Alan Marks 'sells' eBay as online marketplace

EBay's corporate communications SVP looks to bring the famed Silicon Valley company back to relevance.

After stints with some of America's most popular brands, eBay's corporate communications SVP looks to bring the famed Silicon Valley company back to relevance.

In 2005, 10 years after its introduction, auctions comprised about 80% of eBay's marketplace. Yet today, 51% of the company's sales are fixed-price purchases, on track to reach 80% based on current trends.

At its analyst meeting in March, eBay announced its plan to focus on what it knows best – the secondary and surplus market, which includes secondhand and out-of-season goods – rather than try to compete with retailers like Amazon that sell new goods.

“Ebay's at an inflection point – a transition point,” says Alan Marks, the company's SVP of corporate communications. “We acknowledge that the external landscape is changing and the internal dynamics were changing, the needs of sellers were changing, and customer preferences were changing.

“Up until last year, the site was still primarily geared towards auction,” he continues. “There had been various efforts tried over the previous two or three years to address this. What you've seen in the past 18 months is
a much more integrated, focused strategy.”

And it is Marks who is working this new strategy to reorient eBay as “an online marketplace” in consumers' minds. This is precisely what he stepped into when he joined in April 2008, just a few weeks after John Donahoe took over as CEO from Meg Whitman, who left the company to enter politics.

Donahoe made Marks' role an executive post. “Alan asks us questions that force us to simplify and clarify,” he notes. “Once we define this strategy, he helps with the articulation of it internally and externally.”

This year, eBay also restructured its communications team and eliminated marketplaces as a standalone PR team, folding it into corporate communications. Also, after a series of PR departures, Marks says eBay is now focusing on hiring more managers and director-level pros, rather than adding VPs.

Overall, eBay might have turned a corner this year. In July, it reported eBay Market-places year-over-year decline in revenue slowed versus the prior quarter. It had its first analyst meeting in two years and hosted its own version of Let's Make a Deal, called “Let's Make a Daily Deal,” in New York's Times Square for three days to promote its fixed-price deals.

“Our strategy is to have more experiential moments for the brand,” says Marks. “EBay had done this in the past, but got away from it.”

Marks says he also wants to make heartfelt seller stories an integral piece of eBay's communications again. But rather than focusing on quirky stories of people selling towns or their lives, he wants to humanize eBay's sellers.

“These are the Main Street entrepreneurs of the 21st century,” Marks says. “We want to illustrate how people are really growing, succeeding, and using eBay as a way to really supplement their income and build businesses that are based on things they love.”

For example, he says, he wants to spotlight sellers, such as one who loves Africa and has built a business on selling collectibles and souvenirs from the continent's various regions.

“This goes back to why you love your hometown sole-proprietor store,” adds Marks.

A career with iconic brands Marks has a long history of working with iconic brands amid some tumult. He started working at Gap just when it was embroiled in its sweatshop controversy. He joined Nike when it was ambitiously integrating communications into a global brand management structure. But it's Marks' first job at Avon that has the most parallels to his present role. When he joined in the mid-80s, Avon had greatly diversified itself and was trying to return to its core business of beauty and entrepreneurship.

“Avon was very much about direct selling and grassroots entrepreneurialism,” Marks says. “It's some of the same dynamics at eBay. In some ways, I feel like I'm coming full circle.”

When Marks joined eBay, seller sentiment in the media and communities was its lowest after it had implemented a series of fees and other changes that angered sellers.

“All those changes were designed to help sellers succeed,” he notes, “so the irony of what was happening was we had no interest in rolling out changes that were detrimental to our seller community.

“A lot of the issues were really self-inflicted,” adds Marks, “but if you look at our major announcements since April 2008, we've gotten better at communicating changes.”

Most notably, he says, eBay agreed to do two major announcements per year to sellers on business changes. Handling such situations is why Donahoe wanted Marks for the post.

“Alan gets calmer the more stressful it gets,” Donahoe says, pointing out that Marks had to communicate eBay's first-ever layoffs last October at the same time it was spending more than $1 billion acquiring Bill Me Later and two Danish classified companies.

“It was a communications challenge – internally, culturally, and externally,” Donahoe recalls. “But we handled it with integrity.”

Marks is now focused on the road ahead. He says eBay was among “the first social networks, but the reality is we didn't make change soon enough” to remain a leader.

In July, he held a global summit with his team of about 100 employees across more than a dozen countries. The team, along with social media experts Mike Manuel of Voce Communications; Edelman's Steve Rubel; and Jeremiah Owyang, then with Forrester and now a partner at consulting firm Altimeter Group, talked about social media trends.

He then pulled a core team of people from inside the company and from its agencies to consider how eBay should organize itself around social media.

“EBay is looking at how to reinvent and contemporize all the tools we have to better engage audiences and help the community engage each other,” Marks explains. He's also shifting the company's center of gravity away from San Jose and allowing the best practices to emerge from any region.

“Part of what I talked about at the summit is– what's our measure [for communications]?” Marks says. “I don't have an answer right now, but we can do a better job. Particularly be-cause this is a company where the CEO has given communications a seat at the table.”

When Donahoe names the “integral” functions at eBay, he cites Marks, the CFO, the head of legal, and the HR head.

“There may be heads for marketing for the specific business units, but Alan's accountable for eBay Inc,” Donahoe says when asked why the company discontinued the CMO post earlier this year. “Every marketing dollar we spend at the Inc level, he controls.”

Marks is also aggregating best measurement practices from around the world and asking eBay's agencies to contribute ideas.

“My goal is to have a global standard so it won't matter where you're sitting at the company as a communications pro,” he says, “you're plugging away at the same metrics.”

Looking forward, Marks isn't focused on reaching a moment when eBay is no longer a brand in transition. Instead, he's focused on the new world in which eBay competes, where it's no longer the e-commerce leader.

“I've been through turnaround periods in other companies. There isn't a point when you declare victory and are done,” he says. “Most of the history of eBay, you didn't need to compete because it was the clear leader in e-commerce with this incredible growth trajectory. Today, it's more about having that outside-in perspective and being customer-focused.”

Alan Marks:

April 2008-present
Ebay, SVP, corporate communications

February 2005-April 2008
Nike, director, corporate media relations

1999-2005
Gap, VP, corporate communications

1986-1999
Avon Products, senior director, global communications

Evolution of eBay
1995: Founded by Pierre Omidyar

1998: Meg Whitman joins as CEO/ president; goes public in September

1999: Launches fixed-price trading with the “Buy it Now” feature

2002: Acquires PayPal, which today has 149 million registered users

2005: Acquires both Skype and Shopping.com

2007: Acquires StubHub.com and StumbleUpon.com. In November, Meg Whitman announces plans to retire from CEO post

2008: John Donahoe takes over as CEO, Alan Marks joins in April. In October, the company conducts its first layoffs

2009: Sells the majority of its Skype share for $2 billion

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