TikTok said today Chief Executive Kevin Mayer has stood down just three months after joining, in the middle of negotiations to sell the Chinese-owned video app’s US operations to Microsoft Corp and Oracle Corp.
The departure is the latest twist for TikTok, which has come under fire the administration of US President Donald Trump as a potential national security risk due to the vast amount of private data the app is compiling on US consumers.
The Trump administration has demanded that China’s ByteDance, which owns TikTok globally, sell its US operations. Earlier this week, TikTok also sued over an executive order effectively banning it in the United States.
Mayer will be replaced by US General Manager Vanessa Pappas on an interim basis, TikTok said in a statement.
Mayer was Walt Disney Co’s top streaming executive before becoming chief executive officer of TikTok and chief operating officer of parent ByteDance on June 1.
“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.”
ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming said in a separate letter reviewed by Reuters that the company was “moving quickly to find resolutions to the issues that we face globally, particularly in the US and India”.
He said Mayer had joined just as the company was “entering arguably our most challenging moment.”
“It is never easy to come into a leadership position in a company moving as quickly as we are, and the circumstances following his arrival made it all the more complex,” Zhang said.
Mayer was scheduled to leave TikTok as part of the planned sale, as the global role he had been hired for would no longer exist, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Media reports earlier today that Mayer was leaving the company accelerated the announcement, the source added.
ByteDance employees told Reuters they were not surprised by Mayer’s decision given TikTok’s unpredictable future, and also because the ex-Disney executive has not had a significant role in some important decisions as he was still new to the team.
Zhang has been the key person in TikTok sale talks, said two people with knowledge of the matter. But Mayer represented TikTok to discuss with senior executives of interested buyers just days ago, a third person said.
TikTok’s decision to launch a US$200 million (RM835 million) “creator fund” in July was spearheaded by TikTok’s former head Alex Zhu, though Mayer was also directly involved, said two of the people. The project was initiated internally much earlier than Mayer’s arrival, one of the people said.
“The learning curve was steep for him, from daily operations to geopolitical implications,” said one of the people.
ByteDance did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
“Whether TikTok reaches an agreement to sell its US business or decides to duke it out in the courts, the role for Mayer will not be anything like that he had envisioned when he joined,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.
Mayer’s departure is not a great boost for company morale right now, Natkin said.
His successor Pappas joined TikTok in January 2019 as US general manager. She was previously global head of Creative Insights at Google’s YouTube, her LinkedIn profile showed.
US, India challenges
Amid growing distrust between Washington and Beijing, Trump complained that TikTok was a national security threat and could share information about users with China’s government.
Trump issued an executive order banning US transactions with TikTok on August 6, effective in mid-September. He issued a separate order about a week later giving ByteDance 90 days to divest of TikTok’s US operations and data.
ByteDance has been in talks to sell TikTok’s North American, Australian and New Zealand operations which could be worth US$25 billion to US$30 billion to companies including Microsoft and Oracle, people with knowledge of the matter have said.
The company has also been targeted in India, where TikTok was one of 59 Chinese apps banned by the Indian government in June following a border clash between India and China.
That month, Mayer wrote to India’s government saying China’s government has never requested user data, nor would TikTok turn it over if asked.
TechCrunch reported earlier this month that ByteDance was in talks with India’s Reliance for investment in TikTok.
TikTok has become a global sensation since ByteDance launched the app in 2017, with operations in countries such as France, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil. In April, the app hit two billion downloads globally. — REUTERS