Can Scott Thompson Turn Around Yahoo?

New Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson admitted publicly in his inaugural introduction to the press that he had “no informed opinion” on the display business, Yahoo’s primary source of revenue. The question is whether he’ll get up to speed quick enough to move Yahoo is the right direction in tapping its troves of data and content assets.

Yahoo has serious assets for Thompson to build upon. It has the world’s third most-visited homepage, with more than 660 million viewers. It has powerful data assets thanks to its still-popular email service. It also has deep ties with brand advertisers and agencies. Is that enough?

Thompson’s own remarks during a conference call with investors on Wednesday offered a list of general pep rally phrases but little in the way of concrete initiatives to comfort shareholders or marketers on Yahoo’s untapped potential. While Thompson promised to attack Yahoo’s challenges with “an appropriate balance of urgency and thoughtfulness,” he stated that his main objective was to “determine the best path forward for our core business.”

Thompson stated that his “core beliefs about how you grow this business” were centered on driving consumer engagement with content and bringing more visitors to the company’s homepage. The problem with that model is that if Yahoo is already losing display market share with 660 million-plus uniques, would even 50 million more convert brands and drag them away from Facebook? Getting more eyeballs on Yahoo isn’t the company’s biggest problem; it’s knowing what to do with them.

During the conference call, Thompson responded to a pointed question from Doug Anmuth, an analyst at JP Morgan, with a startling show of his lack of familiarity with the display space.

Anmuth: “I just wanted to get a sense on whether you had a view on what Yahoo needs to do in the display space as it competes more with Facebook and Google. I,mean, we are obviously seeing a pretty big shift in the landscape as display goes more towards RTB, exchanges, more data and personalization? How do you plan to leverage your technology background here in display specifically?”

Thompson: “It is just too early yet for me to have any informed opinion as it relates to the display space and what is happening there and what’s going to be happening next. The one thing that I would say to you — and this is very, very important for this business and a number of others — is that the data that these internet businesses create, and the analytical ability to understand what that data tells you, and the ability then to use analytics and technology to understand what that data tells you to drive a better outcome for your customers — in almost every business that I’m familiar with, online and offline — is becoming more and more critical. I’ve only got a glimpse at this point of how much data these wonderful businesses of Yahoo have. A lot to learn, still very early days, but my instinct tells me that down in that data, we will find ways to compete.”

Thompson’s ability as a leader in driving growth at his earlier gig at Paypal isn’t in question, but if he’s still learning about the rudiments of his chosen company’s core business his first day on the job, Yahoo may be in for more drifting before finally finding its course.

“Data is a very hard concept to understand unless you’re in the middle of it,” said Thompson in response to another analyst’s question. “And we will be, Yahoo will be in the middle of it.”