Column: Kevin Mayer's Exit and What's Next in the TikTok Saga
When news broke late Wednesday night that Kevin Mayer had resigned from TikTok after just under three months as its CEO, I was shocked. Kevin does not just quit anything.
I know, because I worked closely under him while he was the chief strategy officer at Disney.
There, Mayer was known as a mergers and acquisitions (M&A) wizard. Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars — some of the global franchises behind the unparalleled box office success and theme park attendance — were all Kevin. He was also known as an innovator. While other media companies clung to the traditional cable bundle, Kevin knew Disney needed to adapt and he pursued that belief with unrelenting conviction.
When we initially pitched Bob Iger on taking Disney's content direct years ago, the idea was met with resistance. But Kevin continued to make the case for change. Before every board meeting, he prepared TV channel subscriber loss analyses. In conversations, he relentlessly highlighted how Netflix and other tech companies would soon be key competitors. Slowly, he convinced key stakeholders at Disney that direct-to-consumer was the future, ultimately becoming chairman of the DTC & international business unit. You might have heard of a little service called Disney+. Like I said, Kevin doesn't quit.
With such a career as an unparalleled strategic thinker, it is no surprise that Kevin wanted to be a CEO. He said as much in the farewell note he sent Wednesday night to Bytedance employees: "I've always been globally focused in my work, and leading a global team that includes TikTok US was a big draw for me."
TikTok was his first foray into the top job, mostly because he got passed over for the role at Disney, which was a shock not just to me, but — let's face it — Wall Street.
So it begs the question: For someone who always sticks to his guns, what is really going on with the TikTok departure?
First, as with most threads in 2020, the TikTok soap opera is in a very different place than it was in June. Growth and legitimacy in the U.S. government's eyes are no longer the primary goals as they were when Kevin was hired. Instead, TikTok finds itself amid one of the most politically charged firesales in recent history.
With a sale of TikTok imminent, no one knows whether the acquiring company will have the same strategic vision as Bytedance did when they hired Kevin. But the new owner's first task will be to rebuild the engineering team and potentially that all-important algorithm, in addition to addressing data security concerns. Kevin may be able to handle that task, but unlike the growth-focused mandate for which he was hired, this is not an area in which he has a wealth of experience. The optics of his ties to China-based parent company Bytedance Ltd. as their COO may not have helped matters, either.
Come mid-September, Kevin's role would have looked dramatically different. As a leader who has always been focused on growth, spending the next few years playing political defense and proving to the U.S. government that the app's underlying code and data is secure — while Instagram, Triller and the next TBD social media craze gobbles up market share unchecked — is not what he signed up for.
From that perspective, Kevin's departure was the logical next step for him and for Bytedance.
But the news that ByteDance largely left Kevin out of the M&A talks is less logical.
ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming instead reportedly led the effort. When you have an M&A wizard on your team whose record is as storied as Kevin's, you put him in the game. So if he was indeed benched, I can't help but wonder why. Was it that he was on the job for a mere two months when this all started? Or perhaps it was the compounding challenges of integrating into a new business and never meeting his colleagues in person?
Leaving mid-transaction is never ideal. But with all that noise in the background, Kevin may have wanted to leave the company on his own terms rather than report to Microsoft, Oracle, PE funds or worse. As the leader who built Disney+ and armed the media giant with its mega franchises, can you blame him for leaving?
While there will undoubtedly be more twists and turns in the TikTok soap opera, including the likely imminent announcement of a buyer, one thing is certain: This is not the last we will hear of Kevin Mayer. I, for one, can't wait to see where he goes next. But for the moment, TikTok might need more of a regulator than an innovator at its helm to put out its political fires.
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