It's not every day that a Chinese company hires a top American executive, so Kevin Mayer's new appointment has made quite a splash in the United States.
On 1 June, Mayer will start at ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of TikTok. He will be in charge of global development, corporate functions, sales, marketing, public affairs, security, and will also lead the company's music and gaming businesses.
His hiring emphasises two important trends, "firstly the shift from expensive analog content produced by Hollywood to cheap consumer generated digital content like that found in TikTok, and secondly the commercial shift from California to China," says Toby Walsh, a professor at the University of New South Wales and a leading Australian AI expert.
"The most exciting digital innovation on the planet today is happening not in Silicon Valley but in Shanghai," believes Walsh. "Time, I suspect, to sell your Disney shares and start buying those of the Chinese internet successes."
A tough spot in America
Mayer, who oversaw the launch of Disney's streaming platform and played a role in the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and 21st Century Fox, is hopping into ByteDance's bandwagon at a crucial time.
TikTok has just had the most successful quarter for any app ever and is one the world's most popular apps with over 2 billion downloads in Google's and Apple's stores.
At the same time, it is facing growing scrutiny in the US over data privacy and censorship concerns – a playbook commonly used by China hawks when it comes to Chinese companies. The app has been accused of illegally harvesting personally identifiable user data and sending it to servers in China, a charge it denies.
TikTok pledged to open a transparency centre in Los Angeles and hired former members of Congress to review its content moderation policies, but the trust among US lawmakers is far from complete.
"With millions of users across the globe using the app, their privacy and data security need to be guaranteed. Most countries have data protection laws and authorities and no tech company however small or big they are should be allowed to violate them," says tech journalist and blogger Nixon Kanali.
"Hopefully with Mayer now joining the company we’re going to see some measures around user data privacy and security being taken and actually implemented."
Mayer could make us of his resume to help TikTok navigate strained relationships with US legislators and quell their concerns about the app's Chinese ownership. Senator Josh Hawley said after Mayer's appointment that he would like to have him testify about TikTok in Congress.
.@tiktok_us previously told me they couldn’t attend hearings and testify because executives were located in #China. But this new executive lives in the USA. I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath. https://t.co/XPfiVpo9Ta— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) May 18, 2020
Aiming for the global reach
Legal hurdles aside, TikTok and its owners at ByteDance look forward to expanding their entertainment empire beyond quirky lip-synced clips. ByteDance is testing its new music service, Resso, and its social media platform Helo has been a breakout in India.
"The new hire with Kevin Mayer is really a fit with the company's intention to continue to develop its global business," says Dr. Jialu Shan, a Lausanne-based economist and scholar, "not only for TikTok, but possibly to leverage other products to get the global reach too, particularly for music streaming (e.g., Resso) and gaming, where Mayer has rich experiences."
ByteDance has a history of hiring Western execs: last year, the Chinese tech giant appointed Ole Obermann from Warner Music Group as vice president and global head of music at TikTok. Other high-profile hirings were Erich Andersen, Microsoft's ex-chief intellectual property counsel, who joined the company as global general counsel, and Vanessa Pappas, YouTube's global head of creative insights, who now oversees TikTok operations in the US.
"Research has provided evidences that diversifying leadership teams can increase both innovation and revenue, and I think Mayer’s step in as COO of ByteDance will be bring more interesting views," believes Dr. Shan. "Would ByteDance become the first global made-in-China company? We will see."