A New Twitter CEO Won’t Change Who Calls the Shots | Opinion

A New Twitter CEO Won’t Change Who Calls the Shots

The only thing more stressful than working under Elon Musk may be working over him.

| Updated on: May 13 2023, 07:18 IST
Linda Yaccarino
In about six weeks, Musk will move to executive chairman and chief technology officer, “overseeing product, software and sysops,” he wrote on Twitter. (AP)

Elon Musk appears to have finally found, to use his phrase, someone “foolish enough to take the job” as Twitter chief executive officer. It ends a months-long search and could begin a turnaround at the social network we love to hate.

If reports prove correct, that someone is Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal's head of advertising. She is yet to comment, but Comcast Corp., NBCU's parent, announced her departure on Friday. Yaccarino would bring the expertise and experience needed to tempt vanishing ad spend back to the platform, potentially reversing a trajectory that some analysts believe has Twitter in a death spiral.

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In about six weeks, Musk will move to executive chairman and chief technology officer, “overseeing product, software and sysops,” he wrote on Twitter. The arrangement was apparently sufficient to reassure Tesla Inc. investors, with the carmaker's stock jumping after-hours on account of optimism that the great Twitter distraction — the “lingering albatross,” as one analyst described it — was finally reaching its end.

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I don't buy it. These moves will do little to change who calls the shots at Twitter. It would palm off parts of the job that Musk either can't be bothered with or knows he is no good at, which, I suppose, would be some form of progress. But Yaccarino, if she takes the job, may soon come to realize the only thing more stressful than working under Musk is working over him.

We've seen other CEOs at tech companies become executive chair, stepping into the background to launch rockets or create curious flying cars but allowing their successors to work mostly autonomously. This separation is best achieved by moving away from day-to-day operations and being on hand only for the most consequential decisions — what Jeff Bezos calls “one-way doors,” major strategic moves from which there is no going back.

But Musk isn't doing that. At a company like Twitter, the CTO role is arguably the most hands-on job in the C-suite, responsible for the technical implementation of all the grand ideas Musk has outlined so far. This will suit his strengths — he's routinely demonstrated he's better at understanding software code than people — but it is no less active than CEO and will do little to lessen the distraction Tesla investors are worried about.

The nature of the haphazard announcement bodes poorly. Out of nowhere on Thursday, Musk fired out a tweet saying he'd found a new CEO, not naming her, but saying “she” would be starting in six weeks. Soon after, the Wall Street Journal published a story — one Musk presumably knew was coming — naming Yaccarino. Musk has form here: His notorious “funding secured” tweet, where he falsely claimed he had confirmed the investment to take Twitter private, was sent in a panic due to his concern the Financial Times was about to break the story before he could announce it himself.

Whatever the circumstance, the leaking of the news and Musk's tweet will have made things uncomfortable for Yaccarino, who next week had been due to present at an NBCU ad-sales event. The lack of response from both Yaccarino and, until the day after Musk's tweet, NBCU, suggests a disruptive jumping of the gun, the kind that should leave the executive wondering what kind of chaos she might be getting into.

If CEO, she will need to get used to it. Musk's tendency to tweet from the hip has landed him in trouble and caused discomfort to those around him. Seemingly unable to resist playing to the crowd, Musk has already engaged with Twitter users concerned about Yaccarino's work with the World Economic Forum and being downtrodden by the global “elite.” Musk is also known to suddenly announce product changes and initiatives on a whim.

If Musk can suppress his worst urges and act like a serious executive for a sustained period, Yaccarino might have a fighting chance. At NBCU, according to the WSJ, she oversees annual ad revenues of around $13 billion — about three times that of Twitter. She speaks the language of ad land and is said to drive a hard bargain. Like Carolyn Everson at Facebook — who came in and revolutionized that company's relationship with marketers, helping it overcome a spiraling boycott — Yaccarino has the decades of credibility Musk desperately needs.

But Musk has already crashed through several reputational one-way doors of his own, making Yaccarino's job extremely difficult. No amount of negotiation or shrewd networking can get around the fact that Musk's “principles” dictated he should reinstate some of Twitter's most odious users. Nor can it be swept under the rug that Tucker Carlson, the most hateful broadcaster in America, has chosen to relaunch his show exclusively on Twitter.

Regardless of Yaccarino's personal views on these characters, the fact remains that advertisers will balk at being anywhere near such content. Furthermore, Musk's assertion that the solution is to prevent ads appearing next to “bad” content is naive. A platform that suffers moderation failings so severe that users are left traumatized will find advertisers ashamed to be associated with the site in any way.

For a hint of what lays ahead, we can look to an on-stage interview between Yaccarino and Musk in a room full of advertising executives last month. Yaccarino, desperately trying to help Musk read the room, asked how Twitter might be able to work with advertisers so they can be “excited” about the network.

“It's totally cool to say that you want to have your advertising appear in certain places on Twitter and not in other places,” Musk replied. “It is not cool to try to say what Twitter will do. And if that means losing advertising dollars, we lose it.”

Yaccarino went on to laud Musk's commitment to “free speech.” But when there's the inevitable disagreement on where lines must be drawn, there will only be one winner — and it won't be the new CEO.

Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion's US technology columnist. Previously, he was a San Francisco-based correspondent at the Financial Times and BBC News.

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First Published Date: 13 May, 06:42 IST