The $ 44 billion takeover of Twitter has been marked by public clashes between two leaders with widely differing styles: cheeky, outspoken billionaire Elon Musk, and the social media company’s more focused and diplomatic boss, Parag Agrawal.
Musk has publicly encouraged Twitter’s lesser-known leader on the social media platform and repeatedly threatened to walk away from the deal, citing concerns about fake account data.
Back in a corner less than a year into its era, the enigmatic Agrawal begins to come out and fight in front of employees and the public, according to several current and former employees who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity.
“Parag wants to swing back more and is more aggressive internally,”[ads1]; said a former Twitter boss. “It seems that Twitter is willing to go to war to make this deal happen.”
Behind closed doors, it seems less busy to navigate the relationship. The two interact weekly in discussions that are relaxed rather than antagonistic, according to people familiar with the situation. They are naturally in line with a number of questions about how the company should be run, said two people – including the need to diversify revenues, build a larger audience and even relax the moderation rules to move away from permanent bans.
Still, Agrawal’s critics are skeptical of how effective he will be as an unproven leader in the face of an unpredictable opponent. Many cite the 38-year-old’s lack of managerial experience and the fact that his negotiating hand will be weakened if Twitter’s business begins to deteriorate, given the uncertainty.
“Parag is in an impossible situation,” said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at GroupM. “We still do not know how serious Elon is many months later, but the company has committed to the sale.”
India-born Agrawal has risen through the ranks of Twitter over the past decade, and was appointed CEO in November after four years as chief technology officer. He joined after graduating with a doctorate from Stanford University, interspersed with research internships at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T.
As the company’s first “excellent engineer” – a title that gives great status in elite engineering circles – his intellect has given him respect internally.
“My experience of Parag was to be impressed by his mastery of details and to have a broad understanding of the issues that other leaders would skim over,” said Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former European vice president.
Mimicking Silicon Valley founders like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, soft-spoken Agrawal wears the same outfit at work every day – a black T-shirt and dark blue jeans – in line with the dogma that minimalism provides extra productivity. At a private dinner for technical executives hosted by Salesforce chief Marc Benioff in May, Agrawal spoke to defend himself, according to two people familiar with the situation. Afterwards, impressed guests stood in line to talk to him, one person said.
Unlike its predecessor as CEO, quirky founder Jack Dorsey, Agrawal is more of an unknown crowd outside of Twitter and exclusive Silicon Valley dinners, with few public appearances, and little use of the platform itself, during the first months of the role .
“Parag feels more like an engineer who has been given the responsibility for a product than someone who has a vision,” said a head of the advertising agency. “Twitter needs a leader who will stand up and make Twitter a presence in the market.”
As a result, he has met with skepticism from some board members, especially around his lack of experience as a manager in a public company or as a leader of large teams. According to several, the board chose to implement a poison pill early in the negotiations to buy time in part so that they could better understand Agrawal and his business plan for Twitter, and also consult with investors.
Some investors raised concerns about whether Agrawal could manage to deliver on its plan, and therefore leaned towards making an agreement, two people said.
The board also discussed whether they should let Musk make its offer to shareholders directly – but rejected that option in favor of negotiating contract terms and deliberately building in some defenses and protections so that Musk would not change his mind.
Agrawal and other board members have publicly stated that they want to proceed with the agreement at the price of $ 54.20 per share, as agreed with Musk. The San Francisco-based company has told employees it expects to hold a shareholder vote on the deal in early August.
But it can still prove challenging. Musk has disputed Twitter’s estimates that less than 5 percent of the accounts on their platform are spam, and threatens to deviate from the agreement if it cannot be proven. The maneuver has been interpreted by experts and Twitter employees as the Tesla boss seeking influence in negotiations or an excuse to try to scrap the deal altogether.
Last month, Twitter agreed to give Musk access to the “fire hose” with publicly available data on tweets that it usually sells to companies that monitor social media – a move that some saw as Agrawal calling Musk a scam.
«The opening of [data trove] is a classic Paraguay move to show – ‘we are not going to blink, we have nothing to hide’, said another former Twitter boss.
But on Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Musk’s team had concluded that the data was not verifiable, which raised questions about his next move.
So far, Musk has not directly taken up the renegotiation of the terms of the agreement with Agrawal, according to a person who is familiar with the situation and confirmed in an email from Musk. Twitter declined to comment.
Agrawal’s success may depend in part on whether he can keep the business in solid financial health so as not to give Musk a negotiating effect.
Twitter has been criticized for weak growth, slow product innovation and a grueling advertising business, in the midst of a broader market downturn. Revenue in 2021 was $ 5 billion compared to Meta’s sales of $ 118 billion. At its latest quarterly revenue, the company admitted to overestimating audience numbers with nearly 2 million users in about three years.
After an initially underrated start, Agrawal has been more vocal and present in the office a few days a week, said three people with knowledge of operations, and took a recent tour of several global headquarters. His focus has been on overhauling Twitter’s management structure to encourage better performance and faster product rollout in areas such as commerce.
In May, he decided to freeze employment and implement cost-saving measures. He also fired two popular senior executives in charge of ads and products, which shocked some employees – although others noted that the moves came after the user and revenue targets had been missed.
He has been honest with employees instead of trying to reassure them, an approach that has won loyal longtime employees but troubled newer employees, several employees said.
If the deal succeeds, Agrawal will most likely be out of work as Musk plans to replace him, according to media reports.
Agrawal nevertheless has several incentives to review the agreement, in addition to saving face and avoiding any potential escalation to the courts. He would go with a $ 60.1 million golden parachute if he was fired as part of the takeover, according to regulatory records.
On the other hand, if sales collapse, he may be tasked with reviving a company with a broken stock price and the bottom line of employee morale.
“They dangle over a void. Because if the agreement collapses, the shares will collapse [and] then you see significant reductions in the number of employees, and you have to go down, “said a former manager. Another former leader said he thought Agrawal was willing to be a “sacrificial lamb” for the company.
Further reporting by Cristina Criddle in London