Silicon Hutong

China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Silicon Hutong - China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Yahoo! China According to Susan Decker

An Insider’s Account of the Yahoo!-Alibaba Deal
Sue Decker
HBR Blog Network
August 6, 2014

American businesswoman Susan Decker, president...

Susan Decker at employee all hands meeting in Sunnyvale, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have not yet stumbled across Sue Decker’s article in the Harvard Business Review blogs, please read it. Decker, who left Yahoo! in 2009 after being passed over for the CEO post in lieu of former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, delivers her view of the investment that effectively saved Yahoo!, and her role in it.

First person accounts are always suspect: one is never certain about how much of the history so presented is objective and how much is subjective. Thus, it was reassuring that the editors of the Harvard Business Review chose to publish it as an interesting curiosity rather than a definitive account or a case study. Still, the article made me a bit uncomfortable, for a few reasons.

The “Everyone Failed” Gambit

First, the author frames an eloquent but ultimately unconvincing defense of Yahoo!’s failures in China (in essence, everything the company did except the investment in Alibaba) that can be summarized in as “yes, we failed badly, but so did everybody else.”

That’s partly true: the list of US Internet companies that tried to make a go of it in China and failed is long and distinguished. But the ledger is not quite as one-sided as Decker implies that it is. 

Google had a viable business in China before it chose to stare down the Chinese government. Amazon has a business and is still in the game, despite having to go head-to-head with China’s 900 lb. e-commerce gorilla, Alibaba. Evernote and LinkedIn are making headway with tightly defined value propositions that make sense for China and the rapid refresh cycles that local users demand. And let’s not forget little South African NASPERS, a firm largely unknown to Valleywags that somehow managed to run circles around everyone else, making a brilliant early investment in Tencent that may ultimately outshine even Yahoo!’s windfall on Alibaba.

Decker suggests that the relative success of each of Yahoo!’s moves in China can be explained by the degree of control exercised over the China venture by Sunnyvale. The less control Sunnyvale tried to wield, the more successful that venture became. If that explanation seems a bit too neat and simplistic for you, join the club. I’ll come back to it shortly.

The False Management Paradigm

Second, the author skims over the fact that the joint venture with Alibaba failed to produce anything of value aside from Yahoo’s partial ownership of its partner. The joint venture did not save Yahoo!’s China business: the company’s China operating unit, valued in negotiations at $700 million, sank quietly beneath the waves soon after the agreement that handed operational control to Alibaba was signed. If anything, the Alibaba agreement destroyed Yahoo!’s operating business in China, or, perhaps more generously, sacrificed it in the name of a harmonious relationship between the parties.

Given the outcome, one might be inclined to say that the sacrifice was worth it. Perhaps. But neither we nor Decker should harbor any illusions about what this means for Yahoo!: that the company failed as an operating business three times in China, and that despite her assertions to the contrary, the degree of control exercised by Sunnyvale had no influence on the final outcome. Tight control, loose control, or no control, all three models failed. The one management lesson she tries to deliver in the article is a canard.

The Forgotten Brand Problem

Third, there is no mention in the article about what happened to Yahoo! and its family of brands in China. The brands that Yahoo! owned during Decker’s tenure – including the “Yahoo!” brand itself, each represented a repository of goodwill. The Yahoo! brand in particular initially occupied a position of great respect among Chinese netizens, both because of its success and because of Jerry Yang‘s Chinese heritage. In the process of thrice failing to make a go in China, Yahoo! squandered that goodwill, and thus destroyed the value of its brand in the largest online market in the world.

As a senior finance officer, Decker certainly understands the value of goodwill, as does Yahoo!: much of what they paid for their acquisitions was based on the goodwill and the brand value of the firms acquired. Any reckoning of the net value of Yahoo!’s investments in China must therefore take into account not only the sunk costs and the book value of the assets written off, but also the brand value it destroyed in its largest addressable market.

That this issue remains unmentioned in Decker’s article is, to a marketer like me, a final though perhaps unnecessary indictment of Decker’s narrative. In the end, her piece is not the full account of the deal from the inside promised in the title. It is, rather, an effort both to stake a claim of some credit for Yahoo!’s Alibaba windfall and to exonerate Yahoo!’s leadership – including herself – for the company’s poor operating record in China during her tenure.

