The $44bn takeover of Twitter has been punctuated by public clashes between two executives with wildly differing styles: brash, outspoken billionaire Elon Musk, and the social media company’s more measured and diplomatic chief, Parag Agrawal.
Musk has publicly goaded Twitter’s lesser-known leader on the social media platform and repeatedly threatened to walk away from the deal, citing concerns about its fake accounts data.
Backed into a corner less than a year into his tenure, the enigmatic Agrawal is beginning to come out fighting in front of staffers and the public, according to multiple current and former staffers who spoke with the Financial Times on condition of anonymity.
“Parag wants to swing back more and is being more aggressive internally,” said one former Twitter executive. “It seems Twitter is willing to go to war to make this deal happen.”
Behind closed doors, navigating the relationship seems less fraught. The two interact weekly in discussions that are relaxed rather than antagonistic, according to people familiar with the situation. They are naturally aligned on numerous issues about how the company should be run, two people said — including the need to diversify revenues, build a bigger audience and even relax moderation rules to move away from permanent bans.
Nevertheless, Agrawal’s critics are sceptical 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 leadership 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 don’t know how serious Elon is many months later, but the company has committed to the sale.”
India-born Agrawal has risen up through Twitter’s ranks over the past decade, and was appointed chief executive in November after four years as chief technology officer. He joined after graduating with a PhD from Stanford University, interspersed with research internships at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T.
As the company’s first “distinguished engineer” — a title that confers major status in elite engineering circles — his intellect has earned him respect internally.
“My experience of Parag was being impressed with his command of detail and having a broad understanding of the issues that other leaders would skim over,” said Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former European vice-president.
Emulating Silicon Valley founders such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, soft-spoken Agrawal wears the same outfit to work every day — a black T-shirt and dark blue jeans — in keeping with the dogma that minimalism yields extra productivity. At a private dinner for tech executives held by Salesforce boss Marc Benioff in May, Agrawal took to the floor to defend himself, according to two people familiar with the situation. Afterwards, impressed guests lined up to speak with him, one person said.
Unlike his predecessor as chief executive, quirky founder Jack Dorsey, Agrawal is more of an unknown quantity beyond Twitter’s walls and exclusive Silicon Valley dinners, making few public appearances, and little use of the platform itself, during his first few months in the role.
“Parag feels more like an engineer who’s been put in charge of a product than someone who has a vision,” one advertising agency executive said. “Twitter needs a leader who’s going to stand up and make Twitter a presence in the market.”
As a result, he has faced scepticism from some board members, particularly around his lack of experience as the boss of a public company or heading up large teams. According to several people, the board opted to implement a poison pill early on in negotiations in order to buy time partly 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 successfully deliver on his plan, and therefore leaned towards taking a deal, two people said.
The board also discussed whether to allow Musk to make his offer to shareholders directly — but rejected that option in favour of negotiating deal terms and deliberately building in some defences and protections lest Musk change his mind.
Agrawal and fellow members of the board have expressed publicly they wish to go ahead with the deal at the price of $54.20 a share, as agreed with Musk. The San Francisco-based company has told employees that it expects to hold a shareholder vote on the deal by early August.
But that could still prove challenging. Musk has contested Twitter’s estimate that less than 5 per cent of accounts on its platform are spam, threatening to walk away from the deal if it cannot be proven. The manoeuvring has been interpreted by experts and Twitter staffers as the Tesla boss seeking leverage in negotiations or an excuse to try to scrap the deal altogether.
Last month, Twitter agreed to allow Musk access to the “fire hose” of publicly available data about tweets that it typically sells to social media monitoring companies — a move that some saw as Agrawal calling Musk’s bluff.
“The opening of the [data trove] is a classic Parag move to show — ‘we are not going to blink, we have nothing to hide’,” another former Twitter executive said.
But on Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Musk’s team had concluded that the data was not verifiable, raising questions as to his next move.
So far, Musk has not directly brought up renegotiating the deal terms with Agrawal, according to one person familiar with the situation and confirmed in an email by Musk. Twitter declined to comment.
Agrawal’s success may hinge, in part, on if he can keep the business in robust financial health so as not to give Musk negotiating leverage.
Twitter has come under criticism for sluggish growth, slow product innovation and a struggling advertising business, amid a wider market slowdown. Its revenues in 2021 stood at $5bn compared with Meta’s sales of $118bn. At its last quarterly earnings, the company admitted to overstating its audience figures by almost 2mn users for about three years.
After an initially understated start, Agrawal has been more vocal and present in the office a few days a week, three people with knowledge of operations said, and took a recent tour of several global headquarters. His focus has been on overhauling Twitter’s management structure to encourage better performance and quicker product rollouts in areas such as commerce.
In May, he decided to freeze hiring and implement cost-cutting measures. He also fired two popular senior leaders in charge of ads and product, shocking some employees — though others noted the moves came after user and revenue targets had been missed.
He has been frank with staff rather than attempting to reassure them, an approach that has won over loyal longtime employees but unsettled newer joiners, several employees said.
If the deal successfully closes, Agrawal will most likely be out of a job as Musk plans to replace him, according to media reports.
Still, Agrawal has multiple incentives to see the agreement through, beyond saving face and avoiding any potential escalation to the courts. He would leave with a $60.1mn golden parachute if he was fired as part of the takeover, according to regulatory filings.
On the other hand, if the sale collapses, he could be tasked with reviving a company with a crushed share price and rock-bottom employee morale.
“They’re dangling over a void. Because if the deal falls apart, the shares will collapse [and] then you’re looking at significant headcount reductions, having to retrench,” a former executive said. Another former executive said he believed Agrawal was willing to be a “sacrificial lamb” for the company.
Additional reporting by Cristina Criddle in London