Yahoo's Marissa Mayer: More sizzle than substance?

Marissa Mayer, CEO, Yahoo
James Martin/CNET

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY The appointment of Marissa Mayer as Yahoo CEO has been widely heralded as a coup for the struggling Internet portal. After all, Mayer was one of Google's first engineers, the long-time head of its vaunted search team, and one of the most visible faces of the company.

For those who long for the good old days when that contagious Yahoo yodel dominated the Internet, but have instead been made to suffer one unfortunate CEO choice and strategic blunder after another, it appears that your long string of bad fortune has finally come to an end.

Then again, appearances can be deceiving.

Back in June, a couple of high-profile articles about Mayer's workaholism caught my attention. According to Mayer, she typically works 90-hour weeks packed with 60 meetings. And in Google's early years, she said she worked 130-hour weeks by being "strategic about when you shower and sleeping under your desk."

At the time, something didn't seem quite right to me. So I did a little digging and was struck by how much publicity she got. More importantly, how much of it was about her -- her fashion sense, her lifestyle, how she avoids burnout, how she was the first female engineer at Google but just sees herself as one of the geeks -- and not about her company, Google.

There certainly seemed to be a preponderance of "me" talk in her interviews. Okay, so what. The high-tech industry has certainly seen more than its fair share of big egos and narcissistic tendencies in its entrepreneurs. It's pretty heady stuff to be young and in the limelight, that's for sure. Come to think of it, some never grow out of it. No big deal, right?

Well, here's the thing. Now Mayer's a big-time CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a tricky turnaround on her hands and a boatload of employees, shareholders, and customers watching her every move. That is a big deal. So the big question on my mind is this: how much of Mayer's rock star reputation is substance and how much of it is sizzle?

A tale of two Mayers

Soon after her appointment, Business Insider wrote a piece about Marissa Mayer's two contrasting reputations. The first is of someone who "played a crucial role in helping Google develop its most valuable business -- search -- and then went on to guide the development of several other popular products including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google News." And she has some pretty high-powered fans in high-tech investors Marc Andreesen and Fred Wilson.

The second perspective, which BI says is "more common amongst long-time Googlers," is that "Mayer is a publicity-craving, lucky early Googler, whose public persona outstripped her actual authority and power at the company, where she was once a rising star -- thanks to a bullying managerial style -- but had become marginalized over the past couple of years."

To substantiate that, the article cited a former Google executive who described Mayer as someone who "will work harder than anyone" and "is smarter than 99 percent of the people," but "doesn't understand managing any other way than intimidation or humiliation."

According to the source, Mayer was "a nightmare" to work with, made other VPs sit outside her office and wait to meet with her in five minute increments, and even had her own publicist, which I guess accounts for all the publicity. And while she reportedly got some executive coaching from former Intuit chairman Bill Campbell, it didn't end well, although nobody seems to know exactly what happened.

The great AdSense controversy

Back in 2007, there was a big controversy over who really invented Google's second largest business, AdSense. In a USA Today feature story, Susan Wojcicki -- Google's employee number 18 and vice president of product management -- explained how she came up with the idea of extending Google AdWords beyond search and into all sorts of content on the web.

Soon thereafter, Gawker's Owen Thomas penned "Susan Wojcicki's big lie," where he said AdSense was a product of a company called Applied Semantics, and that it preceded Google's version. Well, that sparked a fight between Gawker and Google -- which defended Wojcicki's story on CNBC. The classic "he said, she said" debate was pretty widely reported but eventually, everyone simmered down and got back to business.

Unfortunately, the controversy didn't end there.

Two months later, Marissa Mayer gave an interview with her own version of the birth of AdSense. According to Mayer, she and Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit debated whether to put contextual ads in Gmail -- an internal Google email program, at the time. One night Paul wrote some code that incorporated ads in Gmail. Since Mayer and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page thought the ads were effective, the program stuck and AdSense was born. But Mayer's story made no mention of Wojcicki, something Gawker took note of in resurrecting the debate.

Well, after reading everyone's account and piecing the whole thing together, it seems that, much like the whole "who invented the internet?" controversy, everyone had a piece of AdSense. Wojcicki may very well have had the idea first at Google. Buchheit almost certainly implemented it first in Gmail. And Applied Semantics did have a product named AdSense, a name that Google adopted when it bought the company in 2003.

What I find particularly interesting about all this is the way in which Mayer, a Google executive, jumped into the middle of a very public, soap opera-like controversy and, instead of clearing things up, managed to both muddy the waters and add fuel to a fire that had finally begun to die down.

What exactly was Mayer's motivation for doing that is anyone's guess, but I don't think that sort of controversy benefited Google one bit. And yet, Mayer saw fit to resurrect her "Birth of AdSense" story at Bloomberg Businessweek's Captain of Industry event in March of this year.