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Requiem for a friend

A man hanging from the edge of a giant X drops a megaphone.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Shutterstock / The Current

The advertising community recently lost a good friend. Elon Musk murdered Twitter through his actions and a series of ever more erratic tweets (if you can even call them that anymore) that advertisers just can’t unsee. I don’t understand his motivation; you would think that he’d want to protect his $44 billion investment. But his actions have made it impossible for advertisers to invest their ad dollars on the platform — now not so well known as “X” — where advertising represents at least 95 percent of revenue. If he has an endgame, it eludes me, but whatever it might be, he’s given advertisers no path forward to doing business with his company.

I had the privilege of leading media investment at three great companies in my career. Like all well-run companies, these were each well governed and there was sufficient rigor and scrutiny to ensure no one felt “out of the loop” on big decisions. As with other enterprise functions, media investment at its core is a trade-off between risk and reward. In most cases, the garden-variety risk factors associated with advertising include whether the platform will reach the right audience, if there is sufficient scale to warrant the investment, and if a brand’s creative will resonate in this environment.

Elon Musk has introduced an entirely new risk calculus, however, one in which there is no media value trade-off that justifies the risk he himself has created for would-be advertisers. The questions that advertisers must ask themselves in the case of “X” include: if I advertise on X, will our customers see that as an endorsement of antisemitic behavior? Will they be so offended as to boycott our products as a result? Will the board call my company’s CEO’s judgement into question? Could our CEO get fired as a result? (Don’t laugh; I am writing this only days after Sam Altman was invited to leave his role as CEO of OpenAI by the very board that is now recruiting him back.) This is entirely due to the erratic and indefensible actions of the owner of X and nothing else.

What media buyer in his or her right mind would recommend adding X to the media plan against this risk tsunami? I know in my experience that if I recommended returning to advertising on a platform that Musk owned, I would either be laughed or escorted out of the room — either way, I would be out of a job. No reward could ever justify the risk of a customer boycott or the removal of the CEO. Similarly, if my media buying agency put X on a plan recommendation for my brand, I’d probably be one step closer to putting them into review.

I also think this signals a distinction from previous situations where advertisers “boycotted” certain sites in response to business practices that were unsavory or didn’t respect their users’ privacy choices. Those were temporary. My sense is that the recent exodus of large advertisers from X, some public, most not, is of a more permanent nature. At least until Elon Musk relinquishes control of X, either by selling it to a more capable steward of the platform or removing himself from any operational role and stopping his rage-filled and hatred-fueling tweets entirely. The latter is unlikely.

All of this makes me very sad. I was an enormous fan of Twitter 1.0, as anyone who knows me knows. I woke up and reached for my phone to see what news articles my Twitter friends had curated for me to read first, and I ended my day much in the same way while spending too many hours in between doing the same thing. It seems like the recommendation algorithms have an agenda, even when given clear and consistent signals that their agenda does not correspond to my interests. Occasionally, I will still open my Twitter app (I still have the bird logo through some very careful app updating) then reflexively but very soon realize my mistake and close it, lamenting that no one has yet created a viable alternative to what Twitter was. I know Jack Dorsey is working on that with Blue Sky Social, but given how long it took me to get to 26,534 followers on Twitter, I am not sure I have the time.

My message for readers of The Current is simply this: Be vigilant. We are in the midst of an era where we are seeing a tremendous rise in consumer activism that introduces a layer of consideration that was not part of the media buying calculus just a few years ago. Where you invest your advertising dollars is increasingly seen as a reflection of your company values and operating principles. Even if it wasn’t, it should be. It’s time that we do business with companies that share our values, including how we treat our customers, respect their choices, and conduct their business in a way that is reasonably consistent with our own. The same is true when put through the lens of our employees, our shareholders, and our board of directors. Each of these constituencies expect us to “walk the walk” when it comes to who we do business with, and no amount of ROAS will ever justify the potential risks to our reputation if we fail to do so. And for the record, I am an enormous proponent of free speech — it’s what makes our country great. There are practical limits to those freedoms, and just like it is established case law that you can’t pull open the doors of a packed theater and yell "Fire" when there is none, you can’t traffic in blatantly antisemitic falsehoods when the world is in the throes of religious polarization and enmity that threatens peaceful coexistence.

When a beloved platform becomes so fringe-worthy that it is cringeworthy, it’s time to jettison it and move on. No single platform is a must-buy in 2023. What is imperative is that you use the recent self-immolation of X to convene your key stakeholders and begin to build a vendor governance apparatus that will be ready for this kind of event the next time — and there will be a next time — that something like this happens. I suggest that you begin with a principle-based approach that is highly inclusive, with the goal of protecting your customers, protecting your brand, and protecting your media investments — in that order of importance. Being vigilant means being prepared.

The views and opinions contained in this op-ed represent the views and opinions of the author(s) and do not represent the views or opinions of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, nor of The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk of the content.