Marissa Mayer Is the Right Kind of Game-Changer

The brand was languishing. The public dismissed it as outdated, uninspired, and a little stale. So in a bold move, a new public face was anointed — young, appealing, and energetic. It’s a script we’ve heard before, whether it’s yesterday’s much-lauded announcement that Google executive Marissa Mayer will become Yahoo’s new CEO or John McCain’s ultimately disastrous choice to pick Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate.

So is Mayer’s appointment a savvy move, or the last way-station on the road to irrelevance for Yahoo? As a marketing strategist who’s worked on turnarounds for both businesses and elected officials, I think it’s the former.

The richest opportunities for this kind of game-changing appointment are when your company’s public perception needs to be revitalized (as in Yahoo’s case), or when you’ve exhausted your current strategic options. Given the risks involved, you don’t want to throw a Hail Mary pass when it’s not strictly necessary — so firms should only go for a “game changer” when their branding situation is so dire, the only option is to create news that changes the conversation. Of course, McCain’s selection of Palin also changed the conversation; but what initially looked like an inspired decision quickly led to recriminations as Palin revealed herself to be unprepared for the national stage (witness her infamous Katie Couric interview). If the game-changer doesn’t have the chops for the job, these sorts of announcements can backfire.

But in this case, given Mayer’s engineering expertise and her long tenure overseeing some of Google’s most prominent initiatives, from Gmail to Google News, it seems highly probable that she possesses the requisite skills for the job. (In too many game-changing moves, that basic requirement is often neglected.) For Yahoo, her appointment could be their version of Bill Gates’ famous realization in 1995 that Microsoft had missed the boat on the Internet and, from that moment forward, would make it their primary strategic focus. Even if you’ve been lagging, you can capture momentum by committing to go “all in.” Indeed, Gates’ Internet play, including the bundling of Internet Explorer with its operating system, was so successful the Justice Department freaked out about antitrust violations.

And from a PR perspective, Yahoo handled the hiring of Mayer flawlessly.

The best game-changing moves are unexpected, counterintuitive, and consequently generate a great deal of buzz. Mayer’s appointment as CEO succeeded on all counts. First, early speculation had interim chief Ross Levinsohn winning the permanent CEO seat; Mayer’s name wasn’t even mentioned as a contender. Second, Mayer is young — and even in Silicon Valley, heading a multibillion-dollar company at 37 is relatively unusual. Third, Mayer is female (sadly, still rare for leaders). Finally, Mayer also announced that, come October, she’s due to give birth to a son. The Yahoo board is already winning points for their conviction that this is no impediment to service.

Understanding when decisive action is necessary and being bold enough to execute — that’s how game changing moves become winning plays. For now, Mayer’s hiring has succeeded in changing the focus from Yahoo’s past woes to the promise of its future. It’s not yet clear if she’ll be able to lead them to victory; but for now, just by agreeing to be their CEO, she’s kept them in the game a bit longer.

Do you think Mayer’s hiring is a true game changer? Is it just a PR move — or will she be able to turn Yahoo around?

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on July 17, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.