Inside Linda Yaccarino’s first 12-months as X’s CEO

Linda Yaccarino was a whirlwind at Cannes Lions this year. From villa interviews in the hills to celeb chats on the Croisette, yacht hangouts in the marina to pitching advertisers in X’s (formerly Twitter) plush Carlton suite — she, it seems, was everywhere. It was quite the contrast from last year when she was a no-show as X’s newly appointed CEO.

Her bustling week on the Côte d’Azur perfectly summed up her tenure so far at X: busy, flashy, but ultimately predictable and elaborate.

There were no clear signposts guiding visitors to X’s 278-meter-squared suite at the Carlton, with its grand balcony and picturesque garden views — albeit it is understood that X’s suite was listed on the public list in the lobby. Still, X’s delegation maintained a low profile — a fitting approach considering Yaccarino’s high-profile first year at the helm has been one of the industry’s biggest stories.

Visitors met Yaccarino’s PA in the lobby and were escorted to the privacy of the suite.

There they’d meet the CEO herself, along with her top lieutenants, which included Monique Pintarelli (head of Americas), Julie Saxon (head of consumer sales), Alex Josephson (vp, global head of brand strategy and creative), Aly Baer (head of brand strategy and creative for advertisers), Amy Elkins (global head of strategic partnerships), Brett Weitz (head of content, talent and brand sales), Gregory Owens (vp of ad sales and partnerships for Europe, Africa and resellers globally) Ayumu Matsuyama (Japan ad sales lead) and Yale Cohen (head of brand safety and advertising solutions) along with a couple others in attendance.

These carefully selected individuals were there to drum up business across sales, partnerships and creators, representing X at Cannes in its ongoing efforts to steer a beleaguered ads business back on course

Did it work? 

Not quite. But it wasn’t due to Yaccarino’s lack of charm—she still commands respect, despite mixed feelings about her employer. The real issue? Convincing CMOs to splurge on X was never going to be solved with a pitch deck and Carlton cocktails. It’s going to take much more than that.

This situation sums up Yaccarino’s year at X: progress muddied by setbacks.

Let’s start with the good, and the most important: Yaccarino’s ambitious plan to transform X from a micro-blogging site into a full-fledged entertainment platform.

She’s secured entertainment partnerships with WWE, NBA and WNBA. There’s also been a big push for creator collaborations with stars like Paris Hilton, MrBeast (Yaccarino interviewed MrBeast’s president Marc Hustvedt on stage at Cannes), and Khloe Kardashian. The latter was announced during the festival, alongside a distribution deal with multimedia platform Verzuz, co-founded by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland and a six-episode Offseason reality sports docuseries about players in the National Women’s Soccer League that’ll stream on X.

But in her bid to keep X in sync with the evolving social media landscape, Yaccarino has faced her fair share of hiccups along the way.

Remember X’s partnership with former CNN anchor Don Lemon? It was seemingly cut after the media personality sat down with billionaire owner Elon Musk for Lemon’s first video interview.

It’s a stark reminder that Yaccarino’s success often hinges on the whims of her boss.

“It was always going to be a tough job. Not only did Linda Yaccarino inherit the problems that existed at [then-]Twitter before Elon Musk took it over, she also inherited the added challenge of dealing with Elon Musk, which isn’t easy,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst, social media at eMarketer. “Not much has changed in the year that she has been CEO of X. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that there is a limit to how much she can control given that she still has to manage the expectations and the needs and the wants of Musk as well.”

Nowhere is this tension more palpable than in Yaccarino’s high-wire act to reboot and rebuild X’s relationship with advertisers.

Again, what played in Cannes was a good distillation of all of this. 

While Musk was on stage explaining to marketers why he told them to “go fuck themselves”, his CEO was trying to assure them that the social network is a safe place for more of their ads. 

Much of those chats in the south of France this year resembled similar themes to last year, said one Cannes Lions attendee who was familiar with the situation: keeping current advertisers in the hope of increasing their budgets, while still trying to woo any potential advertisers to get those commitments over the line.

The fact that this is pretty much the same thing Yaccarino was doing when she joined the platform 12 months prior speaks to just how challenging her first year at the company has been. 

In the early days of her tenure, she was forced to spend much of her time putting out the metaphorical Musk-lit fires and asserting damage control — tasks which are still ongoing today. 

So much so that many of those early talks with advertisers came with a caveat: ‘you’re going to have to accept that Elon is going to be Elon, but the platform is a separate entity. So trust me, and trust that I will get things back on track’.

