The fifth floor of Facebook’s Covent Garden office contains more than a smattering of West Coast styling. The ping-pong table, chiller cabinets and bar area are prominent features alongside the posters containing various Facebook mantras ("Stay focused and keep shipping" is among the more renowned of these).
Some may find this a bit "try-hard", but then this is Facebook, a company that wears its culture on its sleeve and seems to be obsessed by its founder Mark Zuckerberg’s mission to "make the world more open and connected".
The social network is also defined by its need to make money. Especially since its IPO in May last year that created an initial valuation of $115 billion. The woman charged with the relentless pursuit of growing its $4 billion-plus annual ad revenues is Carolyn Everson, its vice-president of global marketing solutions.
In December, Everson, who maintains close contact with Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, relocated to London from New York. It’s the closest in the social network’s nine-year history that senior management has been to its London operation, where its EMEA commercial teams are located. Everson moved to London for a six-month period – partly to hire a replacement for Joanna Shields, the former vice-president and managing director for EMEA, who left in October last year to head London’s Tech City Investment Organisation, and partly to get closer to a region that is Facebook’s second-most-important in revenue terms behind the US.
Sitting on a sofa beneath a poster that proclaims "What would you do if you weren’t afraid", Everson refutes the suggestion that the move was a reaction to declining revenues in the region (quarter-four 2011 revenues were higher than those in the first three quarters of 2012). She says: "I would never just pack up and move to a market if there was a positive or any dip in a quarter – I have to have confidence in the teams on the ground."
In December, Everson restructured the EMEA team to give Stephen Haines, the UK commercial director, responsibility for pan-European agency sales and Christian Hernandez, the director of client partnerships, a clear focus on selling directly to clients. Everson says she is making progress in appointing a European sales chief (she has considered more than 60 candidates) and clearly has faith in Haines and Hernandez to do their jobs. For their part, agencies don’t seem to miss Shields. She is described by one senior source as being brilliant on "thought leadership and government – policy and privacy" but is said to have been less focused on the commercial side of things.
Addressing the challenges
The distraction of Facebook’s IPO is also held up by observers as causing some in the Facebook commercial operation to take their eyes off the ball. Does Everson buy this argument "My own job has not changed since the IPO. We need to make sure we recruit and maintain the best talent in the world, that we’re considered indispensable partners to our marketers and that we build and leave a legacy that will last a lot longer than any of us will be around. That’s what we’re here to do and we really believe in that mission."
Media agencies are generally ambivalent towards the "missions" that obsess various media owners, but they have been impressed by Everson so far. Mark Creighton, the chief executive of Mindshare, says: "She’s very personable – she has been into major agencies and not stayed in an ivory tower. She’s having very open conversations about the challenges –about the markets, about the battle to be first in mobile. There’s a realism there – she knows some things need to be addressed."
Everson has certainly thrown herself into London life, relocating with her husband and daughters to a rented house in Notting Hill. She misses her four dogs, which have been left back in the US, but otherwise is enjoying the experience. She is a warm, honest interviewee who doesn’t seem unduly uncomfortable addressing criticism of Facebook. As Creighton observed, she also knows that some elements of its work with advertisers need to improve. She says: "We probably had a little too much focus on product, product, product and we’re trying to pivot that towards solutions. The simple way to do it is to approach everything through the marketing funnel. Everything from awareness down to loyalty – that’s the language marketers use and we need to use their language rather than Facebook language."
This move will be welcomed by its customers. Robert Horler, the chief executive of Aegis Media UK, says: "Facebook as an ad proposition is complex. I think they need to do more work to make sales easy to understand for clients – Google has been very good at that. It makes sense to bring together as one thing with a simpler, clearer message."
Making progress on privacy
Everson’s distinguished career before Facebook should help her to lead this change. She came to the social network from Microsoft, where she was the head of global ad sales and strategy for just ten months. She says of the move to Facebook: "The phone call came from Sheryl [Sandberg] and it was one of those that I viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I believed in Facebook and had been watching it from the earliest days."
During a six-year stint at Viacom, Everson had responsibility for MTV U, its US college channel, when her college-attending stepson said: "You’d better watch this thing called Facebook."
She did and, in 2005, worked on a Viacom offer to acquire Facebook that was rebuffed by Zuckerberg. So it now seems fitting that she ended up joining the company: "I loved the product as a consumer and I found that every conversation I was in at Microsoft with any global marketer, all they wanted to talk about was Facebook. If you’re sitting in my shoes and interested intellectually in how marketing was evolving, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime calls."
Everson and her 500-strong commercial team face many challenges but, in their favour, they have a one billion-strong database of user preferences to offer to advertisers. She says: "Having that asset and being able to effectively and efficiently target who you want to reach is a very powerful media discussion."
Critics might suggest that Facebook is not a creative option for display advertisers, but brands are looking at the evolution of Facebook’s display model – which is moving towards ads located in users’ news feeds. Here, the social network treads a fine line and has faced strong criticism from a section of its users for disrupting their experience. Yet Everson says: "We’ve been careful; it’s a very natural and organic experience. From the marketer’s standpoint, the uplift has been amazing – anything from an 8 to 13 times improvement in engagement levels. If we mess up the user experience, we’re not a good partner for marketers."
Everson also claims that Facebook is making progress on addressing users’ privacy concerns – perhaps the one issue above all others that threatens to derail its progress. She claims that Facebook now offers greater transparency on how it uses customer data and that users also have greater control through their own settings. To reassure advertisers, Everson also invited its chief privacy officer to meet with its client council of senior marketers.
Assuming it manages to control this issue, Facebook’s biggest revenue growth is set to come from emerging markets. "The next billion consumers are likely to come from the Middle East, Africa, India and Indonesia, so I pay very close attention to those markets," Everson says.
Where next for Facebook?
Use on mobile devices also provides a large growth opportunity. Mobile ad revenue accounted for 23 per cent of Facebook’s total ad revenue of $1.33 billion in the final quarter of last year (it was just 14 per cent in the previous quarter). The shift to offering display advertising in Facebook’s news feed seems a key factor in this. Everson is coy on how the mobile ad offering might evolve beyond this, but on the subject of location-based marketing says: "I think there will be a tremendous amount of innovation on location-based over time, but let’s just say there never was – the fact we have almost 700 million people using Facebook Mobile means it’s already a dominant way to reach your customer. As a marketer, you have to be part of that experience."
It’s clear that Facebook’s advertising offer remains very much a work in progress – US case studies still outnumber those outside its home market, for instance, and the advertising offer around its impending Graph Search product will be a litmus test of its ability to grow new revenue streams. Everson expresses the need for improvement with an almost missionary zeal, which, coming from someone less charming, would grate: "When Mark [Zuckerberg] first interviewed me, he said: ‘I want the content from marketers to be as good as that from your best friend.’ That was his vision – I don’t think we’re there yet; I think it’s a long-term vision that we have to get to – but the goal is to have marketing become as integrated an experience as any content you’d get from your friends."