YouTube’s new ‘wartime’ CEO faces the first-ever revenue declines and fierce competition. Here’s why insiders are betting on Neal Mohan.

March 1, 2023, 1:24 AM UTC
YouTube CEO Neal Mohan.
Misha Friedman—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Neal Mohan plays by the rules. After Stanford, he worked in consulting. For public appearances, he almost always wears a blazer—black or blue. In workplace chat, he’s known for his academic approach—think probing, astute questions as opposed to memes.

Now he’s taking his khaki slacks and understated demeanor to YouTube’s corner office as its new CEO, replacing longtime YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki. “He has a wonderful sense for our product, our business, our creator and user communities, and our employees,” Wojcicki wrote of Mohan in her departure note, listing the disparate, and at times conflicting, parts of the $29 billion YouTube empire that Mohan inherited on February 16.

It’s not just that Mohan has whizzed through performance reviews with high marks at Google. He was present at the virtual birth of online advertising. As a first employee-turned-executive at online advertising pioneer DoubleClick (acquired by Google in 2007), Mohan helped publishers monetize their sites and then subsequently at YouTube he engineered AdSense, a crucial platform to define video advertising and pay creators. 

But can the rule-follower keep a business that thrives on creativity and expression at the front of the pack? 

It’s a fraught time for Mohan to take over the social-video giant, whose online ad revenues accounted for 10% of Alphabet’s $76 billion in total revenue last year. YouTube is deep in the short-form video wars with Facebook and Instagram and Facebook Reels and ByteDance’s TikTok. Staff morale has taken a hit after parent company Alphabet’s deepest-ever layoffs announced in January: a whopping 12,000 employees. And the digital ad market is struggling, with brands cutting back on marketing spending and YouTube’s revenue having declined each of the past two quarters.

Mohan is a stark contrast to some of the big personalities helming other major internet platforms, such as Twitter’s Elon Musk and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg. If passion, creative energy and chaos have become the hallmarks of those leaders, Mohan is all about process.

“If I ever wrote a book on product management, one of the first chapters wouldn’t actually be about innovation and creativity,” Mohan said in a 2022 interview. “All of that of course is important, but it would actually be about decision making, and how you actually create the framework for fast efficient decisions throughout the organization.”

With the competitive and economic challenges posed by 2023, some might consider the environment best suited to a fiery and irreverent “wartime” CEO eager to shake things up (Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer until his own departure in December to become CEO of Warner Music, was known for being more “brash,” says a source close to Google’s executive team). With Mohan, YouTube is instead betting that a proven, steady hand is the best way to navigate the turbulent times.

“All of these companies, at the end of the day, need to build amazing products that delight consumers,” says Elizabeth Spaulding was CEO of Stitch Fix until January and worked closely with Mohan in his capacity as a company board director. Mohan, she says, “is an exceptional product leader.”

Though Mohan and Google declined to comment, Fortune spoke to seven members of Mohan’s network and former and current YouTube employees to understand his leadership style and where he might take YouTube on the heels of his legendary predecessor.

From management consulting to the dotcom boom

Mohan’s introduction to the internet industry goes back to its earliest days, when as a Stanford electrical engineering graduate he left his gig at management consulting giant Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and joined a New York City-based digital advertising startup called DoubleClick. 

DoubleClick is credited as a pioneer in the online ad business, particularly when it comes to the development of web banner ads, but the company’s early years were turbulent. After going public in 1997, DoubleClick was bought by a private equity firm. Under David Rosenblatt, the newly installed DoubleClick CEO, Mohan got the opportunity to play a leading role upgrading the business—fixing things that didn’t work, streamlining processes, and improving performance.

Mainak Mazumdar, who worked as DoubleClick’s director of research, recalls this tense period of history, when publishers first attempted to profit from digital content. “We were trying to solve a really complex situation,” he says. “He simplified it, and communicated back to the organization.”

During one meeting about ad performance metrics, Mazumdar recalls Mohan engaging in deep-level discussions with researchers, data scientists, and product managers, and driving the conversation in such a way that he was able to arrive at a technical solution that had eluded the rest of the group.

When Google acquired DoubleClick for $3.1 billion in 2007, some insiders credited Mohan’s business improvement contributions for the blockbuster deal.

“[Mohan] played a big part in making it worth more than 10X in less than two years,” says Ari Paparo, who reported directly to Mohan as the company’s vice president of rich media. “He was able to make it into a coherent set of products that had enough appeal for the $3.1 billion acquisition that took place.”

The two “least bad” choices

Mohan’s ability to delegate, ask hard questions and motivate while cracking the whip will be especially important as YouTube faces a new set of challenges, say a handful of sources. 

As YouTube’s chief product officer from November 2015 to February 2023, Mohan’s charge was vast and his days filled with meetings. He ran all products, from Kids to Music, as well as user safety, design and advertising solutions, according to a 2021 interview Mohan did with the Verge. The wide scope of Mohan’s job leads to speculation that he’s already been the one keeping the YouTube machine humming while Wojcicki served as the company’s face. “My guess is that he’s been largely doing this job already for a couple of years,” says Paparo. 

One of the biggest near-term threats to YouTube is the short form video boom spearheaded by Chinese rival TikTok. Mohan has been instrumental in YouTube’s effort to catch up with the launch of YouTube Shorts. So far, so good. Google recently said that YouTube Shorts gets 50 billion daily views, up from 30 billion a year earlier. And just as importantly, creators with whom Fortune spoke reported YouTube as their platform of choice (over TikTok, Instagram and Facebook) as it began paying creators for short-form video content. 

Still, many members of the YouTube “community”—creators, advertisers, and users—are anxious to hear more about Mohan’s broader vision, including whether YouTube can reclaim the innovation mantle rather than simply keeping up with new rivals and trends. Some of these priorities are expected to be laid out when Mohan publishes his first blog post as CEO to YouTube’s various constituents, expected any day. [Update: Mohan published his first blog post as CEO about YouTube priorities in creators, gaming, podcasts, TV and beyond on Wednesday.]

While Mohan may be known for an obsession with process and framework, those who know him say those traits are not at odds with developing buzzy products. “I feel confident as to how he will lead with the product chops that he has, and the ways in which he understands the business and the needs of the creators,” said Priscilla Lau, an Alphabet employee who worked with Mohan in Google’s advertising division before joining YouTube, where she worked for the last nearly 10 years before before getting laid off this winter.

“That’s the special sauce that is YouTube: taking the time to listen to creators and reward them and engage with them and create a community that is very special,” Lau said.

Given YouTube’s broad catalog of services, from music and podcasts to subscription-based premium television, there’s an opportunity for the company to roll out a wide-range of new features—and to cull parts of the product portfolio that aren’t performing. Earlier this week the company rolled out YouTube Music Radio Builder, which lets users craft their own stations on the platform based on up to 30 artists. The move should help YouTube’s music service better compete against Spotify and Apple Music, whose music apps currently lead the market.

YouTube’s recent deal to acquire exclusive rights to the NFL’s Sunday Ticket, reportedly for $2 billion a year, should give the premium YouTube TV offering a boost, as competition in paid streaming video services heightens. If the slump in YouTube’s advertising business continues however, the company may be forced to make some tough decisions about where to invest and where to pull back. Meanwhile, the advent of generative A.I. and the expanding access to deepfake technology are sure to create thorny new policy and content moderation problems for YouTube.

For Mohan, those situations could prove the best test of his leadership, and of the decision-making processes he’s built into the organization.

“By the time it bubbles up to me,” Mohan said in the 2022 interview, “it should be a very difficult decision that probably involves two least bad choices.”

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.

Read More

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward