Bill Gates wants your business

One of the richest men in the world has his sights set on the ad industry. The Microsoft founder explains to James Hamilton his dream for a digital future and what adland can do for him.

The location for "bagels with Bill", as my interview is branded, is so unassuming that the cabbie drives past it twice before giving up and dumping me on an icy street in Tribeca, New York. Not a particularly good start when you've got an appointment with Bill Gates.

So I'm running a little late when I finally find the address. It turns out to be a typically nondescript New York front door leading to a club more used to entertaining hip locals than hosting breakfast with one of the world's richest men. I'd like more time to run through my questions; to mull over conversations I'd had the previous night with a handful of Gates' employees. But the bagels are getting cold.

Gates is in New York for the morning to talk about the company he chairs, how well it's doing and what plans he's got for the future. No, not that one - his other company, the image library Corbis.

I'm asked not to mention the M-word in the interview. Microsoft is off the menu today, as are questions about personal wealth. But Corbis' current push for a Madison Avenue client list dovetails with the thrust Microsoft is making into media through its ever-expanding MSN empire. It's hard to talk about the former company without thinking about Gates' similar designs for the latter.

"You do see us doing more in advertising - it's a big space where technology has improved to a point where helping those people in a rich way is possible," he admits. Through Microsoft, Corbis and, particularly, his charitable foundation, Gates passionately believes he's helping us.

It's just a happy accident that it's made him so incredibly wealthy in the process.

Gates is an odd interviewee - odd because he's a natural introvert who has had so much media training that he answers questions almost on autopilot.

Odd because he's one person everyone seems to have an opinion on. Odd because you have to stop yourself continually wondering how much money he's making as the minutes tick down. The Corbis employees I spoke to the previous night talk about him in the hushed tones reserved for a genius.

To them he's a visionary - poet, priest and programmer rolled into one.

Colleagues liken him to a chess grandmaster and, certainly, when he talks about business strategy, his hand describes a series of chess moves across the table.

Dressed in his uniform of blue pinstripe suit, burgundy tie, Oxford shirt and V-necked sweater, he cuts an unimposing figure as he eyes the room nervously, eschewing the bagels in favour of a glass of sparkling water.

A man whose every second is serious money, it seems strange he doesn't wear a watch. When he doesn't like a question he throws subtle glances to the Corbis cohorts who flank him, as if to say "you answer this one".

Off-piste questions such as "what's your favourite ad?" unsettle him.

"Do I have a favourite ad?" He looks puzzled. "Er, not really. I'd have to say I'm most familiar with my ads - Microsoft and Corbis ads," he jokes uncomfortably, before the media training kicks in and he steers the interview back on to familiar territory. "We're showing a lot of customers' ads today, and that's a fun thing - every time I meet the Corbis management team they bring me lots of examples of things that have been going on."

Gates founded Corbis - the Latin for "basket" - in 1989; a time when his ideas and infectious enthusiasm for the possibilities of the digital world were spilling over, soon to become reality. His dream then, he says, was broad: "That the digital world would change the world of imagery", and with it, the way we do everything, from learning to publishing to advertising.

The dream, he says, is still in place. One day we will all download art from the Corbis website. In the meantime, he's steering his company to start making money for the first time in its 16-year history. The key to his plan to turn a profit is the ad industry.

Gates admits to spending only 40 to 50 hours a year at Corbis. He might have to increase that if he intends to continue the commercial show-and-tell in 2006. Corbis recently purchased Zefa, the world's third-largest image library after Getty Images and Corbis. It swings Corbis' advertising/editorial business split heavily in favour of ads, and gives the library far more European clout - a major agency gripe was that Corbis was too US-focused in its content. Zefa changes that. "Not only is advertising the biggest part of our business today, it will probably be the fastest-growing part over time as we broaden into media services and the geographies we go after," Gates says.

Corbis has come in for considerable flak over the years, cast as either a frivolous folly or a cynical ploy to offset Microsoft taxes. Gates has ploughed millions into the company, though he is coy when it comes to naming figures, saying only: "If you look at some of the acquisitions we've made, you could make some kind of estimate." He accepts that his "dream" for the company was some way ahead of the curve. "We knew it would take a long time and there's certainly been some twists and turns in the road, but if you want to be the first in something, you often end up being ahead of your time."

Has that time come? Is the ad industry - famously chaste when it comes to the passion with which it embraces new technology - ready to grasp that white-hot baton and run with it?

"We're pleased with the way our customers are using technology," Gates replies noncommittally. "Five years ago, we talked about whether they'd be willing: then a lot of people still used light boxes for the kinds of things that we try to help with, but I think that transition has happened and, as the technology gets better, there'll be a natural evolution. I don't think there's a bottleneck there."

Whether or not Gates has anything up his sleeve to overcome the creative community's distrust of Microsoft, is another thing. In a rare departure from product-specific advertising, last year, Microsoft opted for a brand-building campaign from McCann Erickson, London - aiming to address what McCann's UK managing director, Nick Wright, described as "the huge misunderstanding about Microsoft and what makes them get up in the morning ... there's this strange idea out there that it's some sort of man-eating monster". The campaign - an attempt to stave off negative publicity stemming from last year's adverse anti-trust ruling in Brussels - accounts for a quarter of the company's adspend. Gates won't give an exact figure for Microsoft adspend - certainly not today - but sales and marketing expenses rose to $1.93 billion last year, a hike of 16 per cent.

Gates' attempts to steer his companies towards media and advertising have been well-documented over the past year. Microsoft has been pushing the idea of a set-top box that allows internet neophytes (if there are any left) to browse the web in their living rooms. A Euro RSCG campaign for MSN's new TV2 Internet & Media Player encourages sofa-surfers to "get in your comfort zone".

Gates views entertainment as the next great frontier for Microsoft to tame, and with entertainment comes advertising. When it's not busy signing content deals with the likes of MTV and the Discovery Channel, MSN is attempting to boost the profile of online advertising - and with good reason: internet advertising, not product innovation, was the major factor in MSN announcing an operating profit of $200 million last year.

Last autumn, MSN threw down a gauntlet to Deutsch, Wieden & Kennedy and Crispin Porter & Bogusky in the US, with a "friendly challenge" to create a groundbreaking online campaign for an MSN client. Ty Montague, then Wieden & Kennedy's creative director, went on record to say he hoped the move would "encourage other traditional agency creatives to rethink the internet. A lot of them until now have rejected it or treated it as second-best."

"Over time, more and more ads will be delivered in pure digital form, so we're trying to help customers move into that digital world," Gates says. "That's the changing world of advertising - more digital, more targeted." Corbis' point of distinction, he points out, is its customer service.

It's more than just an image library - it offers rights clearance, image licensing and, now, photographer representation, though his plans stop short of making it a creative consultancy.

For a man who was caught off-balance when the internet exploded - Microsoft was famously late to exploit the ballooning market - Gates is surprisingly cautious and vague about when all this will happen. "It's an evolutionary thing," he says, "bit by bit. Ten years from now it will be a dramatic shift." One day, he hopes, the same children who are now downloading Corbis images to their mobile phones will be doing the same on high-resolution screens in their living rooms.

Gates persistently talks about his businesses in terms of "helping", of "facilitating" communication. In part, it could be because his dream, both for Microsoft and for Corbis, still beats strongly within him. His vision of a world where consumers will be able to download images from a database of millions and view them on high-resolution screens in their homes hasn't died simply because the company has been forced to target advertising to turn a profit. It's alive and well in Gates' home in Seattle, where his plasma screens display classic movie stars, Nobel Prize winners and, depending on how the mood takes him, anything from famous golfers to sailing ships.

"The internet is levelling the playing field and connecting people," Gates says. "Of the six billion people on the planet, if you go back ten years, maybe 600 million were interacting with marketing and advertising.

Over the next ten years it will be more like three billion." Is this the benevolent power of capitalism and technology? "The kinds of marketing and advertising we support are moving to much broader audiences and that's a great thing. That's why Corbis is moving into China and thinking about India. This is the fun of being a marketer when you're at a stage where there are all sorts of possibilities."


Corbis is the world's second-largest image library and posted a revenue of $170.4 million and worldwide growth of 22 per cent across 2004. Getty, the largest image library in the world, is around three times its size.

Founded in 1989, the company now has a library of more than 16 million images, including the Bettmann Collection and Oxford Scientific films.

The business, which began almost as a hobby for Gates, has grown to such an extent that a stock market flotation now looks on the cards.

In January this year, Corbis purchased the world's third-largest image library, the German business Zefa. Zefa posted revenues of $41 million for 2004 and projected growth for the merged companies in 2005 stands at 40 per cent.

The business now has 17 offices in 12 countries, the most recently opened of which are in Montreal and Hong Kong, and has plans to set up shop in India.

As well as its image libraries, Corbis offers image licensing, rights services and assignment and representation to photographers, including such names as Dimitri Daniloff, the photographer on the Cannes gold Lion-winning PlayStation "rebirth" campaign.

Source: Corbis.


"Not only is advertising the biggest part of our business today, it will probably be the fastest-growing part over time"

"Do I have a favourite ad? Er, not really. I would have to say I'm most familiar with my ads - Microsoft and Corbis ads"

"Over time, more and more ads will be delivered in pure digital form ... that's the changing world of advertising - more digital, more targeted"

"Of the six billion people on the planet, if you go back ten years, maybe 600 million were interacting with marketing and advertising. Over the next ten years it will be more like three billion" "You do see us doing more in the advertising space - it's a big space where the technology has improved to a point where helping those people in a rich way is possible".