Like most things with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet.
“Excited to announce that I’ve hired a new CEO for X/Twitter,” he wrote late on Thursday afternoon, setting off a maelstrom of speculation across media and tech circles about who the billionaire had chosen to steer the social media group.
Rumours centred around Linda Yaccarino, a well-regarded advertising veteran who has spent the past decade at Comcast’s NBCUniversal. A spokesperson on Thursday said Yaccarino was unavailable due to “back-to-back rehearsals” for the group’s annual pitch to advertisers on Monday, the most important event of the year for the business.
But by Friday morning, Yaccarino was officially exiting the company, effective immediately.
It was a fittingly chaotic start for Musk’s replacement as Twitter chief executive. Yaccarino will leave behind the old-school hallways of Madison Avenue for a start-up that has been managed erratically by the tech entrepreneur since he acquired it for $44bn last year.
Yaccarino, 60, is a towering figure in advertising and has deep relationships with marketers and advertising agencies, as well as ties to the traditional fixtures of global business such as the World Economic Forum, where she is an executive chair.
Twitter’s investors hope Yaccarino can be a steady hand to mend Musk’s testy relationship with advertisers, the main source of the company’s revenues. The appointment comes as Musk has struggled to wrestle the platform’s finances under control, carrying out a dramatic restructuring and cost-cutting push that critics argue has caused internal chaos and technical issues for users.
Upon his acquisition of Twitter in October, Musk, a self-declared “free speech absolutist”, initially attempted to woo marketers, promising that the platform would not become a “hellscape” despite his plans to relax content moderation.
Nevertheless, many top advertising agencies and brands chose to pause spending on the platform, hitting Twitter’s revenues by about 50 per cent and prompting Musk to lash out and threaten to “name and shame” those involved. In some cases, he personally called chief executives of some brands that have curbed advertising in order to berate them.
“If she shows up and basically could tell Musk what needs to happen, and he actually leaves her alone to do that, almost all the [advertising] money will come back, and then some”, said Brian Wieser, a former WPP executive and longtime media analyst. “That’s a testament to how well regarded she is in the industry, and how deep her relationships are.”
Advertising insiders say that Yaccarino’s biggest obstacle to restoring Twitter’s business may be Musk himself, who is known for his unorthodox management style and turning on those who challenge him.
“The challenge she faces is Elon”, said David Jones, chief executive of The Brandtech Group and former chief executive of advertising company Havas.
Yaccarino has risen up the ranks of large publicly traded television companies over the past three decades, managing a team of thousands as head of advertising for NBCUniversal, where she oversaw more than $10bn in annual revenue. Her presence will inject professionalism in to Twitter, where Musk has cut staff by almost 90 per cent and set the company’s automatic email reply for journalist inquiries to a poop emoji.
Yaccarino’s own Twitter feed, which dates back only three months, is a mixture of photos from industry events, promotions for Comcast’s Peacock streaming service and stray fashion commentary. “Anna Wintour is my EVERYTHING!!!,” she wrote the night of the Met Gala.
Having grown up in a “very traditional Italian Catholic family”, she is known for hosting advertising executives at her Italian villa after the annual Cannes Lion conference in the south of France.
Advocates say she is a consummate relationship-builder who could help turn round the company’s advertising business, which has long lagged its larger peers such as Meta in terms of revenue, resources and sophistication.
“There’s no one that won’t take a meeting with Linda, no question,” said one veteran advertising executive, adding that she had been an “ardent supporter of broadcast and cable advertising” but was “somewhat dismissive of the value of social media for building brands” in the past.
At NBCUniversal, Yaccarino helped steer the launch of Peacock, Comcast’s streaming service, and has pushed the industry to change outdated practices. Musk said that Yaccarino would “focus primarily on business operations” at Twitter.
While they appear to make for an odd couple, Yaccarino and Musk seem to share political stances. “She doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of left-leaning executive types”, said the veteran advertising executive. “If I was placing her anywhere on the spectrum, it would be as a [Ronald] Reagan Republican.” Another media executive said she was known to be a fan of former US president Donald Trump.
They also share a propensity for showmanship. Yaccarino, a fixture at the industry’s glitzy events, has said that if she weren’t working in advertising, she would want to run for mayor of New York City.
When news broke of her hiring, Yaccarino’s ties to the WEF provoked a backlash from more conspiracy-minded Musk fans, many of whom share distrust of international political organisations.
Musk, who in January described the WEF as “increasingly becoming an unelected world government”, addressed fears that Yaccarino’s connections would harm his free speech agenda, writing: “The commitment to open source transparency and accepting a wide range of viewpoints remains unchanged.”
Some executives questioned Yaccarino’s ultimate power. One top industry executive said it was noticeable that Musk was still executive chair and will be calling the shots. He has made clear he will continue to lead the product and engineering business, where he is more qualified. However, to date a flurry of product changes, such as the introduction of the new premium service Twitter Blue, has failed to win over many users, and the platform has suffered an uptick in outages since the takeover.
Media analyst Wieser warned that leaving her established perch for Twitter was a “very high beta situation” for Yaccarino. “Either it flames out, or it goes spectacularly.”