Sheryl Sandberg’s advertising empire leaves a complicated legacy

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Sheryl Sandberg’s advertising empire leaves a complicated legacy

Sandberg was one of the people who made Google’s ad business so enormous that it became an essential part of every advertiser’s budget



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Silicon Valley | Sheryl Sandberg























Sheryl Sandberg once remarked that she felt she was put on earth to scale organisations — and during her career as one of the most powerful executives in Silicon Valley, she plowed straight toward that grandiose vision. As an advertising head at Google in the mid-2000s, and as chief operating officer at Facebook for 14 years until her resignation Wednesday, Sandberg oversaw a period during which the internet services ballooned to colossal sizes, fed by a seemingly endless fountain of advertising revenue.

Though Sandberg may get most of her name recognition from Lean In — her 2013 blockbuster book encouraging women to take charge in the workplace — her most significant and complicated legacy may be the tech industry’s reliance on personalized advertising, which created both profits and complex nightmares at immense scale.

Sandberg was one of the people who made Google’s ad business so enormous that it became an essential part of every advertiser’s budget. Then, after she joined Facebook in 2008, four years after it was created, she brought that same self-service model to the social networking company, now called Meta Platforms Inc. Instead of targeting users based on their search queries like Google did, Facebook could target based on what it gleaned of their personal identities, connections and interests. An entire industry of other tech companies followed suit with business models that offered products for free and made money off of users’ personal data instead. “Sheryl had a front-row seat at the two largest and most successful advertising platforms in history,” said Patrick Keane, the chief executive officer of Action Network, a sports media firm, who worked with Sandberg at Google in the early aughts.

Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Robert W Baird & Co., wrote that Sandberg’s lasting impact is the success of that advertising model: “Her legacy, in our view, is that Meta has one of the strongest business models in the digital economy.”

In recent years, Sandberg’s public image was tarnished alongside the mounting criticisms against Facebook, where she was widely seen as a powerful No. 2 executive. Her expertise in legal, operations and policy complemented chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s preference for product, engineering and forward-looking technologies like virtual reality. In its earlier years, the social network was praised for its size and its “move fast and break things” disruptor attitude, but over time, it was increasingly rebuked for its failure to rein in large-scale misinformation, hate speech, privacy breaches, and lies from political dictators on its ever-expanding online platforms.

Lawmakers frequently hauled Sandberg and Zuckerberg in front of Congress to interrogate them on, among other things, foreign interference in elections and losing track of users’ personal data. The scandals never seemingly stopped: fomenting ethnic violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, allowing violent video and pandemic misinformation to go viral, and abetting the organisation of a right-wing insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021. Sandberg was personally critiqued by Facebook employees for surrounding herself with trusted lieutenants who filtered bad news, and failing to address problems until they developed into public crises — and then treating them as reputational.

The new No. 2

  • New COO Javier Olivan is known for playing a behind-the-scenes crucial role in company’s explosive 15-year growth
  • When he joined, Facebook was a young company with about 40 million users and now has nearly 3.6 billion users across its platforms
  • The 44-year-old enjoys paragliding and surfing, and has most recently served as chief growth officer, managing features that span Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger
  • The Spaniard holds degrees in electrical and industrial engineering from the University of Navarra and a Master’s in business administration from Stanford University
  • Before joining Facebook (now Meta) in late 2007 as head of international growth, Olivan worked at Japan’s NTT and Siemens
  • In his new job, he will continue to lead infrastructure and corporate development. But his portfolio will also include advertising and business products


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