Decker richly deserves her share of the credit for the deal: in the end, it saved the company. What she cannot claim for herself or her colleagues any credit for operational success in China. Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba Vice President who recently released a documentary about his time working inside the company called Crocodile in the Yangtze offers this thought on how to assess Decker’s legacy and her account of Yahoo!’s success:

How Yahoo! performed as an operator and how they performed as an investor are two different questions. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an operator (both inside China and outside,) I think we can all agree that their performance was poor. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an investor, we should take into account their entire history of investments and not just cherry-pick one investment that paid off. On the whole, Yahoo! did well as an investor over the years (due to Alibaba) despite some obvious failures. But people investing in Yahoo! didn’t do so because they believed it was a private equity fund. Luckily, the Alibaba investment turned out well and made up for Yahoo!’s failures on an operating level.

Erisman makes a superb point: Yahoo! did brilliantly as a private equity fund and poorly as an operating company. Nowhere was either more true than in China, so I suspect that if we – or Marissa Mayer – are ever to understand what makes Yahoo! tick, we will find the answers in a thorough, unbiased, and balanced account of Yahoo!’s China odyssey.

We will have to wait for someone else to write that account. In the meantime, please read Ms. Decker’s article. If nothing else, it is a valuable contribution to the oral history of American business in China.

Rethinking Mobile Advertising in China

Mobile Advertising Lags China’s Smartphone Explosion
Angela Doland
Advertising Age
January 24, 2014

Reporting from Shanghai, AdAge‘s Angela Doland writes a thought-provoking piece on how mobile e-commerce continues to outpace the growth of mobile advertising in the world’s largest smartphone market. As a percentage of all e-commerce, mobile is creeping into the double-digits, reaching as much as 21% during major holiday promotions.

At the same time, after years of effort, the most optimistic projections would have mobile advertising reach 3% of total ad spend in China this year. Given that Chinese users spend some 40% of their media consumption time staring at their mobile screens, you can understand the frustration of the advertisers.

Mobile Advertising Done Right

On the one hand, this trend should not surprise us. History teaches that effective advertising techniques for any new medium emerge only after an often extended period of trial and error. E-commerce initially grew much more quickly as a percentage of Internet-based revenues than advertising, and advertising was slow to find purchase in print news, radio, and television.

What this suggests is that the problem is not whether advertising can be adapted to mobile. The problem, rather, is that advertisers have yet to find an approach that makes the channel compelling.

Mobile Ad 1.0

There are three ways to approach mobile advertising. The first is to approach it as another channel for online advertising. This is where you talk about text-based advertising, display banners sized for the mobile screen, mobile search-based advertising, and ways to insert clever ads into music, videos, books and games consumed on a phone or tablet. Let’s call this “Mobile Advertising 1.0.”

My experience is that this has been the common approach in China, but that the challenges involved in making it work across three carriers, a half-dozen operating systems, hundreds of devices, and thousands of apps have made it difficult to get economies of scale. This alone might, in fact, explain why we are yet at such low numbers. Would it be easier with one carrier, one phone, and one operating system? Indeed. But I suspect that is not the real problem.

Perhaps, instead, we are misunderstanding the channel, and need to rethink how we do things. Back in 2006, I was in the room when my friend and former client Ian Chapman-Banks explained to a Japanese reporter that the reason that mobile advertising was having so much trouble was that we had failed to understand the value proposition.

Mobile Ad 2.0

Ian’s point (and I am paraphrasing heavily here) was that advetising as we know it was based on reaching out to chunks of people with similar characteristics at a given point in time. Mobile, Ian noted, had the ability to enable us to deliver a specific message to a specific person at a specific location and specific time.

In other words, what was keeping mobile advertising from being effective was that we were not using what made it fundamentally better than mass media advertising. This is the first time in history that advertisers could reach a person of their choosing at the time and place of their choosing, and all advertisers seemed to worry about was where to stick the banner on a small mobile screen.

Mobile advertising would be effective, Ian implied, when we figured out a way to make these capabilities work for the advertiser. Clearly, we are still looking for that combination, yet given the speed with which mobile is evolving and the innate conservatism of the advertising industry, this should come as no surprise. The key was to experiment and to keep experimenting.

The Mobile Ad 2.0 argument, then, is that if we want to figure out how to make mobile work for the nearly 1 billion mobile users in China (not to mention the rest of the world,) we have to experiment. Ian, who at the time had a generous marketing budget at his disposal, had allocated 10% of it to what he called “R&D:” money to try new channels of advertising and marketing that would not be evaluated alongside traditional channels, but that were just there to make sure that when something new worked, the company would be ready to exploit it.

