Musk nabs ex-NBCUniversal ad chief Yaccarino as new Twitter CEO

By Dawn Chmielewski and Sheila Dang

(Reuters) - Elon Musk has named former NBCUniversal advertising chief Linda Yaccarino as Twitter's new CEO, as the company tries to reverse a plunge in ad revenue.

Yaccarino will take over a social media platform beset with challenges and a heavy debt load, after she spent several years modernizing the advertising business at NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast Corp.

"I am excited to welcome Linda Yaccarino as the new CEO of Twitter!" Musk said in a tweet on Friday. "@LindaYacc will focus primarily on business operations, while I focus on product design & new technology."

Since Musk acquired Twitter in October, advertisers have fled the social media platform, worried that their ads could appear next to inappropriate content after the company lost nearly 80% of staff. Musk earlier this year acknowledged that Twitter suffered a massive decline in ad revenue.

Twitter's "trajectory will immediately take a 180-degree turn" under her leadership, said Lou Paskalis, a longtime ad industry executive and CEO of AJL Advisory, a marketing consultancy.

"I think (Yaccarino) has climbed every mountain she could at NBCU and did it impeccably well. And there's no greater challenge than restoring order at Twitter," he said.

While Musk said Yaccarino would help build an "everything app," which he has previously said could offer a variety of services such as peer-to-peer payments, his selection of an advertising veteran signaled that digital ads would continue to be a core focus of the business.

Musk has axed thousands of Twitter employees, rushed the launch of a subscription product that allowed scammers to impersonate major brands and suspended users with whom he disagreed, all of which have spooked brands from spending on the platform.

In order to diversify away from ads, the billionaire has focused on Twitter Blue, a subscription feature that costs users $8 per month to verify their accounts, but the product has had limited success.

Independent researcher Travis Brown, who has been tracking the number of Twitter Blue subscribers over time, estimated there were 619,858 customers as of April 30.

Yaccarino could not be reached for comment.

BLOW TO NBCUNIVERSAL

Her exit is another big hit to NBCUniversal. Last month, NBC parent Comcast said NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was leaving after acknowledging an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company, following a complaint that prompted an investigation.

Advertising President Mark Marshall will step in as interim chairman of NBCUniversal's advertising and partnerships group. Marshall was named president of ad sales and partnerships in 2018, overseeing NBC's broadcast entertainment, sports and advanced advertising sales.

Yaccarino's exit comes at a difficult time for NBCUniversal, which is preparing for its annual presentation to advertisers on Monday at Radio City Music Hall.

Yaccarino joined NBCU in 2011, after 15 years at Turner Entertainment, and has been credited with taking the network's ad sales operation into the digital era.

As broadcast television audiences migrated to streaming, she took to the stage at Radio City Music Hall last year to tell advertisers their brand messages were not an afterthought. She said NBCUniversal incorporated ads in its Peacock streaming service from the outset.

"Twitter needs credibility with the advertising community," said Greg Kahn, chief executive of GK Digital Ventures media consultancy. "Linda has demonstrated her trust, her innovative nature of bringing new partners to the table and a deep bench of relationships."

Musk, the CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc, completed his purchase of Twitter in October for $44 billion. He said on Friday that hiring Yaccarino would allow him to spend more time running Tesla.

On Thursday, Musk tweeted that he had found a CEO without identifying Yaccarino. One person close to Yaccarino said Musk's tweet may well have accelerated the timetable for her to join Twitter, which would be a balm to Tesla shareholders.

Shares of Tesla ended down 2.4% at $167.98 on Friday, while Comcast shares dipped 0.4% to $40.21.

(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles and Sheila Dang in New York; Additional reporting by Tiyashi Datta in Bengaluru; Editing by David Gaffen, Kenneth Li and Matthew Lewis)