The “Hail Marissa” Play

The Yahoo second quarter 2012 earnings call is tomorrow, which is why the news that Google star Marissa Mayer is taking over as CEO today is shocking but not, sort of like the news that someone you’ve known for a long time is pregnant. Because yeah that happened too, to Mayer.

After a succession of terrible CEOs, Yahoo finally has a good one with Mayer, or at least one who is under 40. If anything, what Aol* competitor Yahoo needs right now is youth, hipness. My dark horse for Yahoo CEO was Dennis Crowley, but Mayer, who I wouldn’t have pegged for a long shot, was indeed a lot more qualified and possibly cheaper than the Foursquare founder.

We’ve long heard the gossip around the valley that Mayer was marginalized at Google, as the search company tried out a rotation of “faces of the brand” (Mayer, Gundotra, Brin, Schmidt, etc) to help make the company look more human than Android. After Mayer’s turn as mascot was over, she was relegated to “head of local search.” It looked to some like she had been demoted.

But today, she’s back! By hiring someone who herself is taking a risk, who might just be the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 tech company, Yahoo is starting to look cool again. Suddenly, we’re all *interested* in tomorrow’s earnings call.

It’s a “Hail Marissa” play.

“Lots of people considered working at Yahoo again today for the first time in ages,” one former Yahooer remarked, at least amused by the cultural fit between the ultra-efficient Mayer and the Internet’s chaotic purple dinosaur, “We’ll see what she delivers.”

It takes a genius, no, a wizard, to save a sinking ship and Mayer, who wasn’t particularly known for being on the cutting edge at Google, is going to have to be some kind of savant to take this beyond a savvy PR stunt for investors.

She inherits some real headaches: She’s now directly competing against former colleague Tim Armstrong, ex-boyfriend Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. She moves into an organization whose tech, products, and employees are a mess, and the resources it does have to clean up this mess are exceptionally poorly allocated. And most importantly, none of us can really imagine the Yahoo era being anything but over.

Despite this, even the most astute analysts have no idea what to expect with Mayer, and that is a glimmer of hope. “Speaking as someone formerly at Yahoo, it’s a welcome hire,” one shareholder told me, “Yahoo still has tremendous global assets. I hope she can recruit some more top talent to join her.”

Talented people want to work for other talented people. Marissa is indeed a more talented leader than her predecessors Carol Bartz, Scott Thompson, and even possibly Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, which gives her a leg up on the hiring front. But will she be able to complete a Jobsian turnover of Yahoo?

Well, she is at least capable of commanding our attention (for the moment).

*We’re owned by Aol.

Image of Mayer and Lady Gaga via