So we aren’t at Mobile Ad 2.0 yet, but if we stick with it, we will get there eventually.

Is there a Mobile Ad 3.0?

Late last year I wrote a post that summarized why there are a number of ways to approach social media, each of which is guided by the marketing or technology silo from which one has emerged: practitioners who come out of advertising see social media as an advertising medium; people who come out of direct marketing see it as a direct marketing channel; PR people see it as a means of delivering messages; and so on.

What is different with mobile is that, in part because the challenge in putting mobile to work is, at the moment, much more technically intensive, the companies, departments, and agencies playing in that field have been those with lots of money. In short, it has been the advertising people. For that reason, we tend to talk about mobile as an advertising platform.

That exposes an assumption that is not necessarily supported by the facts. Zooming out of our ad-focused myopia one step further, then, we have to ask this: does mobile marketing need to be advertising-based, or are we missing something?

It’s Mobile Marketing, Jim, But Not As We Know It

In addition to allowing us to target an individual based on habits, time, and location, mobile also allows us to engage that individual in a conversation at a specific time and place. Mobile market research is based on that premise, and some of the early results hae been promising. As long as market researchers do not bombard us to the point of insensitivity with intrusive polls, and provided that we make it worth someone’s while to respond (good information is never free), this is likely to be a fruitful channel for some time to come.

Mobile has great value for point-of-sale applications based on near-field technology that go beyond completion of a sale. I walk into a hotel, and I am already getting notes on Foursquare about specials in the coffee shop. That’s a good start: it would be better if those specials were relevant to my dietary needs (e.g., “hi, David! We have great vegetarian options for you today!”)

Or how about direct-response on demand? When driving from city to city, I could tell Google’s Waze app on my phone that I needed a Sinopec station, and it would tell me distance, directions, prices, and offer me a coupon for stopping in.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a Mobile 3.0, and I think there should be, the opportunity is to start from the targeted user’s wants, needs, location, situation, and time, and work backward to the advertiser. This demands an intermediary who can make the match, of course. That’s why I think services like Criteo are going to translate well into the mobile space, and, in the long run, so will Baidu and possibly Tencent. The real gold rush will be for those companies who have the mass of advertisers on the one hand and the mass of users on the other.

Hence, Baidu’s ongoing interest in mobile. IF there is a single Chinese company that should make mobile advertising 2.0 or 3.0 happen, Baidu is it.

No PR Playground

What I am still trying to figure out, though, is where public relations has room to play in mobile. I have heard a few ideas, but I don’t see anything compelling so far. Classic advertising and classic PR don’t yet have roles to play in mobile to the degree that advertising does with online and PR does with social.

Yet every time I sit down and watch another compelling mobile technology demonstration, I am reminded that the tools we are creating today will be hopelessly antiquated, irrelevant, or both in five years. At some point, we are going to figure out how to make a connection between a company and a mobile user work out well for everyone. But we aren’t there yet.

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Five Predictions: China’s Business Environment in 2014

Hutong West
Sunday Afternoon Countdown to Morning in Beijing
1526 hrs. 

Much ink and focus has been given of late to understanding China’s political evolution. Too little, on the other hand, has been given to what it will all mean to those of us who must decide what role China will play in our business plans in the next two to three years.

Futurism is alchemy in the best of circumstances, and nowhere more so than in the case of China. Nonetheless, if we extrapolate from current events, it appears that China has embarked on a course of commercial nationalism, if not outright mercantilism.

In the spirit of the season, then, we offer our five predictions for 2014:

1. China will build a more protected environment at home for its state-owned, state-coopted, and “accidental champion” enterprises through an increase in the use of soft protectionism.

2. Those enterprises will thrive at home, but increasingly will be pushed abroad, seeking prestige, less competition, and faster growth.

3. Trade and industrial policy will test the absolute limits of what China can get away with under the WTO, and Beijing will conduct a propaganda campaign to try and undermine the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

4. Foreign brands will find it more difficult to gain share in China. In addition to soft protectionism, they will face the continued relative decline in the prestige of foreign goods/brands in a growing number of sectors.

