Last year at Dmexco, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey wasn’t able to travel to Cologne for his scheduled conversation with Sir Martin Sorrell because the firm was in the middle of acquisition talks that eventually dissolved. Instead, he attended via Skype, calling in from San Francisco in his pyjamas, a fact that Sir Sorrell was only too happy to remind him of when he finally joined the WPP chief executive on the stage this year.
According to Dorsey, the hinted-at acquisition never happened because he personally decided against it, preferring that the company he co-founded remained independent and platform-agnostic. Asked whether he was happy with Twitter’s performance in the year following, he was willing to admit missteps, but still believes that the company is strong.
“We’ve achieved a lot, we have a lot to be proud of,” said Dorsey. “The brand awareness Twitter has around the world is unlike any other company. Has it always been as focused as it needs to be? No. Has it always been as simple as it needs to be? No. Has it always been as streamlined as it needs to be? No. But we’re focused on making sure we’re providing daily utility to people, that people want to use us every day, and over the past year and a quarter, we’ve strengthened that capability.”
With WPP a major advertising buyer on Twitter, Sorrell was in a unique position to interrogate Dorsey’s leadership and how Twitter was performing as a marketing platform. He noted that WPP’s ad spend on Twitter was remaining static this year, while its investment in Facebook and Google had continued to grow, and asked whether Twitter’s smaller size in comparison to the established duopoly meant it was destined to be unable to compete.
“It might be a small base in comparison to others, but we have some of the most influential people in the world using it to broadcast their thoughts and opinions to the world, and it’s also an open platform; when you Tweet, it can be taken to a third-party website and circulate the world,” said Dorsey. “It’s not about these absolute numbers, it’s about the fact that you can go onto Twitter and see how people are reacting to decisions you’ve made as a company, to what you’ve just announced you’re adding or taking down. The conversation on Twitter is live and it’s 24 hours a day.”
Addressing the duopoly that Facebook and Google has established in further detail, Dorsey said that Twitter was focused on differentiating itself from these two competitors, and making its individual strengths clearer to advertisers and consumers.
“What sets Twitter apart is that you don’t come to it with pre-existing relationships. It’s not a social network. You come to it with an interest, and the more we can do to provide people with access to text, pictures, video content surrounding their interests, the better we are. We’ve been spending a lot of time on data science and machine learning to make the timeline more relevant, and every time we do, we see a big jump in usage. That’s what we’re working on – making Twitter more relevant, so people have to do less work to find the conversation and take part in it.”
Asked by Sorrell about whether Twitter would ever adopt a subscription model to strengthen its revenue model, Dorsey didn’t rule out such a dramatic change, but chose to focus on what the company is doing to improve its relationship with marketers, admitting that the ad experience on the platform had been “clunky” in the past.
“We have a really strong and good business in advertising. Our focus in on simplifying it and diversifying it. We want to make sure we are simplifying our product offering, and also differentiating ourselves…we have not focused enough on ROI and measurement in the past. We want to make sure that every advertiser that’s coming to Twitter can see that it works.”
Moving on, Sorrell steered the conversation towards the cultural impact that Twitter has, and some of the controversial moments that it has been involved in, either via Twitter users covering current events using the platform, or due to abuse and hate speech being disseminated via its network.
Asked whether he considered Twitter a technology company or a media company, Dorsey said that “I think this question is always a challenging one, because we try to pattern-match these companies to what came before, and we’re this mix of technology and media. We’re using technology to amplify what people want to see in the world. Is that technology or media? It doesn’t matter, what matters is that people are continuing to engage with it.”
He was also asked for his opinion on President Trump, who Sorrell called the “most avid user of Twitter on the planet”, citing the recent estimate that his presence on the platform adds $2bn to the company’s value. Dorsey was diplomatic in his reply, but also noted that both he and the company had stood vocally by their principles when they had been in opposition to the President’s positions.
“Every voice on Twitter is valuable to someone,” said Dorsey. “I think it’s really important that we hear directly from our leaders. We heard directly from Obama on it, and we hear from world leaders around the world, what they’re considering…I would rather [those opinions] be out somewhere as fast as possible than in the dark.
“We’ve been vocal about every policy we disagree with, both me and the company. I thought what has happened with DACA is cruel and unnecessary, and I tweeted that out. If we can’t live by our principles, and stand by them, and speak up about them, then we won’t evolve, we won’t progress.”
Towards the end of the conversation, Sorrell moved on to Dorsey’s other company, payments platform Square, citing the firm’s impressive growth over the past year. Dorsey spoke about addressing gaps in the market that weren’t catered to by traditional banks and financial services firms.
“Square has been focused on empowering people into the economy, allowing them to participate more fully in the economy. The first thing we found was that [small and medium business owners] weren’t able to accept credit cards, and if you can’t accept credit cards nowadays, you can’t participate in the economy fully.
“We looked at adjacent products and one of the things we moved into was loans. These are small loans, around $6,000 (£4,500), and there’s not a bank on the planet, whether it’s a small community bank or a large brand like Chase, that can make a profit on a $6,000 loan. When [businesses of this size] are looking for this money, they’re traditionally going to friends and family, so we’re not actually competing with banks, we’re competing with friends and family.”
Square’s position as payments service, POS software provider and loan issue enables it to track company revenues and other metrics on a granular level. This data is processed using algorithms to give the firm a very clear idea of risk levels on loans, resulting in the lowest default rates in the industry. So far, it has provided finance for 140,000 businesses, and loaned a total of over $1.7bn.
Sorrell ended the conversation by asking where Dorsey saw both firms in five years’ time, and whether both would still be operating independently. Dorsey reiterated his belief that both companies found strength in their independence, and that he wanted to continue developing and emphasising Twitter’s strengths as a place where conversation flows to.
“I want to make sure we are one of the first places that you hear about something that’s of interest to you, whether it’s national news, interest-based or local events. We should be that little bird that sits on your shoulder and tells you what’s going on.”