Every move Linda Yaccarino has made to woo brands back to Twitter
And what the ad industry really thinks of her efforts to revitalize the company‘s ailing advertising business.
Will the new X exec successfully re-engage advertisers? / Adobe Stock
Since taking the helm as chief executive officer of X, previously known as Twitter, in early June, Linda Yaccarino – who for many years led global advertising efforts at NBCUniversal – has made a concerted effort to revamp the struggling ad business.
Once the lifeblood of the business, advertising revenue has dropped dramatically in the nine and a half months since billionaire Tesla chief exec Elon Musk acquired the platform for $44bn. Musk’s gutting of the company’s workforce – combined with significant platform changes, a newly watered-down approach to content moderation and Musk’s mercurial leadership and controversial opinions – spooked advertisers. Musk admitted last month that X’s ad revenue has fallen 50% and that its cash flow is negative.
In lieu of advertising dollars, Musk and his team have focused on developing new ways to monetize users. Chiefly, Musk has attempted to bolster the app’s subscription model, incentivizing people to pay monthly fees for algorithmically boosted posts and exclusive access to certain features.
But the efforts haven’t produced the results Musk is looking for, as evidenced in his choice to select Yaccarino, an ad industry veteran, to take over his role as chief executive.
In her brief tenure thus far, Yaccarino has made several changes – many of them aimed at repairing the damage that Musk has incurred to the company’s advertising business. Here’s a timeline of the key developments so far.
June 2023-present: Wooing back spurned advertisers
Data released in February before her joining showed that more than half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers were no longer spending on the platform. Those dialing back on ad spend included big brands like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Jeep and Wells Fargo. No surprise, then, that one of Yaccarino‘s first priories was relationship-building in the industry.
In her first major press interview – a far-ranging conversation aired by CNBC last week – she said she’s been corresponding with executives at top brands, including Visa, Coca-Cola and State Farm.
“She’s been working hard to kind of have facetime with big agencies and particular advertiser groups, among other things,” notes Matt Navarra, a leading industry analyst and social media consultant.
“As far as somebody with her level of experience and expertise, she’s done a good job of kind of covering all the bases and trying to steady the ship and fix the problems that were a product of Elon Musk’s ill-timed and ill-thought-out platform changes.”
July-present: Developing new brand safety initiatives
One of the core issues plaguing X’s advertising success is its brand safety profile. Since axing a large swathe of the content moderation team, the platform has seen a spike in misinformation and hate speech. According to research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the Anti-Defamation League and other activist organizations, slurs against Black Americans more than doubled, while antisemitic posts referring to Jews or Judaism ballooned in volume by 61% following Musk’s takeover.
The issue has only exacerbated the advertiser exodus. In April, the company drafted in Integral Ad Science (IAS), a leading adtech and ad verification firm, to address brand safety issues. IAS promised to provide brands “third-party transparency into the context in which … ads appear” on the site and detailed reporting.
Since taking the reins at X, Yaccarino has prioritized expanding the platform’s brand safety offerings. Last week, IAS announced it will begin providing brand safety and suitability insights to X advertisers pre-bid. The firm delivers similar services to social sites, including YouTube and TikTok.
The response among advertising industry leaders has been generally positive. “Growing engagement means growing impressions, and volume is great, but not if it’s poor quality. Engaging with IAS to get marketers feeling more comfortable about brand safety on the platform, [the company’s] biggest issue right now, is critical. Good move,” says Shiv Gupta, managing partner at U of Digital, a digital marketing education firm.
To add to these efforts, Yaccarino recently said she plans to hire a head of brand safety.
July 2023: Cosigning Musk’s controversial rebrand
In late July, users and advertisers were surprised to find Twitter’s iconic bird logo and name replaced with a simple ‘X.’
Though the effort appears to have been led primarily by Musk, Yaccarino defended the rebrand, suggesting that the change was necessary to realize Musk’s longtime vision for a so-called ‘everything app.’
“The rebrand represented really a liberation from Twitter – a liberation that allowed us to evolve past a legacy mindset and thinking,” she told CNBC. “And to reimagine how everyone, how everyone on [the app’s audio tool] Spaces who’s listening, everybody who’s watching around the world. It’s going to change how we congregate, how we entertain, how we transact all in one platform.”
But many in the marketing and advertising community are yet to be convinced that the company hasn’t sacrificed the brand equity that it had built up over many years. “Twitter’s reputation and recognizability weren’t created overnight,” Becci Salmon, a design director at IPG-owned ad agency FCB London, told The Drum at the time. “Twitter, tweets, tweeting – it’s all part of the vernacular, a familiarity that’s been built up over 17 years. [Musk is] ripping down a brand that’s been a cornerstone of social media.”
