Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's message tumbles before digital creatives in Cannes. What would The Hoff do?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan June 18, 2014
The audience that heads off to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity know what they like. They like The Hoff and Kanye West; they're not so keen a sales pitch/lecture from Yahoo!

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What we like

It’s a particular sort of audience that heads off to the south of France for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and they know what they like.

What they like is David Hasselhoff taking part in social media experiments and camping it up on stage after running Baywatch-like through the audience.

Or hearing Kanye West offering to give Instagram a make-over.

What they don’t like so much is being given a thinly-disguised Yahoo! sales pitch by Marissa Mayer as the firm’s CEO found out to her cost yesterday during a heavily-scripted keynote session at the festival.

It was to be a session that saw Mayer digitally heckled as the discontented took to Twitter during her presentation.


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It didn’t perhaps help that away from the Yahoo! product push, Mayer’s basic message to the advertising good and the great at the event was that they need to buck up their ideas. She declared:

Art is advertising and advertising is art. Digital advertising needs to aspire to be as good as art and then some.

We are here because we believe that we can inspire and that is what we believe great advertising does.

Marissa Mayer in Cannes

Mayer went over some familiar memes, including her ‘betting the farm’ on four specific trends: mobile, social, native and video.

The first of these got a particular mention as she argued that the mobile format placed specific constraints on advertisers and it was such challenges that inspired the best creativity:

Advertisers have always faced constraints. Be it space, time, budget or otherwise. These constraints provide a great source of innovation to provide thoughtful, compelling and innovative campaigns.

Mobile is forcing the tech industry into a world of constraints.

For advertisers, we have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg. Mobile offers terrific opportunity to anticipate users’ daily habits. Mobile is the core part of Yahoo's future and of this industry.

But her strongest argument was against traditional banner advertising on web sites, what she dismissed as stuff “on the side” of the internet. What is needed is a mindset shift to embrace native advertising:

Digital is really the only type of advertising that hasn't fully embraced the word native. We have always done this with search. sponsored results that were naturally part of the experience.

But there is this notion of the internet with the sticker; content in the middle and these stickers with advertisements on the side. Native advertising often brings advertisers a better opportunity and experience.

To back up her claims, Mayer cited Yahoo! research that suggests:

  • Viewers of native ads are 3.6 times more likely to perform a branded search than viewers of traditional display ads.
  • Viewers of native ads are six times more likely to do a related search.
  • 46% of millennials who noticed branded content say they consumed the content.
  • One-third of those millennials shared the branded content.

She added:

Native digital advertising offers a wonderful opportunity for our industry which is that we are focused on pushing this product forward. We are focused on building advertising products that feel natural, in the user experience itself. For users it shouts delivering advertising that is just as good, if not better, than the content around it.

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But it’s not just for the good of the wider industry of course. Yahoo! has a more immediately commercial interest in pitching this line as the Cannes audience found out later when the firm announced that sponsored Tumblr posts will now integrate with Yahoo Gemini, Yahoo's mobile search and native ad marketplace announced in February.

Mayer had flagged up Tumblr’s potential in her address:

When we acquired Tumblr a year ago, we saw what you probably saw: an unmatched platform for creators and curators We also saw something else: A great platform for brands.

Tumblr is this incredibly powerful platform for brands that is unconstrained by pixel limits. It’s there they can through the power of personality show who they are.

When brands show their true colors, users follow, It’s a dynamic canvas.

She cited a number of examples, including:

But by this time, much of the audience was not in the mood:

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My take

Mayer made some interesting points, but sadly not in a particularly interesting way and certainly not in front of the right audience.

Someone, somewhere misjudged the moment.

That doesn’t undermine the basic thrust of her argument, but when you’re pitching to an audience of creative communicators, you need to do better than tortured art analogies and reading from a highly-scripted speech.

Next time, ask a simple question: what would The Hoff do now?