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TikTok’s new American CEO quits amidst the app’s political drama

By | Published on Thursday 27 August 2020


The relatively recently appointed American boss of TikTok, Kevin Mayer, has resigned as the video-sharing app continues to tackle assorted political challenges, in the US and elsewhere. Even if the China-based company can successfully navigate all those political challenges, the likely outcome is some fundamental changes to the structure of the TikTok business. And, Mayer says, that means the role he signed up for will no longer exist.

Long-time Disney exec Mayer joined TikTok as CEO in May, also becoming COO of its parent company Bytedance. Political woes were already mounting for the TikTok business by then, of course, with politicians in multiple countries expressing concerns over what access the Chinese government has to the app’s data and audience.

Indeed, the hiring of Mayer and concurrent ramping up of TikTok’s on-the-ground operations in countries like the US and the UK was all seen as an effort on Bytedance’s part to play down the significance of its China base and to big up its credentials as a global tech company that could work with Western governments.

However, the political problems have only increased, especially in the US where President Donald Trump has made TikTok a key target in his wider sparring with the Chinese government. That resulted in two executive orders being issued, one banning Americans from transacting with TikTok from mid-September and another ordering Bytedance to sell all its US assets by mid-November.

Opinion is divided as to what extent those orders are based on legitimate concerns about TikTok’s operations, and to what extent they are really about Trump’s election campaign and his bid to seem ‘tough on China’. Though Bytedance’s lawyers have presented some pretty compelling arguments as to why the President’s demands overreach his legal powers and ultimately breach the US Constitution.

But, of course, while going on the PR and legal offensive against Team Trump, Bytedance has also been busy looking into offloading the US TikTok business, possibly to Microsoft, in order to placate American politicians. Those talks are ongoing and, according to sources, could result in a US-based company operating the TikTok app in multiple markets, not just the US itself.

Those increasingly likely structural changes – and the long-term impact of them – seem to have been a key factor in Mayer’s decision to quit the top job, in particular that he could end up running TikTok from the US but not in the US. In a memo to staff he wrote: “I understand that the role that I signed up for – including running TikTok globally – will look very different as a result of the US administration’s action to push for a sell off of the US business”.

The same memo stated: “In recent weeks, as the political environment has sharply changed, I have done significant reflection on what the corporate structural changes will require, and what it means for the global role I signed up for. Against this backdrop, and as we expect to reach a resolution very soon, it is with a heavy heart that I wanted to let you all know that I have decided to leave the company”.

However, while the politics may make the CEO’s role very different, he was keen to stress that TikTok users and employees elsewhere in the hierarchy should be less impacted by the outcome of any moves to placate Trump.

“As we look to the next phase of this company”, he went on “there is no doubt that the future is incredibly bright. For our users, any potential structural changes should not affect their experience, and I strongly believe that our community will be more creative and diverse than ever. The platform will continue to provide our global community an amazing and integrated experience as it does today. Similarly, from an employee perspective, I believe that the vast majority of work will be unchanged”.

In a separate letter to staff, Bytedance boss Zhang Yiming said: “Kevin spoke to me, and I fully understand that the resulting outcome that we land upon due to the political circumstances we are operating within could have significant impact on his job in any scenario, but particularly given his global role while he’s based in the US. I thank Kevin for his efforts towards a resolution to these issues and wish him well”.

Noting the actual TikTok ban in India as well as the potential ban in the US, the Bytedance chief continued: “I want to let everyone know that we are moving quickly to find resolutions to the issues that we face globally, particularly in the US and India. I cannot get into details at this point, but I can assure you that we are developing solutions that will be in the interest of users, creators, partners, and employees”.

Meanwhile, TikTok has also made an official statement on Mayer’s departure: “We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin’s role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision. We thank him for his time at the company and wish him well”.

And so the TikTok dramas continue.