If Mark Zuckerberg’s uniform is a grey T-shirt, David Marcus, one of his key lieutenants at Facebook, prefers a crisp white shirt, no tie, and a white pocket square when he wears a suit.
This was what the 46-year-old was wearing at 3am in San Francisco last Tuesday for television interviews about the project he has spent the past year on: Facebook’s new digital currency, Libra.
Softly spoken and retaining a European accent as well as fluent French from his childhood in Geneva, Mr Marcus has become the public face of Facebook’s audacious step into financial services.
“When you think about the internet and everything it has done for the world, it has done many things for many constituents and billions of people. It has given everyone access to the world’s information, it has democratised access to free communications for everyone. But money has stayed the same,” Mr Marcus said in an interview last week at the San Francisco Mint.
Recruited to head Facebook’s messaging service in 2014, he was tapped to lead the charge into cryptocurrencies in May 2018 because of his wealth of experience in payments.
He dropped out of university in Geneva to start his first business, GTN Telecom, in 1996, selling it four years later and setting up Echovox, which enabled media companies to make money from audiences over mobile phones. He then spun out a mobile payments company, Zong, which he sold to PayPal in 2011.
Less than a year later, the payments company elevated Mr Marcus to president, citing his “founder’s perspective” and “start-up energy”. He set to work revamping its engineering team and overseeing big acquisitions including peer-to-peer payments app Venmo.
Mr Zuckerberg’s approach over dinner for him to join Facebook caught Mr Marcus by surprise — he had expected to discuss a business partnership. His decision to jump ship, in turn, surprised PayPal, while raising hopes that Facebook was getting serious about a payments push.
Mr Marcus framed the move from running a 14,000-person company as a return to his roots. “I realised that my role was becoming a real management one, vs. my passion of building products that hopefully matter to a lot of people,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
He expanded Facebook messaging in several directions, launching Messenger for Kids as well as a light version of the app catering to emerging markets.
He also led pushes to introduce new features with potential for monetisation. Messenger added payments, both between users and from users to businesses, promoting the idea that the app could become a place for commerce. It let brands including Bank of America and Burger King launch chatbots and pay to send sponsored messages and put ads in users’ inboxes and news feeds.
Results were mixed. Messenger has not become a significant platform for making purchases, and some brands abandoned their bots. One much-hyped push into artificial intelligence, the M virtual assistant, was touted as a tool that could “purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more”.
In the end, it required too many humans to fulfil tasks and was overtaken by Amazon’s Alexa assistant. M was never rolled out beyond a small group of beta users and was shuttered early last year. (Facebook says what it learnt from the project helps inform the automated “M suggestions” that more than 100m people interact with each month.)
Soon after, Mr Marcus parted ways with Messenger. In May 2018, amid mounting scandals over misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica and revelations of the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Mr Zuckerberg announced an executive overhaul and reorganisation of the company’s product and engineering divisions.
Mr Marcus was given a fresh portfolio: running a newly formed team exploring blockchain technology. Facebook insiders took note of the fact that the new role was outside the core “family of apps” — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — that generate the company’s revenue.
Mr Zuckerberg’s recent pivot to private messaging and encryption has positioned Mr Marcus to pursue business opportunities beyond Facebook’s pool of advertising dollars. He will head a new Facebook subsidiary, Calibra, to manage a digital wallet for the new Libra coin.
Inside Facebook, Mr Marcus has a reputation as a “mensch”, according to former colleagues, though he has a prickly side. In a leaked memo during his tenure as PayPal president, he chided employees for not using the company’s products, saying that was “unacceptable”.
Last September, he also nailed his colours to the mast. After Brian Acton, a co-founder of WhatsApp, told Forbes he regretted selling his company to Facebook and that he disagreed with the company’s “business practices, principles and ethics, and policies”, Mr Marcus was quick to respond. In a public Facebook post, Mr Marcus said Mr Acton’s recollection of events “differ[s] greatly from the reality I witnessed first-hand”.
“Call me old fashioned,” he wrote. “But I find attacking the people and company that made you a billionaire, and went to an unprecedented extent to shield and accommodate you for years, low-class. It’s actually a whole new standard of low-class.”
He may have spent most of his career as an entrepreneur, but he added: “There’s no other large company I’d work at, and no other leader I’d work for.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy and Tim Bradshaw
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