Adland’s verdict on the exit of Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg: ‘She hung on for longer than many expected’

The header image is an illustration of the Meta or Facebook and Instagram icons atop a pile of gold coins.

It’s the end of an era with Meta’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s planned exit from a 14-year chapter at the social media giant, a period of unquestionable success but one also marred by controversy.

Sandberg is due to vacate her role in the fall of 2022, although she will remain on Meta’s board, with chief growth officer Javier Olivan on course to take over the role of COO with the talismanic exec claiming she was “not entirely sure what the future will bring.”

As the stock price of the Facebook parent company continues to stumble — while down by 2.5% after hours on the day of the announcement, its market cap remained comfortably north of $500 billion — Digiday asked the ad industry to reflect on her tenure.

The ‘adult in the room’

Widely deemed as “the adult in the room” at the social network, Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 just four years after it was founded by CEO Mark Zuckerberg — he was aged just 23 when she joined directly from Google. “Sheryl architected our ads business, hired great people, forged our management culture, and taught me how to run a company,” he wrote in a press release reflecting on her tenure.

Replacing her is easier to do in title than capabilities.
Allen Adamson, Metaforce

During her 14-year run at the top of the company, Facebook scaled the heights of social media unseating incumbents such as MySpace, while Sandberg’s efforts in developing its advertising offering ultimately played a huge role in its transition from Silicon Valley start-up to publicly listed behemoth.

Matt Prohaska, CEO of Prohaska Consulting, said her efforts at “two of the best mousetraps ever built in media” are worthy of credit, but she must also be held accountable for the lowlights that happened on her watch.

“Zuckerberg has always been put out as the face of the franchise but she clearly has been the brains of the entire operation,” he said. “Every decision that was central to monetization regarding its use of data, both use and abuse, have been under her control.”

Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021 amid a broader industry reckoning on consumer privacy — and a move to dazzle advertisers in the metaverse. “She’s also become central to what the company has become in trying to earn its well-earned bad reputation by changing the name of the company to distract people,” Prohaska said.

Meanwhile, another advertising executive, who requested anonymity given their company’s interactions with Meta, noted that controversies concerning Facebook’s media offering, such as the multiple snafus over performance measurement, not to mention data security and content-curation concerns, have marred its reputation.

“She hung on for longer than many had expected — not just because of the metrics but also the sense that there was a drift politically towards the Peter Theil camp in Zuckerberg land,” noted the source. “Advertisers right now are already deeply cynical when it comes to Meta so this doesn’t necessarily change that.”

Exits at a time of existential threats

The announcement of Sandberg’s exit comes less than a year after Carolyn Everson, an exec that many also considered as one of the faces of the social networking giant on Madison Avenue exited the company.

Mack McKelvey, founder and CEO of strategic marketing firm SalientMG, noted how these key departures emerged at a time when its ads team faces growing competition from the likes of TikTok as well as emergent threats such as retail media, not to mention opposition from platforms such as Apple.

“Given the rise of Amazon’s advertising business, a potential ad strategy from Netflix on the horizon, and the continued challenges Meta faces from Apple’s privacy features; it’s certainly time for Meta to recalibrate its approach to advertising,” she wrote. “Sheryl’s departure should certainly pave the way for new approaches and plenty of discussions in Cannes.”

Allen Adamson, co-founder of brand consultancy Metaforce, noted how Sandberg’s departure is “the last thing the company needs right now” when it comes to its reputational stock on Madison Avenue given her stabilizing role in Meta’s C-suite.

“No way the next five years will be as fun as the first 10,” said Adamson. “One more piece of the foundation is shaky, COO keeps all the balls in the air all the time. Replacing her is easier to do in title than capabilities.”

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