How Elon Musk tried to woo back brands at Cannes

How Elon Musk tried to woo back brands at Cannes


Speaking to Mark Read at Cannes Lions, Elon Musk believes X is evolving its commercial offering with a push to improve ad targeting and giving users content they find useful.

Few people divide opinions like Elon Musk.

This maverick innovator, one of the world’s richest men, and undoubtedly a brilliant engineer, almost single-handedly dragged the world of cars and mobility into the electric age. For many years, established manufacturers railed against the idea of pure electric vehicles as unworkable, yet today Tesla is worth more than its five biggest rivals combined.

Musk is clearly a pioneer in its truest sense, and exactly the kind of ‘rebel’ and ‘troublemaker’ celebrated in Apple’s famous “Crazy Ones” ad with the tagline: “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones that do.”

He was often namechecked in adland as an example of applied creative thinking driving true business transformation. And then, in October 2022, he bought Twitter.

The rebranded X, a platform much loved by journalists, politicians and thought leaders alike, sharply changed tack. The new incarnation allowed previously banned hate speech back on to the platform and systematically dismantled many of Twitter’s much-admired media team.

Then last November, in a rebuke to brands like Disney removing ads from the platform, Musk said that the advertising community can “go f*** themselves”.

And so the stage was set for Cannes Lions 2024.

Free speech over money

Interviewed by Mark Read, CEO of WPP, Musk addressed the elephant in the room head on, Musk explaining his position, and doubling down on it.

“First of all, it wasn’t to advertisers as a whole. It was with respect to freedom of speech,” said Musk. “It is important to have a global, free-speech platform where people with a wide range of opinions can voice their views. In some cases there were advertisers who were insisting on censorship.

“At the end of the day, if we have to make a choice between censorship and money, or free speech and losing money, we’re going to support free speech. Which is, I think, the right moral decision.”

It’s a bold stance for a platform reliant on advertising for 90% of its revenues. And with revenues down 50% to $2.5bn in 2023, Musk came to Cannes with considered corporate messaging designed to entice advertisers back to the fray.

Responding to Read’s question whether he understands the need for advertiser brand safety, Musk said: “I believe in sort of freedom of choice. Advertisers have a right to appear next to content that they think is compatible to their brand. That’s totally fine.”

“What is not cool is insisting that there can be no content they disagree with on the platform. A company like Red Bull will be probably more adventurous than some other brands that are selling baby toys.”

He added: “Now that doesn’t mean that people can say illegal things, it’s free speech within the realms of the law.”

Better to be real, than filtered

Before he had acquired Twitter, in 2019, Musk prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission to file charges against him, for violating SEC rules and allegedly distributing misleading information about having secured funding to take Tesla private, and then for violating a settlement agreement.

So, Read asked, does he ever regret any of his tweets?

“I do shoot myself in the foot from time to time,” Musk noted. “But at least you know it’s genuine, it’s not some sort of PR comms deciding things. If you’re a normal human being, and you speak freely, there are times when you will say things that you regret or are foolish but if you’re constantly going through a filter — now you’re not being real. I guess I think it’s better to be real than to go through a filter.”

Musk said he sees advertising as a form of content, and when it appears to the right people it is “useful” and welcomed, “but if you see an ad for a product you are never going to buy, that is bad.”

The billionaire mogul highlighted Condé Nast’s 131-year-old fashion bible, Vogue, as a case in point, saying “Vogue is primarily beautiful ads.”

Musk believes X is evolving its commercial offering with this in mind, with a push to improve ad targeting and give users content they find useful, whether ads or otherwise. He said X’s ad-matching capabilities have transitioned to a fully AI-based system that treats content and ads equally.

“It is worth trying out and I am interested in critical feedback,” he said. “X is focused on showing ads to people who will find them interesting. We have made progress and will make more.”

He added: “From a brand safety standpoint, I think at this point every third-party reviewer has given us an A+ on brand safety.”

Musk was able to make this point today after the industry body Trustworthy Accountability Group reissued a brand-safety certificate to X on Monday, drawing criticism by watchdogs. In April the ads verifier DoubleVerify announced the social media company’s brand-safety rating between October 2023 and March 2024 was 99.9%, not the previously reported scores which ranged from the 70s to the 90s.

X has 550m monthly active users, which is considerably smaller as a social platform than the Instagram/Facebook group Meta (3.24 bn), but Musk pointed to the quality of its user base.

“If you’re trying to reach senior decision-makers, if you want to reach the most influential people in the world, who are not just social media influencers but actually running companies, running countries and obviously intellectuals of the world — people who write — then the X platform is by far the best,” he said.

“It’s almost the only way to reach them. They’re not watching TV, they’re not doing TikTok videos.”

Musk on the press

Musk, like many empire builders, hates being criticised and takes scrutiny extremely personally.

He was among the first to lead the US pushback on ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) criteria for the capital markets when Tesla scored just 37 out of 100 on the S&P Global amid governance concerns.

Closer to home, a series of exclusives by Reuters journalists have exposed grave harms to consumers, workers and laboratory animals across Musk’s manufacturing empire, resulting in investigations by US and European regulators and calls for action from US lawmakers.

Reports have included at least 600 previously unreported workplace injuries at Musk’s rocket company, ranging from crushed limbs and amputations to electrocutions, eye wounds and one fatality.

The series of investigations won Reuters a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year, which drew an immediate response from Musk.

On stage in Cannes, Musk forecast a dwindling role for traditional journalism in the face of real-time aggregation of the collective “wisdom” of tens of millions of people.

“The role of conventional journalism is becoming smaller,” he said.

“What we’re doing on the X platform is we are using AI to solve aggregate input from millions of users. I think this is really going to be the new model of news, which is to gather information from people who are at the scene, who are experts in the field.

“And people who are in the field, at whatever events being talked about, and aggregate that into a real-time news feed. And I think for the most part that will be better than national channels.”

Turning his thoughts to the press, he said: “The article can be wrong, often is wrong, but there’s no rebuttal to the article. You don’t see any real-time rebuttal. So, I think there’s still a role for conventional journalism. But it’s smaller and smaller over time.

“The fact is, experts in the field know more than reporters, and people who are at the location where whatever news event is occurring are first-hand observers, whereas the reporter is usually not there.”

He added for good measure: “They [journalists] just read the internet and print it out. Pretty much.”

There was much to take in for the festival’s media and advertising contingent, but in a controversial move by the WPP CEO, Read opted not to take questions from the press, preferring to hear from advertising delegates.

It resulted in one of the world’s most powerful men being asked about what he would do with all his money and his thoughts on extending his life.

And then he was gone — locked into an interview with Piers Morgan, who is in Cannes with his employers News UK, owner of TalkTV.

Arif Durrani squareArif Durrani is global content director of Reuters Plus content studio. He is also an international media consultant and freelance writer. @DurraniMix

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