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‘She won’t last long’: Experts on why Linda Yaccarino is still defending Elon Musk

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By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

December 4, 2023 | 10 min read

Elon Musk told advertisers to “go fuck [themselves].” Linda Yaccarino, X’s ad industry veteran CEO, is once again trying to pick up the pieces. But the act can’t go on forever, experts say.

X app logo with man's shadow in front of it

Elon Musk last week told boycotting advertisers to "go fuck [themselves]" / Adobe Stock

After a drama-filled few weeks for Elon Musk and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter – which Musk acquired last year for $44bn – the company’s CEO Linda Yaccarino is once again defending the mercurial billionaire’s divisive actions. Experts don’t know how long the charade can last.

Musk on Wednesday gave a wide-ranging interview to New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, in which the entrepreneur told X-boycotting advertisers to “go fuck [themselves]” and sought to explain his reasoning for resharing an antisemitic post on X. The statements came after major advertisers, including Disney, Apple, IBM and Paramount, pulled ad spend from the platform amid Musk’s controversial comments, a damning report indicating that ads on X sometimes run alongside white nationalist and antisemitic content and an influx of misinformation on X about the Israel-Hamas war. The change has wreaked further damage on the company’s already-suffering business, which has lost upwards of 55% of its ad revenue year-over-year every month since Musk’s takeover.

On the heels of this latest chaos, Yaccarino took to X to defend her boss and the platform’s lax approach to content moderation, writing: “Today @elonmusk gave a wide-ranging and candid interview … He also offered an apology, an explanation and an explicit point of view about our position. X is enabling information independence that’s uncomfortable for some people. We’re a platform that allows people to make their own decisions. And here’s my perspective when it comes to advertising: X is standing at a unique and amazing intersection of Free Speech and Main Street – and the X community is powerful and is here to welcome you. To our partners who believe in our meaningful work -- Thank You.”

An impossible balancing act

Though Yaccarino, an advertising industry veteran who for years led advertising efforts at NBCUniversal, has attempted to reengage wary brands in recent months, she’s been met with challenge after challenge, not only from hesitant advertisers but also from Musk and his relentless and often unpredictable whims.

Since she was brought on in June, Yaccarino has worked to smooth over tenuous relationships with spurned advertisers – many of whom pulled spend in the immediate aftermath of Musk’s acquisition. She introduced new brand safety partnerships with the likes of Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify, expanded X’s creator revenue-sharing program and reintroduced a ‘client council’ of advertising executives. But all the while, Musk has undercut any progress she’s made with an insistence on radically hands-off content moderation and a hot-and-then-cold-again approach to working with advertisers. In every instance, Yaccarino has attempted to sweep up the mess behind him.

But now, Musk has been explicit. In the same interview with Sorkin last week, Musk appeared to call out Disney’s chief executive Bob Iger directly in his rebuke, saying, “If somebody’s going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go fuck yourself. Go fuck yourself – is that clear? I hope it is. Hey Bob, if you’re in the audience.”

But Yaccarino remains in the tenuous position of seeking to carry out Musk’s wishes – while also wooing advertisers to ensure the company remains viable.

“Linda Yaccarino is in a position that we all predicted she would be in, which is that she would constantly have to defend Elon Musk’s actions on the platform and shield advertisers from the brand safety risks or try and convince them that X is tackling brand safety concerns,” says Matt Navarra, a leading social media consultant and industry analyst. “She was always going to have to tread a very delicate line between not associating herself directly with his particular ideologies and viewpoints, but not to be seen to be critical of him or going against what he has said.”

“She’s so entrenched in this role now, and she’s fully committed to X’s mission – whatever that may be – that it’s hard for her to back out, because she will lose face and she will probably lose credibility,” he adds.

Navigating the volatility

Yaccarino’s is an especially challenging position to occupy considering how capricious Musk has proven himself to be.

“Elon Musk is mercurial. And he is volatile and he is prone to being inconsistent,” says Navarra. “And now [Yaccarino is] in the trenches, and there’s very little she can do. It’s very difficult for her to quit, because her reputation will be tarnished. But if she fully commits and goes all in – which is kind of where she mostly is, as she is aligning herself with the beliefs and ideologies of Elon Musk– most people would say it is not a good place to be.”

Even in his interview with Sorkin, Musk evidenced this erraticness. “Elon is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He said, ‘Fuck advertisers,’ and then immediately said, ‘We need advertisers otherwise the company will die,’” says Shiv Gupta, founder and chief executive officer at digital marketing education firm U of Digital.

Gupta, like others before him, predicts that much of what Musk says, both in the media and on X, is impulsive – and is not vetted by Yaccarino or the company’s communications leaders. “I doubt Linda and Elon discuss any of this stuff he blurts out before the fact,” he says. “He just says stuff off the cuff, and from there Linda goes into damage control mode.”

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Advertisers’ broken trust

As far as preserving positive relationships with advertisers, who have historically been responsible for generating the vast majority of the platform’s revenue, experts largely believe the bridge has been burned.

“Musk has made his disregard for advertisers clear from the start, and he has repeatedly confused, unnerved, and antagonized them,” says Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst at Insider Intelligence specializing in social media. “There’s nothing Yaccarino can say to erase Musk’s comments from advertisers’ minds. Publicly contradicting his stance toward advertisers when he explicitly told them not to spend would cause major tensions between them and won’t convince advertisers to return.”

Of course, for most brands, X doesn’t play an especially significant role in their media plans. Most dollars in the ad ecosystem still go to the bigger platforms of Meta, Google and Amazon. So X, in experts’ telling, is damned in any case.

“X isn’t an essential ad platform, and it is heavily dependent on big brands, for which the reputational damage of being associated with Musk simply isn’t worth the minimal return on investment from advertising on X,” Enberg says. “Musk has dug a hole for X that only he can help it climb out of, and there’s very little chance of that happening.”

Even ahead of advertisers’ latest boycotts of X, Insider Intelligence had already predicted that global ad revenues for the year would be down 54.4%, “due primarily to decisions and comments made by Musk,” Enberg says.

Yaccarino doesn’t have a long-term future at X, according to industry leaders. Her relationship with the company and with Musk is likely to implode in the near future, they say.

“She’s either going to quit or he’s going to fire her. [She won’t] stay there for a few years and then … just go on to the next job,” Navarra says. “It will finish as it started: it will be quite explosive and it’ll get to a point where something is said or done where she just can’t stay there any longer. It’s a question of which comes first: whether she jumps because it gets too crazy, or she says and does something that Elon Musk is not happy with and he pushes her out.

It’s a prediction echoed by Gupta. “It’s not going to work. Linda will always back Elon publicly, until she won’t. And then she’ll be out. That’s how it works with him: either you back him or you get fired.”

The unsustainable relationship could already be approaching its end, Navarra suggests. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she was out of post within the next six months.”

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