TikTok reviews US operations after advertising slump

TikTok reviews US operations after advertising slump

TikTok is finalizing a deal with the White House, which has raised concerns that the app’s links to its Chinese parent ByteDance could pose a security risk © FT montage/Unsplash

TikTok’s US operations are undergoing a major restructuring as the social platform responds to a slowing economy and a depressed digital advertising environment.

The reorganization has resulted in sweeping leadership changes at the US operation, the biggest market for TikTok, which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance.

The overhaul will see North America general manager Sandie Hawkins — who oversees business operations, sales and marketing across the region — be transferred and placed in charge of TikTok Shop in the US, its e-commerce channel, according to five people with knowledge of the changes. It follows a restructuring in Europe earlier this year.

Hawkins’ move was announced internally on Monday at a meeting led by Blake Chandlee, an Austin, Texas-based executive who oversees global business solutions. Chandlee will take over Hawkins’ role on a temporary basis.

“During [Hawkins’] leadership, the team has become a significant player in the digital advertising space. . . and she has always advocated for her team and clients, making us a better business,” Chandlee said in a message to staff on Monday.

“She will be a valuable partner . . . as [ecommerce] is becoming a critical part of our customers’ needs and TikTok builds on many of the native behaviors we already see on the platform.”

Blake Chandlee
Blake Chandlee will assume the role of general manager for North America on an interim basis © Anna Gordon/FT

Hawkins’ reassignment is part of a wider restructuring over the past four months that has seen fewer than 100 employees made redundant. The cuts include about 20 senior executives and new leadership has been recruited, according to three people familiar with the restructuring. Overall, the number of employees in the United States has increased over the past year.

Other senior employees have already confirmed that their roles have been reduced, including David Ortiz, former global head of ad business systems, who shared on social media that his role was “eliminated in a much larger reorganization effort.”

The restructuring suggests fast-growing TikTok is not immune to the digital advertising slump that has seen shares of Facebook parent Meta and Snapchat parent Snap collapse over the past year.

U.S. advertisers are predicted to spend $65.3 billion on social media this year, a year-over-year increase of just 3.6 percent — about 10 times slower than in 2021, according to eMarketer estimates.

The reorganization of TikTok’s US operations comes as the company finalizes a deal with the White House, which has raised concerns that the app’s links to its Chinese parent ByteDance could pose a security risk. The deal would allow it to continue operating but set limits on how US user data is stored.

TikTok claims that access to data for employees globally, including engineers in China, is limited and strictly controlled.

Two people with knowledge of the move said TikTok planned to replace Hawkins on a permanent basis with Sameer Singh, head of TikTok’s Asia-Pacific since July 2021. Singh originally joined ByteDance in August 2019.

Singh’s appointment could be made official as soon as this month, but he is based in India and requires a work visa that could take until January, these people said.

TikTok told the Financial Times it was considering several candidates, including Singh.

Hawkins, who could not immediately be reached for comment, is a former Adobe executive and has been with TikTok since June 2020.

TikTok has previously replaced senior American executives with talent from abroad. In July, for example, it moved Fahad Osman from Dubai to New York, promoting him from head of regional marketing for the Middle East to head of global marketing and intelligence operations.

Pressure on the digital advertising sector has pushed social networking companies to diversify revenue streams. Meta, Snapchat and TikTok are experimenting with new formats including games and live shopping in an effort to be less dependent on advertising.

TikTok Shop is a new feature that launched in the UK last year, where users can buy products from videos and live broadcasts on the app. The company plans to expand in North America, Spain, Ireland and Brazil in the coming months, according to two people familiar with the business.

TikTok confirmed it was expanding e-commerce to the US and continued to evaluate further international expansion.

The shopping channel is already available across Southeast Asia, where it has proven successful among users, particularly in Indonesia, according to several people working on the offering.

E-commerce, in particular, has proven lucrative for ByteDance; E-commerce sales on its Chinese sister app Douyin have more than tripled year-on-year. In China, sales from livestream shopping are expected to reach $423 billion this year, according to management consulting firm McKinsey.

Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

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