Microserfs, a novel by the American author and cultural
commentator, Douglas Coupland, outlines the lives of a group of geeky
twentysomethings in California’s Silicon Valley. It’s a surreal world
dominated by junk food, computer jargon and mysticism. Much of the
action is centred around the bright young things at Bill Gates’
Microsoft empire, the most intense of an intense bunch of researchers
So it comes as some surprise (and, indeed, relief) when Neil Thompson,
Microsoft’s head of customer communications and online marketing in the
UK, admits that he’d lied about being able to use a PC when he joined
six years ago. He quickly learned, but he still reckons he’s one of the
least technical at Microsoft’s Reading offices, a status he regards as
an asset rather than a failing.
After all, his mission is to ’develop a relationship with mass
consumers, as well as the more defined groups such as IT managers and
He also believes that Microsoft’s success is largely due to the efforts
made to ’humanise’ its products. ’A lot of investment has gone into
defining how people interact with gadgets and technology,’ he says.
Thompson, a 31-year-old Welshman, is responsible for orchestrating
Microsoft UK’s substantial direct and online marketing drive. After
studying economics with marketing at Loughborough University, he joined
Sea Containers as a graduate trainee and then spent three years working
for the Scandinavian ferry operator, Stena. After six years at
Microsoft, he heads a unit of 17 specialists (there are some 75
marketers in total, but they are affiliated to different sections of the
At his disposal is a multi-million pound communications budget which, he
calculates, accounts for 55-60 per cent of the company’s communications
’We’re in the business of developing strategies to talk to specific
audiences,’ he explains. To this end, Thompson has pulled together what
he describes as a ’core team’ from the Euro RSCG group, including Evans
Hunt Scott, Mediapolis and Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper. The only
representative from outside the network is Ajaz Ahmed, managing director
of AKQA, the new-media consultancy, who advises on online strategy
’This way we can produce integrated campaigns without losing specific
skills,’ Thompson believes. In practice, there tends to be a lead agency
which sets the tone and strategy.
His contribution to the launch of Microsoft Office 97, ’the
fastest-selling software in the history of the world’, remains one of
his proudest achievements.
A cross-media blitz, it involved the tactical deployment of a press
sponsorship deal with the Daily Telegraph, a barrage of direct mail, PR,
point of sale and the production of a CD-Rom, whose aim, in part, was to
lead consumers to the Microsoft Website where they’d be subject to
further persuasion and inducement. Television advertising was spun off
the below-the-line work.
’We are victims of our own success,’ Thompson says. ’Once they’ve bought
it, people tend to stay with our technology ad infinitum. We had to
persuade them that (Office 97) can move them on and make their lives
The other notable campaign he points to is the Microsoft ’Welcome Pack’,
which customers receive when they return their registration forms after
purchasing Microsoft goods. This includes a CD-Rom containing demos,
hints and tips, trial versions of upcoming software, clip art and a
certain amount of cross-selling of other Microsoft products. Most
significantly, though, it also offers discounted rates for Internet
access, and pushes customers to the Microsoft Website. This is a telling
move - Thompson and, indeed, Bill Gates firmly believe the future of
commerce will be online.
’The Microsoft brand is already well known,’ Thompson says. ’The
challenge is to build credible relationships with customers, to
establish a dialogue.’ Does he enjoy such a relationship with Gates?
’I’ve met him, but I doubt he remembers,’ laughs Thompson, who is,
understandably, more concerned that people remember his advertising.