Is this X’s (formerly Twitter) final goodbye to big advertisers? It looks like it

It looks like big advertisers are leaving X (formerly Twitter) for good and its owner Elon Musk couldn’t care less.

In the packed DealBook conference in New York on Wednesday, he bluntly told them to shove it. 

This response came after another round of advertisers including IBM, Apple, CNN and Disney bailed on his social network after Musk seemingly supported an antisemitic conspiracy theory last month by responding to an X user’s post — a move he’s since admitted was silly and apologized for. Musk was less remorseful over the uproar caused among advertisers, telling the room: “This advertising boycott is going to kill the company… let’s see how Earth responds to that.”

For many large marketers, this marks the end of a drawn-out farewell (lasting a whopping 13 months) to advertising on X since Musk took over. Surprisingly, even some of X’s own staff members are now calling it quits. Freelance journalist Claire Atkinson reported a “wave of resignations” from CEO Linda Yaccarino’s sales team, including a few of the remaining ad executives who were there before she officially joined in June. Musk’s actions are essentially reversing any recent progress made in reviving X’s advertising business.

Lou Paskalis, CEO and founder of AJL Advisory confirmed that Musk’s comments were indeed another extra nail in the already well sealed coffin because it reaffirmed what most large advertisers already know — Musk resents having to be beholden to them.

“He is trying to position their legitimate brand suitability concerns, largely precipitated by his ongoing antics on X, as a vast, left-wing conspiracy among advertisers to ‘blackmail’ him into constraining his right to free speech,” Paskalis said. “As someone who spent over three decades in the ad buying business, it’s laughable to think that we could all act with that level of coordination, presumably in secret.”

This event highlights how out of touch Musk is with what keeps his company running. He takes an ad boycott as a personal insult when, truthfully, it’s just part and parcel of managing a platform these days. Look at how often YouTube and Meta have dealt with similar issues over the years. The difference? The bigwigs at those companies prioritized protecting their businesses, not their public personas, and were willing to make compromises to win back advertisers. Not that it took much to win back those ad dollars — advertisers rely on those platforms as much as the platforms rely on them.

“It’s just a very sensible decision not to continue advertising on that platform which poses such a strong brand safety risk,” said Ebiquity’s chief strategy officer Ruben Schreurs. “To do all this on stage is unheard of, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The largest advertisers seem to agree. Unlike their previous boycotts of advertising on X, this one is permanent for many of them. Some of the most active accounts like Disney, Paramount, Liongsate and Sony Pictures haven’t posted in nearly two weeks. This chimes with what one senior ad exec, who had been in touch with a number of X’s advertisers over the past year, told Digiday last month. Advertisers who had continued to spend on the platform only paid a fraction of what they used to prior to Musk, out of fear of getting called out by Musk if they didn’t.

“It’s easier to pull advertising than it is to return, and what makes the X ad boycott unique is that it isn’t primarily about content adjacency or moderation,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst, social media at Insider Intelligence. “Advertisers are concerned about the reputational damage and the uncertainty of doing business with Musk, and yesterday’s comments will deepen the rift between them.”

An impossible job has now become even more challenging for Yaccarino. Ad dollars weren’t exactly flowing into the social network before Musk’s latest rant. X has averaged a 55% year-over-year revenue decline, according to Guideline. This figure increased to 61% YOY between May and August 2023 — despite Yaccarino joining the company during the summer. 

“The hill she [Yaccarino] must climb to rekindle advertiser demand for the platform just went from steep to vertical,” said Paskalis. “I don’t know how anyone could overcome a direct verbal assault of the magnitude that Musk delivered at the DealBook conference against a customer base already alarmed by his previous rage inducing, divisive and dog whistle laden tweets. None of this will cause Linda to leave, in my opinion, as she sees quitting as failure and failure is not an option in her calculus, no matter what damage may be done to her reputation.”

X did not respond to Digiday’s request for comment.

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