YouTube’s Neal Mohan on Advertising, Scaling, and Governing Open Platforms
Throughout his career, Neal Mohan has been among the forefront of several major shifts within the internet ecosystem.
Mohan, who is the chief product officer of YouTube and senior vice president at Google, began his internet career at DoubleClick in the ‘90s, where he was a pioneer of the now-widespread advertising business model. He arrived at Google via the company’s 2007 acquisition of DoubleClick, and was instrumental in expanding advertising technology as well as laying the foundation for user-generated content platforms to thrive.
“Advertising business models are about scale, and the internet from the very early days has always been about scale, about global audiences, people all over the world,” says Mohan. “Advertising allows you to do that because it enables revenue generation and content production in a way where there’s no friction between the consumer of the content and the [platform].”
That lack of friction, as well as that drive for scale, allow for a widely accessible product, too. Says Mohan: “Advertising business models generally keep access to information, content, and knowledge free. That’s the ethos of companies like Google and YouTube, but it’s a fundamental ethos of the internet. It’s always about fundamentally powering the creation and consumption of all this incredible information.”
And powered it has: YouTube now serves more than 2 billion global users, including 50-million-and-counting paid subscribers between YouTube Premium and YouTube Music.
Directly feeding into this growth is the fact that YouTube has taken its partnership with content producers seriously from the start, understanding that the creator economy is, in fact, an economy — and actively seeking ongoing, layered monetization opportunities for those fueling it was the best way to sustainably scale.
In his conversation with Greylock general partner David Thacker, Mohan talks about the connection between those creating and consuming content, the complexity that comes with scale, and why the YouTube community guidelines that govern content are essential to it being an open platform.
This interview is part of Greylock’s Iconversations series. You can watch the video from the event on our YouTube channel here, and listen to the podcast below.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greylock’s Iconversations. I’m David Thacker, a general partner at Greylock. Our guest today is Neal Mohan, who is a chief product officer of YouTube and senior vice president at Google. Neal oversees every aspect of the YouTube platform and ecosystem for over 2 billion users and millions of content creators and media partners.
He began his tech career in the 1990s at DoubleClick, which is widely regarded as the original internet ad tech company. He was instrumental in scaling the company up until its acquisition by Google in 2007. Following the acquisition, Neal led Google’s video and display advertising strategy, which transformed YouTube’s nascent offerings into one of the company’s largest business channels.
Today, Neal leads all product, user experience, safety, and trust across YouTube, and is responsible for the creation and enforcement of policies and guidelines that dictate what content is allowed on the platform.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Neal for about 15 years, going back to our time working together at Google. We’re excited to have him with us here today. Welcome, Neal.
Thanks, David. It’s great to be here and it’s great to see you. I remember a lot of those Google days very, very fondly — working together back in the Building 42 days.
Yep, Building 42. Well, let’s start off. I think everyone in the audience always likes to understand people’s career story, how they end up in technology and startups. So, can you tell us about your early career and how you got into the world of technology startups?
Sure. I’ll share a little bit and, of course, by doing this, I’m going to be dating myself. But I entered the tech industry back in the mid ’90s. I graduated with a degree in Double E [electrical engineering] and took a lot of CS classes. I’ve always been interested in technology, even before college, and so I always knew that working with computers, doing something in computer science and technology, was always going to be the career path that I wanted to be on. That was one aspect.
The other thing that I would say is, when I graduated and came into the workforce, it was at a really pivotal moment, and, I think in that sense, I was very fortunate. Whenever you’re able to start your career really at the inflection of a big technology change, it’s always super interesting. It leads to really interesting opportunities at an incredibly rapid clip.
For me, that was, simply put, the dawn of the internet. Netscape had just come out with its first browser technology. It had just started as a startup down the road here in Silicon Valley. There were lots of companies really excited about making this transition to this brand new thing called the internet, and that is when I had started my career.
I started as a management consultant working with a lot of technology companies, finding ways to bring this new emerging technology around the internet to Fortune 500 companies. And very quickly after I realized that, instead of advising them, I really wanted to work at one of these startups. And so that’s when I joined one of the really early internet advertising technology companies called NetGravity. That’s a little bit about how my career started in the tech business.
You’ve been a long-time veteran of the ad industry, and, when you look today, all these major digital platforms — Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Nextdoor —all their businesses have been powered by advertising technology.
You ended up at DoubleClick pretty early on, which was the original internet ad tech company. And a side note: DoubleClick was actually a Greylock portfolio company. We co-led the Series A. But you were there in the late ’90s up and through 2007. Can you tell us about your early experience there, and what was going on during your time there?
Yeah. I mean, I’d say a few things. Going back to what I was just saying before, it was really the early days of the internet, and so lots and lots of companies were figuring out what the internet was all about. Was it just a communication channel? Was it just marketing? Were people really going to gravitate towards it? Of course, being in Silicon Valley, working for companies like NetGravity and others, I was seeing skyrocketing growth. You’ll remember, in the dot-com 1.0 days, companies were raising money, figuring out what their internet businesses were going to be.
It was a really, really exciting time, and one of the things that happened very, very early on was the recognition that the internet had similarities with lots of other media in the past, right? Like: It was an information channel, in many ways, whether it was like print or television or radio or what have you. The internet was a place where people consumed information, whether that was for entertainment purposes, news purposes, what have you. And it was also where people distributed information.
