reach double-digit growth. But PCs are in the descendancy – good old-fashioned display ads are not as profitable as they were. So our MaVeNs are important. They are not quite yet offsetting the falls elsewhere, but we’re working towards this year being a turning point."

Mayer 'just wants to get there quicker'

And what of Mayer herself: the celebrated 39-year-old who astounds and amazes in equal measure? She famously went back to work after just two weeks’ maternity leave and then put a stop to employees working from home in an attempt to foster "one Yahoo", which starts with "being physically together".

Airey pauses for the first time, choosing her words carefully. "Marissa is very clearly the leader of the business," she says. "But she’s storming it. Don’t think she doesn’t know anything."

Airey, who describes herself as "a bit of a chippy northerner", a product of parents from Liverpool and an upbringing in Preston, is clearly impressed. Despite having read geography at Cambridge’s Girton College, she says Mayer is always "30 IQ points smarter than anybody else in the room" and has a work ethic that is "staggering".  

The European supremo finds it easy to sympathise with her "straightforward" boss who "just wants to get there quicker" and credits her with turning Yahoo around.

At 20 years old, Yahoo has the dubious honour of being the oldest internet giant in existence. It used to be one of the most popular ways for people to access the internet back in the exploratory nineties - in search terms it was Google before Google. But the last decade of its history has been far from a smooth ride.

'We're the grande dame but we're still nimble, focused and hungry for success'

Before Airey joined, there had been six chief executives in five years, and its market capitalisation stood at $27 billion – considerably less than the $44.6 billion Microsoft offered to buy it for in 2008. Since then, the company’s fortunes have improved dramatically, its value reaching a 13-year high of about $50 billion before Chrismas 2014, and stands at around $44 billion today.

"Everything is coming together," Airey insists. "I'm very happy with the team and I think our value proposition is far better understood now. We're the grande dame but we're still nimble, focused and hungry for success."

She adds: "Until you work somewhere like Yahoo you don't fully understand the sophistication of the sell. In my days in television I always think advertising was an approximation: you sort of know it works because look at the outcome - brilliant for brand advertising.

"This business is so precise. It's real-time bidding in milliseconds across everyone's inventory. The sort of microscopic precision of what one does, and what advertisers and agencies can buy is just staggering.

"We have an unbelievable 1.2 billion users. And we’ve got more data about people than pretty much any company in the world, by virtue of how long we’ve been going.

"For five years before Marissa the company had lost its way, but she's corrected the course in her three years. The business is getting to the shape it needs to be to maximise the opportunities in the mobile world. This is our renaissance year."


Yahoo turns to MaVeNS for future growth

In 2014, Yahoo’s MaVeNS businesses accounted for more than $1.1 billion in revenue – a completely new stream achieved from a standing start in 2012. The company likes to tout the line: "If broken out on their own as a separate company, the MaVeNS would be the world’s biggest start-up."

MOBILE
Its key mobile products are Yahoo News Digest, Yahoo Mail, Tumblr, Flickr, Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Weather.

In February 2014, the Mobile Developer Suite was launched, including new products designed to make it easier for developers to measure, advertise, monetise and enhance their apps. The suite includes the analytics platform Flurry.

Yahoo has 575 million mobile monthly active users, up 18 per cent year on year.

VIDEO 
Yahoo claims to host the leading programmatic video advertising platform following its $640 million acquisition of BrightRoll in November 2014.

BrightRoll builds software that automates and improves digital video advertising globally. It offers solutions for programmatic video, including a media-neutral demand-side platform and the biggest marketplace to help advertisers, publishers and partners grow their business.

NATIVE
Yahoo Gemini offers a unified marketplace for mobile search and native advertising. Research found that smartphone users are more than twice as likely to agree that "if content is engaging, then I don’t care it is an ad".

SOCIAL
Yahoo and Tumblr now reach more than one billion users.


Airey on Channel 5

"I think Channel 5’s now in a great position. I’m really pleased it now has an owner that believes in content and is not just in it for a quick trick. I think Viacom will do very, very well with it.

"I am saddened that RTL were forced to sell after the crash of 2008. They were concerned of their exposure to free-to-air broadcasters – not just Channel 5 they sold in Greece as well. Ironically, they sold at precisely the wrong time. We had already taken an axe to the cost-base with staff numbers falling from 500 to 250 – and the business was well positioned for growth.

"I remember at the time the view was advertising was going to drop a further 6 per cent and it ended up plus 15 per cent after the bounce back in 2011. To be fair, all of the hard work had been for [Richard] Desmond before he got it. I did feel sad for RTL because they had been a consistent shareholder for 15 years and hadn’t really seen a return."

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