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Twitter Marketing Brand Safety

Inside Elon Musk’s advertiser meetings (and how they contrast with his tweets)


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

November 8, 2022 | 8 min read

Musk and what remains of the Twitter leadership have been hosting virtual meetings with ad agencies and CMOs to reassure them of the new owner’s intentions. But what he is telling them in private isn’t quite the same as what he’s tweeting.


Musk comes across as ‘more measured and vaguely in the know on the calls’ / Adobe Stock

Elon Musk’s febrile tweets promising a revival of ”free speech” on the platform stand in stark contrast to his demeanor in front of advertisers. They tell The Drum that on private calls organized to reassure them about his intentions, his language has been much more tempered with him at pains to stress that Twitter can’t become a “free-for-all hellscape where anything can be said with no consequences”. But many fear that his plans will inadvertently create a cesspool of disinformation and hate.

An advertising source speaking under condition of anonymity told The Drum that Musk comes across as “more measured and vaguely in the know on the calls versus in his tweets”. This week he’s been telling advertisers:

  • There are no plans to continue political advertising (for now).

  • He won’t name and shame advertisers that pull spend, despite tweeting that he would. (Our source said: “That felt like it came after a heavy push from his team.”)

  • He reassured advertisers of its content moderation capabilities, despite sacking half of Twitter’s headcount.

  • He stuck to his guns on opening verification to all users for $8 a month – it is coming.

  • He hoped for a crowd-sourced fact-checking product after clashing with the established BirdWatch several times.

  • Finally, he said he wouldn’t offer journalists any sort of trustworthiness verification. (There were other areas where he became a lot vaguer or his team stepped in, our source tells us.)

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Out in the open, there have been some very public scrapes. MMA Global’s Lou Paskalis, formerly a top exec at Bank of America and a strong voice in the brand safety space, went on the record on Twitter after his brush with Musk in private.

“As you heard overwhelmingly from senior advertisers on the call, the issue concerning us all is content moderation and its impact on brand safety/suitability,“ Paskalis tweeted to Musk. “You say you’re committed to moderation, but you just laid off 75% of the moderation team!”

He also discounted Musk’s line that advertisers were being steered by leftist groups, adding: “Advertisers are not being manipulated by activist groups, they are being compelled by established principles around the types of companies they can do business with. These principles include an assessment of the platform’s commitment to brand safety and suitability.”

Paskalis added that the trustworthiness of a media platform’s leadership team also comes into consideration when making an investment. That was before Musk blocked Paskalis, then separately threatened a “thermonuclear name and shame of brands pulling spend“ (of which many ad networks did). Paskalis was eventually unblocked by Musk and the conversation continued.

Paskalis’s concerns are common in the industry. Sarah Personette, Twitter CCO and the liaison for the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (Garm, which helps steer tech and media on best brand safety practices), left the company at the end of October. She said she “believes the new administration understands the importance of holding up the standards of Garm”.

Earlier this week the body called for Twitter to continue to follow Garm’s framework to remove harmful content from ad-supported digital media. Rob Rakowitz, initiative lead at Garm, wrote: “Brand safety is non-negotiable for advertisers. The industry has come a long way in developing industry standards that drive increased transparency and control in the interests of consumer safety.”

But for all the noise around Twitter, including the conflicting statements and threats posted by Musk, on November 2, Zenith chief strategy officer Rich Kirk said he was “really struggling to see how Twitter is suddenly much less brand safe than Facebook or YouTube”. He wondered if we were seeing a “performative act rather than a proper effort to halt the flow of dollars from brands to bad actors”.

Twitter documents, released Monday, claim stability in hate speech levels. ”Levels of hate speech remain within historical norms, representing 0.25% to 0.45% of tweets per day among hundreds of millions.” It also claims daily active users are up, likely catalyzed by the new leadership’s tweets, which in the last 24 hours alone include a meme featuring a Nazi [later deleted], backing Republicans in the US midterms despite claims of neutrality and likening new competitor Mastodon’s name to masturbation [later deleted].

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Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, has been front and center with advertisers. He claims that his team was only cut by 15% (not the 50% hitting the wider business) and on November 4 said that more than 80% of Twitter’s content moderation was unaffected, adding that the team remains focused on integrity ahead of the election. There still remain doubts about the real impact of the cuts in these vital teams.

In short, the social network had a shock to the system. Most advertisers paused to learn whether it is business as usual at Twitter after the tumult and cuts. They don’t want disruption, they want to ensure they are placing ads in a brand-safe, high-quality environment to real people. They also don’t like paying for a worse service than they were receiving mere weeks ago. Since then, Musk’s use of the social network itself has taken center stage and made them pause further. Can he de-escalate them?

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