5. In 2014 we will see the beginnings of a new crop of Chinese entrepreneurs, more of whom will be starting their companies from second, third, and fourth tier cities, or even overseas. The cost and complexity of doing business in China’s first tier cities – along with the declining quality of life – will shift focus away from Beijing and Shanghai.

I’ll be addressing these more in the coming year.

Silicon Hutong 3.0: The Merchant and the Dragon

In the Hutong
Where have I been lately?
0740 hrs.

If this forum has been silent for the past month, we* have had good reason. It is now evident to anyone watching that China is on the cusp of change so large that its own leaders likely still do not grasp it. We’ve spent the last month trying to do so, and we’ve realized it is time to make some changes.

The End of Harmony

The particulars have been summed up at great length and eloquence elsewhere. In short, China has enjoyed 35 years of relative harmony enabled by acquiescence at home, accommodation abroad, and consensus within the Party. The past five weeks have made clear that this period of harmony is now at an end.

In fact, China is entering a period of great disharmony. The implicit promise of growing, shared prosperity looks increasingly difficult for the Party to keep, just as revelations emerge that suggest widespread malfeasance among the Party’s highest ranks. The willingness of Chongqing’s citizenry to accept Bo Xilai’s microwaved Maoism hints at a national mood that continues to sour. Suggesting that China is on the verge of a new revolution would be hyperbole, but the days of acquiescence are over, and the days of a more vocal, demanding populace are here.

The consensus-building approach that has characterized Party decision-making for the past 25 years appears to have reached its limits as well, and for good reason. When the way ahead was sustaining the status quo, consensus was easy to establish. The way forward is now unclear, and different political end economic visions are battling for precedence. Building general agreement among all leaders, even within the Politburo Standing Committee, will become difficult if not impossible.  The choice will be between paralysis and the end of the consensus-based system. Either direction will have vast repercussions.

As China takes its place among the leading nations of the world, especially in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, the nation’s leaders have begun to address the world based on two implicit assumptions. First, that as an emerging world power China is entitled to change the rules of the global system to suit its needs, or ignore those rules if they obstruct China’s goals. Second, that the rest of the world will – or should – continue to accommodate China’s growing international assertiveness, even to the point of appeasement. That such assumptions place China at loggerheads with the rest of the world is of little concern. Japan, Europe, and the U.S. are too saddled with domestic troubles to effectively oppose China’s ambitions.

The Tale of the Merchant and the Dragon

If you watch China, none of the above should come as a surprise. And unless we’re living under a rock, we have to take notice. And we have. As we have done occasionally over Silicon Hutong’s decade in publication, we have taken a strategic pause in order to assess how we need to evolve this forum in light of China’s development. You will begin to see the results immediately.

First, you will see an evolution in our focus. Following the direction of my clients, this space has been moving beyond the original confines of technology, media, and public relations for some time now. We will now take the next step. Whether you do business in China or not, China will alter your playing field, and understanding why that is the case and what to do about it will be essential to everyone’s success. Our focus will become that why and the what. To that end, our five major topic areas will be:

  1. China’s Breakout: The emergence of China, Inc., and its role in global industry;
  2. China Rules: The effort by Beijing, Chinese companies, and Chinese executives to alter business norms, practices, and regulator behavior to favor Chinese firms;
  3. China Goggles: The globalization of China’s media industry and how that will enhance China’s economic and political influence;
  4. China Rewires: China’s consumers are going to alter the world’s business landscape, both for companies and consumers;
  5. Strategy, Action, Behavior, and Communications: Ideas and approaches to help executives and entrepreneurs deal with challenges of China’s rise.

Some of this, especially the last, is a recognition of the direction we have been taking for some time. The other four themes match the major directions I’ve taken in my own research and advising since 2008. It is now time to start delivering those insights.

Discussions about China’s national security, politics, arts, culture, history, and international relations will shift to The Peking Review, and will be delivered in the context of reviews of books, articles, and scholarly works about those topics.

There are more changes as well, but this post is long enough. Expect periodic updates in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and keep the feedback and comments coming.

Best,

David

* When I use “we” here, I do so not in the sense of the “royal ‘we,’” which would be a nauseating affectation, but “we” in the sense of myself and my wife and partner. While she does no writing for this forum, she is and has always been my sounding board and editorial adviser. Also, my time is our asset, so any expenditure of that asset needs sign-off. Finally, she has become a deep supporter of this forum (and The Peking Review). For those reasons, any major decision is ours, not mine alone.