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My two cents on Twitter's new hire
There’s a lot of handwringing and speculation in the twitter-sphere about Elon’s new CEO hire — Linda Yaccarino, who most recently held the post of Chairman of Global Advertising for NBC Universal. I’ll admit, it was an unexpected choice from my perspective, but what do I know.
I expected someone with a strong tech background, possibly an actual engineer/coder/product developer or maybe someone with tech adjacent skills — by adjacent, I mean someone who worked in tech but wasn’t an actual technologist.
I mostly thought Musk would hire someone who’d built some breakthrough stuff, stuff we perhaps hadn’t ever dreamed of before it became a reality. Stuff we couldn’t imagine we needed or wanted or would improve our lives in the way it has. And then because of how imaginative and useful the thing is, the fans came. Someone like that! A visionary!
Now . . . do you need the CEO to be the builder of these mind-blowingly innovative things for which I won’t dare to put forth what would inevitably be a fraught example (has Instagram changed our lives for the better or ruined the mental health of Gen Z?)? No probably not. Hence my “tech adjacent” possibility assumption.
But most (all?) of the most famous, game-changing tech brands/businesses were built by a product developer with an insanely big idea. And in these companies product is king. Or queen. Or whatever. So I really thought that’s what we’d get for the CEO of Twitter. Right or wrong, I figured that was what would happen.
Thus, an ad sales person from legacy media — not known for being wildly, or even mildly, innovative — was a surprise to me. And to many others who desperately wanted a free speech warrior. I’ve seen some strange suggestions on this front — non-business, speech-y iconoclasts.
No. I love these folks. But no.
Twitter is a business. It needs to be run like one. Only without all the weird, polarizing woke stuff interfering with the running of businesses these days.
And so, in my humble opinion, someone committed to the vision of Twitter — free speech and open debate and dissent — is necessary, but in no way sufficient, to get the business back to profitability.
What I believe is necessary is a bit of a unicorn — a business leader with real discipline, vision and creativity who ALSO is a free speech warrior. Any of these without the other and I think it doesn’t work. But again, I’m willing to be wrong on this.
From what I can glean, Yaccarino could be a disciplined business leader. Probably is. I can’t see how she could have gotten to where she has without this capability. Though goodness knows, I’ve known so many C-suiters without this quality, men and women who are just really good at saying stuff that sounds good. So who knows. Forgive my cynicism but having a big job doesn’t mean the person is good at said big job. Often they go along to get along and their real skills are schmoozing and a fancy rolodex.
Further, being a disciplined business leader (managing costs, growing revenue, effectively managing relationships and teams) is not the same as a brand/product builder with vision.
In my experience with sales folks in apparel (totally different category, I know), this is how it goes: sales team members meet with accounts — Kohl’s, Macy’s etc. They come back and tell the designers and merchants: “Make this because that’s what Kohl’s says is working from competitive brand XYZ.” Ok you see where this is going. Not towards any sort of distinctive, breakthrough, hyper-relevant vision for a brand or product line. The salespeople can kind of act like servers in a restaurant, bringing the customer what they’ve asked for. Rather than the 5 star chefs creating dishes as yet unimagined by unsuspecting diners.
One of the biggest mistakes at Levi’s we ever made was not listening to the consumer when they voted with their feet and wallet to exit department stores to shop in “verticals” — single brand stores like American Eagle, The Gap, etc. We at Levi’s listened to our accounts, via information conveyed by our sales team, who said: do not open Levi’s Stores, it will be bad for our business. And we didn’t. And we were set back more than a decade. Because we listened to sales folks.
We didn’t open the stores that consumers said they preferred. And those consumers went to other brands which opened more appealing stores — easier to shop, more aspirational, better curated — for jeans.
The irony here was that when other brands opened these stores (brands that operated in both retail and wholesale) and executed them well, the business in wholesalers of those brands also improved. Counter-intuitive maybe, but direct-to-consumer stores were the tide that lifted all boats. When direct-to-consumer was done well, it elevated the brand and consumers who preferred to still shop in department stores found that brands with excellent stores of their own were also more appealing in department stores.
Here’s another example. When we relaunched our Levi’s women’s collection in 2015, it took off in ~109 out of 110 countries around the world. Right from the get go. Where didn’t it take off? The U.S. Why? Some accounts — Macy’s in particular — refused to get on board and buy the new product line. They just continued to buy the old product line, which already wasn’t working. Levi’s sales leaders kept coming back to us at headquarters saying: Macy’s just wants what they already have, but just a little different. We’d say: No. They need something radically different that is working in every other country we operate in.
What happened? Two years in, Macy’s and all the other accounts in the U.S., got on board. And we were off to the races. And Levi’s is now the number one jeans brand in the world for women. And some of those sales leaders were pushed out the door — correctly so.
Ok here’s the last part. Good luck finding an executive committed to free speech. That’s the real unicorn-y part. But it’s a failure of imagination to think it doesn’t exist.
At any rate, here’s what I think:
Make Twitter the only place on the planet for open debate and free speech.
Build the vision for the Twitter brand as THE destination for real dialogue that can, hopefully, get us to a truthful version of the events of the day.
This doesn’t exist anywhere else. Legacy media aligns with a unidirectional view. Social media censors those who veer from the mainstream narrative in legacy media. And the silo-ed new media (e.g. podcasts) — however heterodox they may be — still, by and large, present a single viewpoint. It’s just a heterodox one.
Acquire and create content that supports that vision of free speech and open debate with conversation, primarily in the news/pundit space but maybe include fun stuff that needs to be seen and understood in real time to matter — sports?
Make Twitter the destination for real time news with actual conversation.
Make sure it’s respectful. But not without controversy. (None of this speech is violence stuff.)
Do that and the audience grows. Everyone comes. Because this is not available anywhere else.
What not to do?
Start with asking advertisers what it will take to get them to come back.
Then accept their terms and water the whole thing down, shaving the edges off for commercial viability in the short term. But cutting off your nose to spite your face in the long term.
Abandon any pretext of being the free speech destination. Or pretend to be that but not really be it. Adopt the pose of free speech, but under the covers, do the opposite.
Destroy the one real and differentiated and necessary thing Twitter can and needs to be.
In summary, build the brand and the product to support it. Fans will come. And then advertisers who want the eyeballs from truly engaged users will come too.
Take the long view. Could it be a slower path back to profitability? Maybe. Is it the more sustainable, differentiated and necessary path? Definitely.
Build it and they will come. My two cents. Albeit the two cents from an ousted, cancelled former executive but one who led a once great brand back to leadership.