In 2008, when Shishir Mehrotra joined YouTube to take charge of advertising, the booming video-sharing service was getting hundreds of millions of views a day. YouTube, which had been acquired by Google in 2006, was also spending as much as $700 million on Internet bandwidth, content licensing, and other costs. With revenue of only $200 million, YouTube was widely viewed as Google’s folly.
Mehrotra, an MIT math and computer science alum who had never worked in advertising, thought he had a solution: skippable ads that advertisers would pay for only when people watched them. That would be a radical change from the conventional media model of paying for ad “impressions” regardless of whether the ads are actually viewed, and even from Google’s own pay-per-click model. He reckoned his plan would provide an incentive to create better advertising and increase the value for advertisers of those ads people chose to watch. But the risk was huge: people might not watch the ads at all.
Mehrotra’s gamble paid off. YouTube will gross $3.6 billion this year, estimates Citi analyst Mark Mahaney. The $2.4 billion that YouTube will keep after sharing ad revenue with video content partners is nearly six times the revenue the streaming video service Hulu raked in last year from ads and subscriptions. And that suggests Mehrotra has helped Google solve a problem many fast-growing Web companies continue to struggle with: how to make money off the huge audience that uses its service free.
In 2008, Mehrotra was working for Microsoft and hankered to have his own startup, but he agreed to talk to a Google executive he knew about working there instead. He decided against it—but that evening he kept thinking about how the exec was frustrated that most ad dollars go to TV, even though nobody watches TV ads. Yet at his Super Bowl party two weeks earlier, Mehrotra recalled, guests kept asking him to replay the ads. Was there a way, he wondered, to make TV ads as captivating as Super Bowl ads, every day?
The answer came to him in a flash. …