Despite advertisers voicing these concerns, Yaccarino’s staunch defense of the rebrand has left many questioning the executive’s true influence and potentially undermined much of the good work she’d done to get brands back on board.
“Despite her characteristically optimistic pronouncements, Yaccarino has left many questions unanswered: how much agency does she have in the rebranded company’s strategic direction?” says Paul Verna, principal analyst and head of advertising and media practice at Insider Intelligence. “How focused is she – or the business – on content moderation? What is the true health and outlook of the business? Is she spearheading other initiatives outside of advertising and media partnerships?”
In Verna’s estimation, Yaccarino still faces a tall order: “As she continues in her effort to persuade advertisers that X is turning the tide, she’ll need to flesh out her narrative with more concrete examples of business success.”
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August 2023: Building out opportunities for creators on X
Outside of meeting with media partners, agencies and publishers, Yaccarino previously indicated that she planned to court celebrities, creators and politicians. The idea is that attracting more content from well-known figures will incentivize an increase in ad spend and open up new avenues for branded partnerships on the platform.
Yaccarino has pointed to the progress already made on this front, reminding viewers that they can subscribe to individual creators to access special content from their favorite creators – a feature that since April has required a monthly fee. Yaccarino said creators are “now earning a real living on the platform.”
The executive has also underscored X’s goal of rolling out payments between regular users and creators.
On August 10, X announced that it’s expanding access to its ad-revenue-sharing program for creators. The company said that verified creators with at least 500 followers who’ve gotten at least 5m impressions in the past three months would be eligible to get a cut of the ad revenue generated by their posts. The threshold is significantly lower than the previously required 15m impressions, enabling more users to cash out. Plus, creators can withdraw as little as $10, compared with the prior requirement of $50.
Experts predict that an expanded revenue-sharing model will likely serve as a boon to the business. “Revenue sharing with creators is a smart copycat strategy, straight out of the TikTok playbook,” says U of Digital's Gupta. “Get influencers motivated to use the platform and increase engagement.”
August 2023: Reintroducing the ‘client council’ of ad execs
In one of its most compelling moves for brands, Yaccarino said she would revive its ‘client council’ – a select group of advertising industry leaders who are invited to input into decisions about the platform. Musk had previously disbanded the group.
This move, like the expansion of X’s revenue-sharing program, is a positive step for the future of the company’s ads business. After being cut off by Musk, this “will give the advertisers a voice to influence product and roadmap,” says Gupta. He adds that ultimately, it will make big brands and agencies “more likely to buy in” to X’s vision.
As it stands, participants of the refreshed ‘client council’ have not been revealed.
But is she really the decision-maker?
Generally speaking, it seems that adland believes Yaccarino has taken a handful of effective steps in repairing X’s relationships with advertisers and creating new brand opportunities on the platform.
As Navarra puts it: “For the time being, she’s doing a decent job in very challenging and chaotic circumstances. And I think advertisers are appreciative of those efforts.”
Nonetheless, Navarra remains skeptical of the long-term impact of her changes. “It might be enough to stem the bleed [in ad revenue] and recover things a little, but I don’t know whether it will be enough to keep things steady for long.”
Yaccarino recently claimed the company is “close to breakeven,” citing the return of top advertisers, including Coca-Cola. The statement came less than a month after Musk posted that the company was at “negative cash flow.”
But the chief concern of Navarra, and other industry leaders, remains Yaccarino’s relationship with Musk and her remit as a true decision-maker in the business. “She wants to believe – and Elon would like us to believe – that he is not the platform, the platform is not him, and that advertisers and users should not draw inferences or conclusions about what X is doing or the safety of X because of the actions and behaviors or the posts of its owner.”
However, this is a false narrative, in Navarra’s estimation. “He’s synonymous now with the company. He is its main character, its biggest, most-followed user – and is addicted to the product himself. [The two are] intrinsically linked, so any actions he takes or changes he makes and behaviors he shows … will reflect directly on the products in the platform. And that will have implications for relationships with advertisers and the happiness of its users.”
He predicts that the relationship between Yaccarino and Musk “will become strained … because Elon Musk has shown a track record of not handling criticism or differences to his opinion very well, and he always seems to feel that he knows best.”
It’s a view shared by U of Digital’s Gupta. “I can’t help but think Elon and Linda are constantly at odds,” he says. “Linda comes off as positive, inclusive, respectful and wants to listen to customers. Elon comes off as pretty much the stark opposite.”
Ultimately, Gupta believes that Musk will win out in the end. “Right now, it feels like Elon is ‘letting Linda do things’ in a lot of these areas, which is where you see all the good decisions, but when push comes to shove – for example, the rebrand to X – he has the final say. And it’s usually a poor decision. It doesn’t feel like the setup between the two is sustainable, and Elon’s poor decisions will ultimately win out.”
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