X’s Unique Un-Sales Strategy: CEO Linda Yaccarino Woos Advertisers; Owner Elon Musk Drives Them Away

If movie and TV studios get nervous about advertising, so should everyone else.

Advertisers loathe controversy, and often “pull” or “yank” their commercials from individual pieces of content that generate it. But the studios have stiffer spines. They don’t run garden-variety commercials, but rather trailers and sneak previews of much-anticipated TV programs, and their target consumer is typically young men, who often don’t feel the outrage of advocacy groups eager to spur boycotts of a cable-news channel, a scripted series with a controversial star; or a reality program that offends. Studios don’t often feel the need to stop running their ads, particularly when an opening weekend’s box office tally might be at stake. In 2018, when many advertisers suspended their support of comedian Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS following a joke she made about Ivanka Trump, then the daughter of the then-U.S. President, Comcast ran a trailer for “Jurassic World” and the Epix cable network offered an ad for the series “Deep State.” The network’s parent company, WarnerMedia, ran an ad for the film “Ocean’s 8.”

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So when a host of big media companies including Disney, Lionsgate, and Warner Bros. Discovery revealed Friday night that they intended to “pause” advertising on X, the social-media outlet formerly known as Twitter, it was definitely cause for alarm. Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur who has already gone ten steps too far for most Madison Avenue stalwarts since purchasing the venue for $44 billion in the fall of 2022, took one more earlier this week when he indicated on X that he supported a statement posted by another user that suggested “western Jewish populations” were “coming to the disturbing realization that those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country don’t exactly like them too much.” Musk reposted the remark and added, “you have said the actual truth.”

The studios may crave the immediacy X brings them with different groups of fans, says Lou Paskalis, a former senior marketing executive at Bank of America who now runs the consulting firm AJL Advisory Inc. But they realize that “you cannot invest money where there’s an anti-Semite in an ownership position who is going to alienate a good portion of your audience.”

IBM has also stopped putting ads on X, and Axios reported on Friday that Apple, one of the nation’s most influential marketers, has done the same. One production studio has been off X for months, according to a person familiar with the matter, realizing that staffing cuts Musk put in place had left the team tasked with keeping advertisers away from controversial material too small to be effective.

Musk seems to value his ability on X to challenge conventional wisdom and influence cultural debates. But advertisers are increasingly nervous about the issues of so-called “brand safety” and “brand suitability” in an era when a random social-media posting can gin up protest, backlash, and product snub. Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev had to contend with sales declines for its flagship Bud Light after a social-media promotion launched earlier this year that included transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney — a move that unexpectedly resulted in boycotts, diminished sales and a decision to put on leave two marketing executives who oversaw the marketing effort.

Indeed, advertisers are pulling ad support from vehicles they might never have considered leaving in the past, including a play by Shakespeare. Many consumers watch TV news programs frequently, even making a habit of watching specific anchors. But fear of being associated with controversial right- or left-wing opinions has driven many sponsors away. Viewers “still want news,” says one media-buying executive, but when it comes to big advertisers, “no one wants to be near it.”

X CEO Linda Yaccarino seemed to recognize that sentiment Friday when she posted on the venue that “X has been extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination. There’s absolutely no place for it anywhere in the world.”

Too often, however, Yaccarino, a veteran of the ad-sales game after stints in senior roles at NBCUniversal and the Warner subsidiary once known as Turner Broadcasting, finds herself mopping up after her boss while trying to make new gains for X in the worlds of media and marketing. Musk’s new comment — derided by both the White House and the European Commission — came less than two weeks after a Wall Street Journal report described Yaccarino’s efforts to renew deals with the NFL and NBA that would make sports clips — generally regarded as safe content that lures big crowds — regularly available on X.

Musk is making her job increasingly difficult, possibly untenable. Musk may think advertisers are acting capriciously, suggests Paskalis, but the fact is that most large marketers work very hard to align their advertising with platforms that reflect their corporate values. There are rules and policies in place that govern where advertising can and should appear. “He’s really grabbing the third rail with both hands, and I think he’s made it impossible for advertisers to come back to the platform,” he says.

Yaccarino’s new travails are the talk of the advertising world. Ad buyers wonder why she left a top role at NBCUniversal — the backer of such general-audience fare as “Sunday Night Football,” the Paris Olympics and “Today” — for a job where her efforts are continually undermined by a superior who is as erratic as he is intelligent. Perhaps, as Milton wrote in his epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven?

Yaccarino’s ambitions for a commanding role in the media industry have been well known. One reason she left Turner for NBC is because she made a push for a senior operating role, such as those that were held at the time by Steve Koonin, who oversaw TNT and TBS, or David Levy, the executive who oversaw ad sales and distribution. Her efforts were denied. At the time, many ad-sales executives hoped to emulate the career path of Charlie Collier, a senior advertising executive at CourTV who jumped in 2006 to AMC, where he helped steer the network into premium series such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,”

Yaccarino was also known to want NBCUniversal’s top post. She initially joined the company in 2011 as its head of cable and digital sales, and senior executives hoped she might help bring together two aggressive operators — Bonnie Hammer, who supervised general entertainment, and Lauren Zalaznick, who helped build Bravo – who had to work under the same business unit. Within a year, she was named head of all ad sales, including that of NBC.

During her time at NBCU, Yaccarino looked for new ways to raise prices for advertising in certain parts of its portfolio. Under her aegis, NBCU has tried to wring new value out of programming that often doesn’t get it, such as reruns of “Modern Family” on USA or Megyn Kelly’s mid-morning NBC program. She pushed to cut the number of ads running in “Saturday Night Live,” charging more for the ones that remained and offering to have executive producer Lorne Michaels and his staff work to create bespoke commercials for select clients.

Not all of the ventures bore fruit, and advertisers would resist some of her sales push. In 2015, for example, NBC devised a vague offer around the variety program “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris” that would give viewers a chance to “win the ads.” The concept was never explained in full detail, and was eventually scrapped — even though it was unveiled during one of NBC’s upfront presentations.

In more recent years, Yaccarino tried to broaden the revenue streams she oversaw. She steered NBCU into e-commerce and pushed to launch a new audience-measurement technology that could outdo Nielsen’s.

There have been some signs that NBCU is remodeling the architecture she put in place. Two key Yaccarino lieutenants who had been involved in some of her new initiatives, have left the company. Krishan Bhatia, the chief business officer for NBCU’s ad-sales division, and Kelly Abcarian, a former Nielsen executive hired to push advertisers to embrace the company’s audience-measurement ventures, both exited in recent weeks. The ad-sales unit has also scaled back some of its publicity. Under Yaccarino, the division eagerly unveiled tens of announcements, some of them quite incremental, and which some rivals would dismiss as “vaporware.”
Mark Marshall, NBCU’s new ad-sales chairman, recently raised eyebrows by installing a senior sales executive from Roku as a second-in-command. Media buyers see the hire as a clear sign that the company sees streaming and audience-buying as becoming a bigger part of its business than linear TV and traditional Nielsen ratings.

Now Yaccarino must look forward. She “is the quintessential Italian mother. She will not allow herself to fail,” says Paskalis, who has maintained a long business relationship with the executive. “She didn’t accept this role knowing that [Musk] had these anti-Semitic feelings. She is a person of high moral character and great integrity.” But he fears for her the longer she stays in her current role. “I don’t think Linda knows how to give up, even though the lights are flashing red, and she needs to think about her personal reputation more than success in the role of CEO.”

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