Feature

Guru Gowrappan explains what's on the horizon for Verizon

With his background in engineering, Guru Gowrappan is perfectly placed to build Verizon Media’s brands, and thus realize his dream of improving lives through trusted content, connections and commerce.

“I’m a technology guy who loves building products. That’s my core.” It’s a telling statement from the boss of one of the web’s largest media companies, but unlike his C-suite rivals, Guru Gowrappan is not a publisher or producer – he’s an engineer.

Over the course of a nomadic, continent-spanning career he’s found himself at the center of the tech zeitgeist on more than one occasion, working in Silicon Valley amid the social gaming boom and with Alibaba during the Chinese e-commerce titan’s rise to the top. Throughout, he’s been known as a fixer, troubleshooting problems and building new products. Now he’s at the helm of Verizon Media, tasked with guiding its many brands to success in a hyper-competitive sector.

After training as an engineer in Chennai, Gowrappan helped found two startups that sound impressively ahead of their time. The first, a digital medical records service called HelpPatient, will chime with anyone who’s kept an eye on the development of Ali Parsa’s Babylon, while Techfolk, a sharing network for engineers, was probably half a decade too early to the social network free-for-all of later years.

Gowrappan joined Yahoo’s Pasadena office in 2005, eventually rising to the position of business operations director. But, he says: “I knew social was the future and wanted to be on the ground floor.” In 2010 that instinct led him to Zynga during the social games company’s imperial phase, when viral social games such as FarmVille and Words With Friends helped fuel the growth of social networks like Facebook. Gowrappan began running Zynga’s mergers and acquisitions and mobile units and was part of the IPO team that took the company public, before leading the business’s Japanese division.

After a stint as the chief operating officer and president of mobile search firm Quixey, Gowrappan joined Alibaba in 2015, just as the retail behemoth was beginning to make its ambitions and abilities known outside China. The experience was highly instructive for Gowrappan. As global managing director, he says: “I joined at a transformative time for the company – I learned an incredible amount working for Jack Ma and building the business. I’m really proud of what we were able to do.

“Alibaba’s success has been driven by its ability to evolve. It went from a simple marketplace to a deeper commerce and content engine and ecosystem. It evolved and was rewarded.”

Gowrappan took Ma’s willingness to adapt – and his own engineer’s instinct for simple solutions – with him to Verizon Media when he took on the chief executive’s role last year. He tells The Drum: “Candidly, it was difficult to explain what Oath [Verizon Media’s former name] was and to define its core mission. Oath was a part of the Verizon family and I wanted to embrace that explicitly. I needed that to be clear and our story to be easier for our customers and partners to understand.

“Within the first week of stepping into the role, I changed the name from Oath to Verizon Media. Now people know it’s Verizon and it shows our commitment. It shows that we’re on this journey together, building growth and returning our media brands to relevance.”

The name on the masthead wasn’t the only problem he found upon his ascension. Verizon took a $4.6bn write-down on the business and Gowrappan led a months-long review of Verizon’s sprawling portfolio, after which he laid off 7% of its workforce. While his company owns “some of the best-known media brands in the world”, Gowrappan says brand recognition “is not enough to ensure success”.

To solidify the business, he has vowed to make Verizon Media brand-safe while also diversifying its income streams to include e-commerce and subscription revenue.

“We need to diversify and broaden our business to compete long-term in today’s digital marketplace. My vision over the next five years is to divide our revenue across three areas: ads, subscriptions and transactions (or commerce). In five years, I want one-third of our revenue to be from each of those buckets. We’ve already rolled out several of these experiences and are seeing incredible early returns.

“We have a huge gap between brand recall and product relevance and brand consideration, which presents us with a tremendous opportunity,” he says. “We can close that gap by fixing the product, changing and evolving. That is where all the exciting work is happening now – with product development and innovation.”

According to Gowrappan, he’s building “a more engineering-led, product development culture” at Verizon – a mission that fits his own background in development and parent company Verizon’s telco heritage.

“I believe we have an unparalleled opportunity to couple our scale with helping as many people as possible live better lives through trusted content, connections and commerce. To deliver on that promise, we need to create compelling experiences, evolve our products and align that with the culture, moving it all to that next level. All of that is part of my mission.”

Gowrappan sees his mission at Verizon Media as crucial not just for the future of his company, but the web itself. “Today, the internet has grown so big that people spend much of their time sifting through what they don’t care about to find the things they do. They don’t want the whole internet. They want their internet. One that’s personalized and customized to their interests. One that puts them in control,” he says.

“In an age of internet overload, our charge is to amplify what matters most to people, keeping the world interested and interesting. We want to be the brand that gives people more of what they want, and less of what they don’t.”

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