Musk promises advertisers that bold moves will come quick at Twitter

Twitter’s new “chief twit” Elon Musk held a conference call yesterday which drew more than 1 million listeners. Ostensibly, the purpose of the hour-long event was to placate advertisers concerned about the platform’s direction under his leadership.

That was made apparent right from the beginning. “Our commitment to all of you has not changed,” said chief client officer Robin Wheeler to open the presentation. “Our teams are out there, still in place, and committed and dedicated to providing the service you’ve grown to love from this platform.”

There’s been a lot of change, she acknowledged, but much of it is “very exciting.” Her opening remarks were standard corporate-speak, but nonetheless might have been a balm for some of the many advertisers and agencies who spent a collective $4.5 billion with the platform last year, and have been perplexed by how quickly things at Twitter have spiralled into craziness since Musk took over on Oct. 27.

(That was underscored late Thursday, with Bloomberg reporting that both Wheeler and Yoel Roth, another senior executive who was on Wednesday’s call, have left the company, and that Musk himself has reportedly told employees that “bankruptcy” is a possibility.)

However, it was the world’s richest man and newly minted social media magnate that advertisers and agencies wanted to hear from, likely seeking assurances that the past two weeks have been an aberration, and that regular service would resume ASAP. It’s not clear they got what they wanted.

Musk’s hour-long presentation began with a high-minded claim about ensuring that Twitter becomes “a force for good for civilization,” which might have seemed a bit disingenuous coming from someone who has a reputation for lashing out at those who challenge, displease, or disagree with him on the platform.

He then spent the rest of the hour offering up vague assurances about brand safety and content moderation, repeated comments about why people should pay an “extremely cheap” $8 a month for a blue checkmark (a tactic that has already had predictably awful results), and an almost comical grasp of the absolute importance of brand safety.

“We are going to work hard to make sure that there’s not bad stuff right next to an ad,” he said at one point.

He also made numerous entreaties to advertisers to stick with the platform, not surprising since the past two weeks has seen major brands like General Mills step back, and agency groups such as IPG urge clients to suspend activity on the platform.

He seemed to suggest, too, that advertisers simply don’t understand the platform. “The best way to understand what’s going on with Twitter, is use Twitter,” he said. “If there’s something you would like, reply to one of my tweets, and I’ll do my best to respond.”

He also urged brands and their executives to be more more active on Twitter, and take a few more risks. “I would encourage people to be more adventurous,” he said, perhaps momentarily forgetting he was speaking to a generally risk-averse audience. “That’s what I’ve done, and it’s worked out quite well.”

Reaction to the event, and the vision for Twitter laid out by Musk, was mixed. The New York Times said that Musk presented his “most comprehensive overview” for Twitter’s business since taking over, although it did add the caveat that he was “sometimes short on specifics.”

Vox, meanwhile, said that advertisers are “unlikely to be swayed” by his pledges to improve the platform, and TechCrunch described the Q&A session (which didn’t really feature many questions) as “meandering,” saying that Musk simply repeated “many of the same talking points that he has been peddling since he initially launched his bid for Twitter.”

Advertisers and agencies, too, had mixed opinions. “Unprepared and sloppy” is how one Canadian media buyer described the presentation. “[C]onsidering the situation the platform is in, [it] did not generate confidence.”

Another media executive, speaking off-the-record, said they felt “slightly better” about the company’s direction after Musk’s address. “I don’t want to say that people feel good, but some commitments were put in place that brought a little bit of assurance,” they said. “It was kind of a step in the right direction.”

But while Musk tried to come across as conciliatory and eager-to-please during Wednesday’s event, his words also stood in stark contrast to his combative nature on Twitter. In the past week alone, he has blocked (and subsequently unblocked) a top marketer for publicly calling him out on his plans for content moderation, and then threatened to “thermonuclear name and shame” advertisers who, he claimed, were giving in to pressure from “activist groups” by pulling their ads.

Part of the challenge for advertisers is that the Musk and Twitter brands have become so intertwined, which prompted the IAB’s chief executive officer David Cohen to ask Musk how marketers should regard the two distinct but related perspectives. “I think if I say that Twitter is doing something, then I mean Twitter,” he said. “If I say ‘I” then I mean me. If there’s any confusion about the two, I would say ask me on Twitter.”

He also pleaded for patience, although he couldn’t help but inject a certain degree of swagger into his remarks. “I only got the keys to the building a week ago Friday, but I’ve learned pretty fast here,” he said. “The rate of evolution at Twitter will be an immense step change compared to what it has been in the past.”

Not surprisingly, he also cited his experience with Tesla and SpaceX, suggesting he fundamentally believes that Twitter is a tech company, not a global communications platform possessing the ability to shape people’s thoughts and actions. “If nothing else I am a technologist, and I can make technology go,” he said. Twitter might “go” alright, but given the mounting challenges, it’s not quite clear where.

Musk also assured listeners that he and the rest of his leadership team are trying to get things right. “We’re not aspirationally dumb,” he said. “If we do not try bold moves, how will we make great improvements?” That was followed by talk about “really big leaps” and “radical improvements” to the platform.

Musk has talked repeatedly since the takeover about ensuring that Twitter remains a safe space for both users and brands, but continued staff losses—though a combination of both mass layoffs and voluntary departures—calls into question his ability to do so.

It has already lost broad swathes of staff whose job is to ensure safety and compliance. On Thursday, for example, chief information and security officer Lea Kissner announced—via Twitter—that she had left the company. Chief privacy officer Damien Kieran and chief compliance officer Marianne Fogarty have also reportedly stepped down.

At one point during the presentation, Wheeler said that one of Musk’s responses to the thorny issue of content moderation “glossed…” before stopping herself from saying the word “over.” Instead, she suggested that maybe Musk’s response perhaps didn’t go as deep as some listeners might have liked.

Which seems as good a summation of the event as any.

Photo by Edgar Moran on Unsplash

Chris Powell