And [in] those types of scenarios, oftentimes the primary business model is an advertising business model. The reason for that in my view, having spent my career really at the nexus of media and technology, is twofold. The first is [that] advertising business models are about scale, and the internet from the very early days has always been about scale, about global audiences, people all over the world.
Advertising allows you to do that because it enables revenue generation and content production in a way where there’s no friction between the consumer of the content and the website, back in the day — or the app, today — that the content’s being consumed on.
The second part of it, which has actually become a real motivator for my career arc, is that advertising business models generally keep access to information, content, and knowledge free. That’s the ethos of companies like Google and YouTube, but it’s a fundamental ethos of the internet. Lots and lots of information on the internet that we all consume and enjoy, regardless of where we are in the world, is free because of advertising models.
I would say to all of my teams, whether the teams I was leading [were] at DoubleClick or at Google, [that] it’s always about fundamentally powering the creation and consumption of all this incredible information and doing it in a way where, whether you’re on a low bandwidth connection somewhere in some other part of the world or sitting on a high-speed internet connection here in Silicon Valley, you have access to the same amount of information, the playing field is level and it’s democratized. That’s been a core aspect of how I thought about my career, and it was really kind of the foundational premise of companies like DoubleClick, and then, a few years later, companies like Google.
Yeah. It’s amazing how advertising has powered these services that are accessible now to billions of people around the world. When Google acquired DoubleClick in 2007 — I think it was like a $3.1 billion acquisition — it was the largest acquisition in Google’s history. Is there anything you can share about the acquisition and how it went down and how you all ended up at Google?
Yeah. I mean, I probably can’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but as I know you know, David, and I know as has been reported publicly, it was certainly a competitive process. And I think, probably, what might be most interesting to your audience here is some of the motivators behind it.
I think it all goes back to what Google’s mission has been about organizing the world’s information and making it accessible to everybody, and what DoubleClick’s mission was, which was powering the creation of all this amazing content through the power of advertising. Those two mission statements complemented each other really well.
If you recall, even from the very early days, Google’s business was certainly about the search engine — giving users the information they were looking for — but it was also about creating business models for all of those websites that those search results were going to.
That’s where AdSense came from, back in the early days, as you know. And DoubleClick, because it created monetization opportunities for publishers [and] created advertising opportunities for advertisers, really fit very nicely into that picture, where the goal was to create the best possible products and services for our joint publishers and advertising customers all over the world.
We signed the deal with Google, as you said, for a little over $3 billion in 2007. It took a year for the deal to close because it was under review by the regulatory authorities, both in D.C. and in Brussels, for a year, so I spent time with the government regulators on that process.
And then, in 2008 — basically almost a year later is when the actual transaction happened — we were off to the races to actually build on this sort of combined vision of what we could do for publishers, what we could do for our advertisers. As you’ll recall, that’s where new product concepts like the ad exchange and programmatic advertising came from, which I think have created lots of opportunities for publishers and advertisers alike.
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I think so many technology acquisitions, especially large acquisitions, end up failing. But I think DoubleClick is widely viewed as a success within Google, and certainly the broader industry, as is the YouTube acquisition.
Let’s switch and talk about YouTube now. YouTube was the original user-generated content platform, at least the first to reach a really massive scale and wide audience. And Google acquired YouTube for, I think, $1.65 billion in 2006, so this was prior to the DoubleClick acquisition.Today, YouTube is a massive success. Back then, there were a lot of questions about the company.
Right before that acquisition in 2006, I want to read a quote that Mark Cuban, the famous investor and the host of the TV show Shark Tank said. It is, “Anyone who buys [YouTube] is a moron because of potential lawsuits from copyright violations. There’s a reason they haven’t yet gone public, they haven’t sold. It’s because they’re going to be toasted.”
And of course, he’s not always right. But, as an outsider at the time of that acquisition, if you can think back to 2006, I mean: What did you think of YouTube being acquired by Google, and what were the conversations you all were having about it?
It’s a great question, and I’ll share a couple of anecdotes about that. So Mark, actually, when he founded broadcast.com — he was one of my customers at NetGravity and DoubleClick back in the day. And obviously, as we all know, he was one of the original pioneers when it came to internet video. Regarding YouTube — YouTube was a customer of DoubleClick’s before either company was acquired by Google, and actually, one of our largest and fastest growing customers.
My insights into YouTube predated the YouTube acquisition by Google. I would fly out from New York at the time, when I was helping run DoubleClick, to meet with the founders, the exec team, at YouTube. The conversation would always be about: Hey, DoubleClick, can you keep up with the growth that we’re experiencing on a month-over-month basis, quarter-over-quarter basis?
So I saw firsthand the types of just amazing growth that the company was experiencing, and literally the problems were all of these good problems to have: How does the infrastructure that we’re building, the products that we’re working with, like DoubleClick, keep up with all of this growth? That was an amazing sort of journey, even before the Google acquisition. I’m sure the teams at Google saw the same thing. Google had a product at the time called Google Video.
I think the fundamental reason behind it stands true today — behind all of that growth, behind the success that the platform has had today, and how it’s kind of this global staple today, if you will.
And that has to do with the fact that the original, kind of the core, mission of YouTube has remained the same, and it’s in its name: YouTube. It’s about giving everybody in the world a voice, and showing everybody the world. If you unpack that mission statement, it’s all about the fact that this platform, this app, is a place where you and I, if we have a creative idea, we can set up a channel and start sharing that with an audience all around the world instantaneously.
And that has always been the power of YouTube, the power of this open platform. Similarly, if I want to learn something new or I want to be entertained.