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Why Firing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Would Be a Dumb Move

By: Rocco Pendola | 08/06/14 - 08:00 AM EDT

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I feel compelled to challenge activist investor assertions -- most recently here at TheStreet and on CNBC -- that the time has come to fire Marissa Mayer at Yahoo (YHOO).

Before I set the table and make my case, allow me to begin where I end because it's important to understand an incredibly practical point roundly ignored by the hypercritical media:

Here's the key -- Marissa Mayer is in the process of giving Yahoo's ad sales people differentiators to take out on the street with them. This isn't about making friends on Madison Avenue or showing up on time for a meeting in Las Vegas. It's about building a slate of programming nobody else on or offline can match. As that happens, advertisers will increasingly make Yahoo their number one choice for a larger and more dynamic share of their ad spend. Mayer's job is to provide her sales folks the tools they need to sell something that's different from what everybody else is mindlessly schlepping (in largely uninspired and programmatic fashion).

On the surface, there is what seems like an airtight case to be made. One that's near impossible to poke direct holes in. And that's because, in and of themselves, writers can cherry pick excellent points (or lies of omission) against Mayer. All else equal, it's difficult to argue with Mayer's inability to grow core advertising revenue, which, ultimately, is what all other criticisms link back to.

That said, within the strength of the case lies its biggest problem. We're not dealing with a surface level situation at Yahoo where all else is equal and points made in favor of firing Mayer stand on their own. It's more complicated than that. The folks calling for Mayer's head don't seem to get this. In fact, I'm not sure they understand why Yahoo hired Mayer in the first place.

Yahoo could have hired any number of standard-flavor wonks to mind the company's stagnant advertising business. One that's stagnant both in terms of growth and structure. By that I mean, it's not growing impressively, but it's also not a very dynamic business to begin with. Ads and clicks. Although Mayer came from Google (GOOG), I don't think that's her strength -- babysitting what amounts to an automated advertising business. As I see it, if Mayer can keep that core reasonably steady -- as she has -- she has won. 

Mayer has her sights set on something bigger. And so did the Yahoo Board of Directors when it made the relatively controversial move of hiring her. They didn't want a bean counter or phony LinkedIn networker who could kiss Madison Avenue's ass. Or a firebrand who could cuss a big game during interviews, but get nothing done in the trenches for the long-term benefit of Yahoo. They've been there and done that to little more than rousing mediocrity bordering on failure. The Board hired Marissa Mayer to transform Yahoo, not keep it humming along as a quarter-by-quarter squeeze water out of a rock modest revenue growth "success."

While there have been hiccups, Mayer is doing exactly what she needs to do to not only turn Yahoo around, but build something that will endure as well as matter over the long haul. Her critics ignore the building blocks she has put in place -- quite possibly because they don't understand them -- choosing to focus on today's obvious, but ultimately meaningless targets for snark and angst.

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Rocco Pendola writes for TheStreet. He lives in Santa Monica. Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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