Media Headliner: The man taking the MSN message to the world

Chris Dobson, MSN's international ad sales chief, tells Darren Davidson global brands are waking up to the online future.

On the day that Campaign visits Microsoft, the computer giant reveals it is to lose its iconic figurehead, Bill Gates, within two years. However, the news seems barely to have registered at the computer giant's Soho enclave.

The talk is all about this week's Cannes festival, which its popular online service, MSN, is sponsoring in a bid to build relationships with the advertising and media communities. Perfect timing, then, to announce that the general manager for digital sales at MSN, Chris Dobson, is taking on an expanded role as the vice-president of international advertising sales.

In his new position, Dobson will be responsible for MSN's international advertising sales across all markets outside of the US. His main task will be to build strong relationships with advertisers and agencies, on both the creative and media sides of the business.

Dobson agrees that since the dotcom crash earlier this decade, online has too often been seen as merely an add-on, and says that it has not always been easy to get face-to-face time with senior management during his five years with MSN. However, he claims to have witnessed a change of attitude over the past 12 months.

He says: "The industry finds it hard because there is still this journey advertisers are moving on, but they are moving faster and faster. Some companies are really getting it - the O2s and Sony Ericssons of this world, for example.

"They absolutely understand where their audience is and are adjusting how they plan media accordingly. Yet there is a division between those that really get it and those that are not quite there.

"But the latter group is rapidly catching up. I've noticed that FMCG customers no longer ask why they should be online. Instead, they have been asking how they should be online. You can't look at traditional ways of buying and planning media as sustainable."

Dobson cites the outcome of the recent Adidas/Reebok media review as evidence of this. In what was an unusual but forward-thinking move, Aegis moved its digital network centre-stage, with the Isobar chief executive, Nigel Morris, leading the pitch on behalf of the network's media agency, Carat. The strategy paid off when Carat landed the multimillion-pound account.

As well as wooing media agencies, Dobson also plans to take the MSN message to creative agencies, but he concedes it's an uphill struggle not helped by the quality of some online creative. Yet he's resolute and will start drawing battle lines on La Croisette this week. "Agencies make a lot of money out of TV ads, so you can understand," he says. "Everything we do in Cannes is designed to encourage the creative agencies to think about the creative interactive world and the big companies to think about how their media mix should change."

Dobson began his career in the motor industry in the late 70s, working in overseas military sales at Land Rover. After seven years, he embarked on a career in TV sales, beginning at Thames TV during its late-80s heyday, before moving through various ITV companies, including Media Airtime Sales and London Weekend Television. In 1994, Dobson moved to MTV, ending up as its vice-president for European sales.

After six years at MTV, he moved to ZenithOptimedia to gain some "experience on the media agency side of the business". It was a short-lived stint, which Dobson says was intended to last longer. After just 18 months, he was poached by MSN. He recalls: "Microsoft was just coming out of the dotcom crash and was re-energising its efforts around the offline space. They realised that they didn't know much about the media business. I was very much a traditional media guy back then, and they talked me into it."

Looking back, Dobson argues his timing was good: "I was very fortunate to join the company after it had had a year of hell. We had to start again and it was almost like building from scratch. The business had been driven by venture capitalists' money, which was not real business. No-one talked to a real customer like a Nestle or Procter & Gamble; it's almost as if the company started properly five years ago."

He feels he has made his biggest impact at Microsoft on its MSN Hotmail and MSN Messenger services, which have been transformed into revenue-generating advertising platforms. "Five years ago, we didn't know what to do with them. They were generating an audience but there was no approachable revenue," he says.

A big part of Dobson's new job will also involve Microsoft's efforts to think about advertising across all of its properties, including the ones "we don't yet have, such as Massive". Last month, Microsoft acquired the in-game advertising company Massive in a multimillion-pound deal - the first of many acquisitions, Dobson claims. He will also explore new advertising opportunities on web-based services, such as a Windows Live, Xbox Live and Office Live - which will be sold as a portfolio to agencies and clients - as they roll out in the coming month.

Dobson is guarded on the finer details of Microsoft's future advertising plans, but is excited about the future possibilities of user-generated content and search. He is also effusive about new software applications and imagines a desktop widget, sponsored by Coca-Cola, that delivers real-time Premiership football results. "We're going to try to create new advertising experiences as the world changes and a lot of it is to do with this big change around user-generated content," he says.

In the meantime, Dobson rubs his hands with glee as he reflects on business five years on from the dotcom crash. "We're currently in a second boom and we're about to move into another display hike where the big players such as Procter & Gamble start to bring brand money to the online space to drive their business forward," he says.

With growth like this for MSN, it's no surprise that Bill Gates' eventual departure has barely raised an eyebrow.

Dobson's sales pitch in Cannes, however, is likely to lead to a few quizzical expressions from adland's old guard.


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