Can David Kenny Lead a Yahoo Comeback?

So Boston is better than the Valley, right?

A few weeks ago, once Carol “F those doofuses” Bartz was sent packing, we clamored for Yahoo to look in New York City for its next CEO. Our take was that the company needed to embrace its strength — the media and advertising business — and let go of its failing and increasingly distant Silicon Valley past.
Now, according to Business Insider, former Digitas CEO and Yahoo board member David Kenny wants the job. He was even spotted spending several hours at Yahoo’s Sunnyvale campus. (He is on the board, so that might not be the smoking gun.) At first glance, Kenny — the former head of Digitas and Vivaki — would seem to be a smart choice. While not a media or programming executive, Kenny is certainly more apt to fill this job than someone who logged time at something called “Autodesk” — whatever that is exactly.
Kenny has helped steer plenty of dollars toward big media companies, and he surely knows how they work. Even better, Kenny knows how brands think. He likely knows more CMOs than Bartz and Jerry Yang combined. But Kenny is no glad-handing ad guy either. He built Digitas with a tech backbone. Over the years, Kenny always has come across as more excited when talking analytics than ethereal creative concepts. And since leaving Digitas, Kenny has spent the past 18 months hip deep in tech as president of Akami, the broadband backbone provider. He likes to joke that he likes managing a company with far more servers than people.
Kenny could serve as that “human layer” between technology, media and advertising that Yahoo is clearly lacking. He’s not an engineer, but he’s certainly not Luddite either.
From his time at Akamai, he probably has as in depth a view into the exploding Web video landscape as anybody. Akamai helps companies like the National Football League improve its streaming capacities, among other things. This insight will be valuable at Yahoo, which has enjoyed underappreciated success with Web video series and is looking to do more.
Yet, as Ed Montes, CEO of Adnetik noted, Akamai is a product company — exactly what Yahoo still thinks it is (but probably shouldn’t).
“Kenny clearly gets advertising and he has been at Akamai for a bit now, so you would expect his product development chops would have been well developed,” Montes said. “But if you ascribe to the notion that Yahoo is more of a content company than a product company, and if you agree with [Yahoo evp Americas] Ross Levinson that it’s really like a modern cable company, I am not sure Kenny has the content experience you need.”
Indeed, the knock on Kenny, if there is one, is that he’s not a editorial/publishing person, the type that sets the tone and vision for a media brand. But that might be OK, as long as Kenny brings in a solid number two. Perhaps Levinsohn can help fill that role; he at one point ran all of News Corp.’s interactive businesses. But even better would be a TV or movie person.
Maybe instead of a New York media magnate, an LA player would work. We suggested ex-ABC programming chief Steve McPherson. Because even though Yahoo’s success lies with its heavily trafficked media sites, outside of Yahoo Sports these brands lack a distinct , dynamic personality that brands will gravitate to. Otherwise it’s just a big site with lots of page views.
If not someone like McPherson, here’s a not-so-crazy idea. Buy BermanBraun, which has scored some wins in both TV and the Web, and put Lloyd Braun back in charge of Yahoo’s programming. Braun’s tenure at Yahoo was messy, but he may just have been ahead of his time. He knows how to attract audiences online. And Kenny knows how to market to them.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this line of thinking. One top digital media executive was far more bearish on a Kenny as a possible Yahoo CEO — because he’s not of the tech world. “I think he would be a mistake for Yahoo.” this exec said. “Agency guys like him think you can do for a company what you do when you try for clients and they’re not nearly the same set of problems or solutions. Yahoo … requires either a master technologist or genius operator. I’d say he falls somewhere in the vast middle of those poles. His considerable talents are what corporate boards are for.”

 

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