Tiktok has got a new chief—and he’s American. On Tuesday, Disney and Bytedance announced, in synchronized press releases, that Kevin Mayer, the man behind Disney+ and baby Yoda, was leaving Disney and joining Bytedance as CEO of Tiktok and global COO of Bytedance (which is much more than Tiktok). He is set to start on June 1 as Tiktok CEO and Bytedance’s global COO and will be based in LA.

Many are skeptical about the new hire. Tiktok is under a lot of pressure to prove it doesn’t answer to Beijing, thus making the move perhaps more about optics than operations. And Chinese companies don’t have a great track record with Western transplants. From Alibaba to Maotai, from Xiaomi to Baidu, there seems to be a serious mismatch between expectation and reality that forces high-profile hires to reconsider their decision. 

But Bytedance is not like other Chinese tech majors: Tiktok is China tech’s first true global hit in consumer-facing software. Neither Alibaba, Tencent, nor Baidu has anything like it. The only Chinese brands that have done well in the West are hardware-focused companies like Huawei and Xiaomi. An America CEO could be the right kind of localization that China’s most international tech major needs.

Bottom line: The jury’s out on how long Kevin Mayer will last and how much impact he will have, but given his track record and ambition, the move is significant. Mayer may be exactly what the company needs to fuel its next stage of growth. 
 
I used to be quite bearish on Bytedance, but after learning more about them, my opinion has changed significantly. They are one of the only true tech companies in China. Alibaba and Tencent translated an offline business model into the online space. Bytedance, on the other hand, has built its entire company on the back of a robust and extensible recommendation AI system. The company is almost indistinguishable, in its culture, products, and technology, from its Silicon Valley counterparts. Like those counterparts, it has proven that scalable technology can bring great success in new markets even if you don’t understand those markets very well.

A gaping hole: If politics weren’t an issue, it wouldn’t matter at all that it’s based in China and not the Valley.  Butpolitics do matter. When it comes to China, they matter even more. What Bytedance has in product development, they have lacked in global compliance, communication, and transparency and could derail its explosive growth.
 
After Bytedance lost a lot of momentum (and users!) in India last year, I wrote:

Unlike other Chinese companies that have enjoyed success abroad, such as smartphone makers, Bytedance creates products that have the potential—if not managed well—to create considerable social harm. . . Given the mounting pressure on Chinese companies as they seek new markets abroad, Bytedance cannot afford to trip over their own feet as they continue their meteoric growth.

Since then, they’ve come under increasing scrutiny for their content moderation policies, including discrimination against the disabled and the ugly, as well as what they do with the data of international users.
 
Michael Norris, a regular contributor to TechNode, wrote in an open letter to Tiktok in December:

Jingoistic politicians  aren’t your fault, but you’ll have to go all-out to add substance to your claims that TikTok’s management, operations, apps, markets, users, content, teams, and policies are separated from Chinese government interference. 

That’ll be made difficult by your connections to the Chinese Communist Party. These connections spur Bytedance to censor  sensitive videoscollaborate with party-related organizationspromote videos praising China’s armed forces, and de-tag videos which contain particular political figures.

Short detour: It’s not a Chinese company? According to a New York Times report, Tiktok claims it isn’t Chinese:

A TikTok spokesman on Monday stressed that TikTok was not owned by a Beijing-based company. Instead, its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, though he could not say how many people are based there. That entity owns TikTok and all of the businesses in China, he said.

If you buy that Tiktok is from the Caribbean, perhaps I can interest you in some tickets to the next Fyre Festival?

Filling the gaps: Kevin Mayer isn’t Tiktok’s first international senior hire. Since 2018, they’ve regularly brought in non-Chinese executives to beef up compliance, communication, and product:

  • Nov 2018: Mike Rodriguez, former Community Specialist at Youtube, joins Tiktok as head Content Strategy and Programming.
  • Feb 2019: Tiktok hires Vanessa Pappas, former Youtube Global Head of Creative Insights
  • April 2019: Digiday reports that Tiktok had poached up to 14 people from Snap.
  • Oct 2019: Nikhil Gandhi joins Tiktok as its India head.
  • Dec 2019: Richard Waterworth, former head of EMEA marketing at Youtube,  becomes GM for Tiktok in UK and EU.
  • Jan 2020: Tiktok announces it has hired Microsoft IP chief, Erich Andersen, as general counsel.
  • Mar 12 2020: The company announces the opening of a content moderation transparency center in the US.
  • Mar 19 2020: Tiktok says it has formed an external content moderation advisory board made up of mostly American experts.
  • As of May 22, most/all of these hires are still at Tiktok. 

An American in Bytedance: Chinese companies aren’t known for their ability to assimilate Western executives. But given Bytedance’s global hiring history, and how well it has retained American hires, I would not be surprised if Mayer, and Bytedance, prove to be a very visible exception to the historical pattern.

With his background in acquisitions, [Mayer] could build this into a colossus internationally, if internal company politics and resentment toward a foreign boss doesn’t get in the way.

Jim McGregor, Chairman, Greater China, APCO Worldwide

Who is Kevin Mayer? Mayer is most known for his efforts to build Disney’s streaming service. Judging by his CV, he is capable and ambitious:

  • 1993: He joins Disney’s Interactive/Internet and television businesses, working on strategy and business development.
  • Feb 2000: Kevin Mayer takes over as CEO of Playboy.com Inc.
  • Sep 2000: He takes over as chairman and chief executive officer of the Clear Channel Internet Group.
  • Feb 2002: Mayer joins L.E.K. Consulting LLC as a partner and head of the global media and entertainment practice.
  • 2005: He is appointed as executive vice president of Disney’s new Corporate Strategy, Business Development and Technology Group. In this role, he was involved in the purchases of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox.
  • 2019: He is rumored in Bloomberg as possible next CEO of Disney
  • Feb 25 2020: Mayer loses the fight to become CEO of Disney to Bob Chapek.
  • May 19 2020: Bytedance announces that Mayer will join on June 1.

What he brings to the table:

  • He’s not Asian: When talking with regulators or testifying to Congress, Tiktok will no longer have a face, literally, that reminds everyone of its origins.
  • And handsome: He might be pushing 60, but he’s still got that all-American, just-stepped-off-the-football-field-look. Just sayin’.

Both points above seem superficial, but in the time of the “China virus,” it would be foolish for Bytedance to not take this into consideration.

  • His experience with content: Given his experience with buying and selling content powerhouses, many are expecting him to go on an acquisition spree.
  • His experience managing a global operation: Right now, everyone at Bytedance still reports to Beijing. Now, as head of Tiktok and COO of Bytedance’s global operations, all country GM’s will report to LA instead.

Short video decoupling? Douyin, under Zhang Nan, and Tiktok, under Alex Zhu, were already following different development trajectories. While Douyin carries its share of political content, Tiktok has done its best to be the exact opposite of Twitter and Reddit: a place where people can forget about the political debates of the day and relax with cute pet videos or maybe even pick up a new skill.
 
However, that’s just the frontend. The backend, the most valuable IP the company owns, is all created and maintained in China. Almost all of Tiktok’s engineers and product managers are still in Beijing and that doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future. But, having a clear delineation between Beijing and the rest of the world, or at least the appearance of one, could help Bytedance get out of the mire it’s found itself in.

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John Artman

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...