Confessions of a strategist on the strained relationship between X (formerly Twitter) and agencies

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

It has been just over a year since business billionaire Elon Musk officially bought Twitter, renaming it X and sending what was the internet’s town hall into flux with users and advertisers alike. (Find a deep dive into the last year of X here.)

Throughout that time, advertisers questioned their commitment to the text-based social media platform, wary of its waning brand safety measures, rising misinformation, and haphazard product rollouts under new leadership. A number of brands pulled out, curtailing both advertising and organic posts on X. Only a third of brands posted on X in the last month, according to Digiday research. Publishers have taken a similar approach with 73% of publisher professionals saying their titles posted content to X this year in comparison to 89% last year. Last week, IBM announced it was halting advertising from X, following a report that its ads appeared next to pro-Nazi posts.

In this latest installment of Digiday’s Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, an agency strategist details the strained relationship between agency pros and X, and if Linda Yaccarino’s can salvage X’s leadership.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s been a little more than a year since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, now known as X. How has your agency’s relationship with them changed in that time?

The biggest way it changed is now a lot of hesitation is starting to arise with actually connecting them directly with clients, but also the conversations that are being held. Back in the day, a lot of it was they’d have stuff come up, they’d have reservations for the Super Bowl, big season events for sports, even the Grammys takeover and stuff like that. It’s always like you were excited to discuss with them. It was always about the new opportunities. Instead, the conversation has turned to the value you get and the safety are the two priorities that they’re really trying to say. I’ve seen some instances where they’ve offered you spend $100K, you get $200K worth of impressions. They’re pretty much doubling the value of what you can get just because they’re trying to get people back on the platform.

It’s also a double down on safety. You always understand when working with social that it’s a lot of user-generated content. That’s always been part of the story when you’ve done brand safety guidelines for clients and things of that nature. But the narrative has really changed to people are afraid to be on the platform, and these reps are calling and being like, “We’re still safe. We’re still seeing these numbers.” A lack of trust has really been developed, where you can’t believe the things that you’re hearing from them anymore. Because the things that you’re hearing from these reps are directly contradicting things that are happening in the news. I would say that lack of trust has been there and the lack of excitement too with Twitter has been created from it. 

How is your agency talking to clients about leveraging X in marketing plans?

The way [our agency] believes, and the way a lot of other agencies believe, it’s not an agency recommendation and more of a client recommendation at this point. It’s saying, “Hey client. If you want to be on this, you can, but here’s ABC through XYZ caveats.” I haven’t seen that people really are openly recommending them anymore. It’s just because there’s more concern for being on the platform more than the opportunities that you’re going to miss out on from not being there.

Walk me through conversations with X reps. What do they look like now?

We used to get warnings like, “Hey. This upfront is going to release and you have a certain amount of time.” You used to bid on those opportunities — the Olympics, Super Bowl and stuff like that. Now, you could get three or four emails up until the week before the Super Bowl or anything like the World Series like, “Hey, this is still available.” They’re still trying to push it. There’s, “Hey, final discount rate.” There’s definitely a sign of desperation. But at the same time, a lot of turnover has occurred too. You’re seeing a lot more follow up emails, offers and how can I get in front of you. “Hey, do you want to do a lunch and learn?” “Hey, do you want to do a happy hour and meet?” Where it was more you RFP’d them, now they’re sending a lot of info themselves, proactively. It’s more them reaching out to you. Meta has some of the worst client [reps] I’ve ever seen in my life. Absolutely atrocious. We beg them for help and it’s the exact opposite with Twitter. It’s like, “Hey, this is available. What do you need?”

Have any of the discounts or offerings to win back business sparked client interest?

There’s been a couple of clients that have invested. The reason being the absurd amount of impressions, yes. You spend $100K, you get $200K worth of impressions. Some clients, they’re just about awareness and how much they can get their name out there. It makes sense. In a lot of those cases, it’s more of a dictation than a recommendation. They’re like we want to be on this channel. Yes, there are a lot of incentives out there and I’m really interested to see how it plays out. A couple years ago, the last round of the Olympics, bidding wars. You were let in the know six months in advance when things were going to be released. It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out this year for them.

There seems to be a disconnect between what Musk wants and how the business is trying to operate.

The way that reps position is, “Unless we send you an email directing you… This is the comms coming from our ad tech team or sales team internally…” They’re saying, “What we communicate to you is what you should be using. Not this dipshit over here is communicating to the masses to appease someone or make his crypto bank account go up some.” You’re directly telling people to ignore what your CEO is saying on the platform where they want you to advertise. It’s truly a mind boggling experience. [Meta’s CEO Mark] Zuckerberg is a robot, but at least you know it’s a consistency in what they’re rolling out. You know what you’re going to get there. In these types of instances, you’re not seeing that as much, unfortunately. Technically, they’re not true statements. They’re not issued by X. That’s how they say it, “Oh, he’s just out there spewing his mind.”

What about the brand safety? How is that shaping out, especially in today’s increasingly polarized climate?

Five, six or seven years ago in advertising, if you ended up on the wrong side because it wasn’t part of your block list, and you got a screenshot from a client, the world was ending and you were absolutely terrified. Now, you have people showing up right next to Nazi content. And [X] is like, “It’s user-generated content. It’s who you’re following. You’re just following a Nazi.” Us as representatives of our clients as an agency, we look across everything. We decide and make a recommendation. That’s just the world that we are in, where it happens more often than not, which is very unfortunate. But that’s on us to make that recommendation. But to pause so frequently? That’s another reason. Is the juice worth the squeeze or are you opening the floodgates on that platform? When you’re sitting in a position like ours, where it’s your job to be that middle man, you sometimes don’t want to be that. Because if you miss it, or you aren’t available or something happens, or you fall next to the incorrect content, you don’t want to be there. 

Over the summer, Linda Yaccarino was brought in from NBCUniversal as X’s new CEO. With new leadership, is there hope for the platform?

If you put a different CEO in place and took a step back, yes. But he’s making those executive decisions. That’s the issue. You can have the greatest salesman in the world trying to sell you something. You’re only going to buy enough buckets of shit before you realize it stinks.

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