How Sheryl Sandberg changed the digital advertising business


Data: Zenith, Google, Facebook; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Sheryl Sandberg grew Meta’s revenue from $272 million in 2008 to nearly $118 billion in 2021. That’s over 43,000% higher.

Why it matters: Depending on who you ask, the corporate growth story she’s responsible for is one of the most impressive in history — or one of the most reckless.

Catch up quick: Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 after a seven-year tenure building Google’s nascent search advertising business.

  • At the time, the ad industry was only beginning to understand the power and potential of bringing small businesses and data into online marketing.
  • The big brands and big media that dominated the pre-digital ad world tried to replicate their cozy business in the early days of digital. Publishers were too comfortable to innovate, brands were too afraid to take risks, and neither tried hard to figure out how to kick online advertising into overdrive.

Sandberg changed that status quo.

  • In her 14 years at Meta, Sandberg oversaw hundreds of initiatives that would eventually create the modern advertising ecosystem — a world built on small businesses being able to target nearly any customer globally via user data.
  • Sandberg’s intense focus on scale and measurable outcomes for advertisers led to Meta’s massive commercial success and became the envy of Silicon Valley.
  • Soon after Facebook proved in 2012 that it could replicate its success on desktop for mobile, hundreds of apps began to copy Facebook’s model, hoping to get a sliver of the digital ad pie that, thanks to Facebook and Google, was exploding.

Few rivals would ever catch up. Sandberg’s experience in Washington and Harvard Business School acumen helped her identify a problem that most Silicon Valley innovators were too preoccupied to notice existed: education for advertising clients.

  • Sandberg spent years building programs and teams to teach advertisers of all sizes, from massive corporations to tiny mom-and-pop shops, about how to use its platform efficiencies.
  • Snapchat was the first platform to introduce vertical video, for instance, but it was Meta’s sales teams that persuaded advertisers to adopt that format at scale.
  • In doing this, Sandberg built a mobile ad market that would eventually benefit the entire publishing industry, but that Meta capitalized on first.

Yes, but: In the past few years, the innovations in ad targeting that power the massive digital economy Sandberg helped create have turned into a serious liability for Meta and its rivals, too.

  • A series of data privacy scandals, most notably Meta’s Cambridge Analytica debacle, has made regulators and consumers wary of targeted ads. Meanwhile, growing polarization has pitted tech platforms against political groups skeptical of the Silicon Valley giant’s intentions.
  • Those crises have overshadowed Sandberg’s role in Meta’s historic commercial success. And they’ve created a harsher environment for Meta to continue growing at its pace.

The big picture: Sandberg’s departure marks an inflection point for the company she helped build, and the industry she’s led for more than two decades.

  • The pandemic pushed even more of our business and personal interactions into the digital world in ways governments weren’t prepared to manage, creating an opening for bad actors to inject more misinformation, manipulation and fraud.

As the markets retreat today, Wall Street is less forgiving of companies sacrificing short-term profits for the promise of a brighter future.

  • For Meta, that means investors will keep demanding knockout advertising growth numbers even as competition from companies like Amazon and TikTok grows stronger.

What’s next: For Sandberg, stepping away from Meta as it moves into its next phase preserving her legacy as one of history’s shrewdest business leaders.

  • She leaves as the company begins a years-long pivot from mobile to the metaverse — a transition that leaders acknowledge will be challenging, given the trust gap that’s widened over time.
  • And most importantly, she leaves while Meta’s business is still booming. The threat of new regulations and stronger competition are making it less certain than ever that the company’s momentum will continue indefinitely.

Go deeper: Sheryl Sandberg leaving Meta after 14 years

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