Advertisers tentatively bought into her assurances, resuming ads on the app, but only in small amounts. They couldn’t ignore the rampant hate speech, misinformation and violent content on the platform.

Which is why Yaccarino spent so much time since she joined building out X’s brand safety and suitability team and tools. She needed to convince advertisers that X was a place that took their concerns seriously, and in turn get them to reconsider their concerns. 

To her credit, Yaccarino has managed to nail partnerships with Integral Ad Science (IAS) and DoubleVerify — albeit there was another hiccup with the latter, after DV had to apologize in April for providing the wrong data for X to advertisers between October 2023 and March 2024.

Another step forward saw X recently regain its Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) brand safety certification, having previously missed the cut off for the process to be recertified in March and having been investigated for being in breach of the conditions of certification. 

While its TAG certification is certainly a small win for the platform, X’s Media Ratings Council (MRC) accreditation is still a no go. 

X initially pulled out of its MRC audit last November, citing resource constraints and ongoing technological challenges. But despite recently reengaging with TAG, a spokesperson for MRC confirmed to Digiday that X still hadn’t made any explicit commitments to re-enter the MRC audit process in the near future. It’s another instance where silence speaks volumes. Not following through with the MRC audit, given how respected it is among the advertiser community, almost contradicts what the platform says nowadays about how important brand safety is to them.

Industry chatter has suggested this could be down to the cost of the MRC audit — X isn’t exactly rolling in cash just yet, although Yaccarino did claim at Cannes that the platform will be profitable by the end of the year. Others have suggested that it’s likely that X knows it would fail its MRC audit — so there’s no need to get a piece of paper to prove it’s still not quite up to scratch when it comes to safety just yet.

Either way, it highlights just how big a problem brand safety is for X. Until it’s resolved, advertisers won’t spend big on the platform — the risks are too high, and the rewards too unclear.

One ad exec familiar with X’s plans confirmed this: any talk of advertisers returning to the platform comes with the caveat that they’re not bringing significant ad dollars, they said.

To offset this impasse, X has been targeting small to medium-sized businesses.

Still, Yaccarino clearly believes that the mere presence of household brands advertising on X is a positive sign, regardless of their actual spending. Big names like Nike have been suggested as returnees, often cited during Yaccarino’s recent client council sessions. Though the brand did not respond to Digiday’s request for comment.

“Nike is quite ethical from an advertising perspective, so when they [X team] said that, I took notes,” said one ad exec who attended one of those council meetings and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

But when trying to verify this claim, Sensor Tower had no data past March 2023 of Nike’s spend on the platform while Media Radar said that less than $500 was spent by Nike on X in April. It’s still a far cry from the $503,000 the brand spent in 2022, or even the $97,000 which was recorded between March and November 2023, per Media Radar.

Even Uber and Google have returned to X in the past month and fortnight, respectively, according to one Cannes Lions attendee who preferred to remain anonymous. But even if they are back, few would notice. These advertisers are using tools to exclude certain audiences, keeping their presence low-key. Unless you’re part of these brands’ target audience, you’d never even know they were back advertising on the platform — they’re actively flying under the radar and prioritizing caution when it comes to X. While Uber did not respond to Digiday’s request for comment, a spokesperson for Google stated that “like any advertiser, we have target audiences that we hone in on, but excluding specific audiences isn’t a tactic we use across platforms.”

Looking ahead to her next 12 months, Yaccarino seems to acknowledge that more needs to be done to fix all that ails advertising on X. 

She has already been forced to shake up her inner circle at X as she faces increasing pressure from Musk to boost sales and cut costs, according to the Financial Times. 

And one of her first cost cutting measures was to sack her right-hand man, Joe Bennaroch (head of business operations and communications). Among other issues, Yaccarino held him responsible for the fall out around X’s new adult content policy because he failed to alert clients before it became public, according to the FT. Given the work she has put in to put advertisers’ minds at ease about X, this latest screw up wasn’t going to fly. 

Whatever Yaccarino does in her second year as the CEO of X, the shadow of her controversial boss will loom large over it — just like it did for the first. 

“If Linda was able to do her job without this black cloud of Elon, I think X could do some good,” said Shamsul Chowdhury, evp of paid social at Jellyfish. “The platform is still the go-to for sports, live events, all that real-time chatter. But it’s tough because Elon is such a large figure that Linda could be the CEO [of X] for the next 10 years, and as long as Elon is there, people will always look at this as Elon’s company. So there’s only so much of an impact she can have.”

X declined to comment on this article.

https://digiday.com/?p=548780

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