Media Headliner: Microsoft turns to ad giant in war against Google

Chris Maples has landed a key role at the start of a crucial year for the company and its online prospects.

There's no-one bigger in the advertising business than Chris Maples. No, really. He's 1.83 metres tall. That's six foot eight in old money. And he's not exactly a beanpole either.

There is, he freely admits, rather a lot of him. Just as well, really, you could argue, because, over the festive season, he managed to slip somewhat neatly into a rather super-size job.

Back in December, he was confirmed as the commercial director of Microsoft Advertising, with responsibilities for all commercial operations and advertising revenues from agencies and clients across all products and services, including MSN, Bing, Xbox Live and Hotmail.

He succeeds Chris Ward. Ward had been at the company long enough to have earned a sabbatical. He, quite naturally (it turned out he was a "committed" environmentalist), headed for Costa Rica to see the rain forest and, having taken stock, decided not to come back. To Microsoft that is: he's not still in the jungle as far as we know.

So Maples' appointment was not exactly a shock given that he'd been the acting commercial director in Ward's absence since June 2009. The timing, however, is not without significance. Because 2010 will almost certainly be a make-or-break year for Microsoft's ambitions as a media owner - and, in the UK, the spotlight is surely destined to shine intensely on Maples.

In short, this will be the year in which we'll see Microsoft (and its strategic partner Yahoo!) attempting to take the search fight to Google before Google can take the display advertising fight (particularly in video-on-demand) to Microsoft. Mobile is also likely to feature as an intense battleground.

It will be a terribly tall order for Microsoft - especially given the fact that its track record in search has been poor. It only got around to launching Bing, its search product fit for the 21st century, as recently as June 2009.

The company takes a puny 3 per cent of global search revenues. But Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, is betting a substantial part of the farm on Bing, having vowed to spend 10 per cent of operating profit on its development for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, we'll also see MSN Video slogging it out with Google's YouTube and the likes of SeeSaw for dominance in the long-form online video-on-demand market. All the major players have been working furiously to sign content deals - and Microsoft's senior managers continue to emphasise the company's determination to prevail in this sector.

And, after all, in November 2008, they poached Ashley Highfield, the guiding light behind SeeSaw, from the BBC to be Microsoft's UK managing director. Soon after he joined, he gave an interview in which he stated that it would be Microsoft's strength across all online media offerings - and thus its ability to offer a one-stop shop - that would begin to give it a significant competitive advantage.

Maples says he's up for the challenge - and points out that he's well placed to bring a new coherence to the business. He not only understands what the grown-up world of the media marketplace is all about - but he also believes that online media needs selling to agencies and advertisers in a compelling and straightforward manner.

He says: "Too many people have spent too many years ghettoising digital in an attempt to retain for the sector some misguided notion of mystique. We recognise the pressure our customers are under and are committed to reacting to that."

Maples is arguably the most accomplished media all-rounder to join the online sector. He began his career at TSMS, joined Channel 4 when it began selling its own airtime in 1993; then, following a five-year stint, he joined ids where his boss was, intriguingly, Mark Howe, now the UK country sales director at Google. He then joined Emap Advertising, selling radio before moving on to head the rail division of what is now Titan. Next up, he joined aQuantive's network sales operation, DRIVEpm, just in time for it to be acquired by Microsoft.

Jason Dormieux, the managing director of MEC Interaction, says that the nature of the challenge Maples faces is absolutely contingent on the success of initiatives such as Bing - but he believes Maples certainly has what it takes to drive the company forward. "He's got good relationships with agencies - and thanks to his background in TV, he's got good relationships with clients too. He's the biggest man in media and he has the personality to match," Dormieux says.

Maples is clearly taking nothing for granted. Quite the opposite, in fact - he continually emphasises the need for the medium's sales people to learn "humility" and the art of listening to their customers.

He also believes, tellingly, that the downturn could be the making of the marketplace, especially in display advertising. "The philosophy in the online world in the past was that if you built it, people would come. There is more of an understanding now that they will come only if it is good," Maples says.

It will, he implies, drive a residue of laziness out of the business. And he concludes: "I have the sort of experience that can help to shape this business. My approach has always been client-centric and agency-centric, and that approach won't change. I'm going to continue to challenge the team here to deliver (and they can take confidence from the fact that) in me, they have someone who knows he's got the best job in the market."

Age: 39
Lives: Hertford
Family: Wife, Jane; two children: Max (nearly four), Jessica (nearly
Most-treasured possession: Apart from family, golf clubs
Favourite gadget: Sky+
Interests outside work: Golf, stand-up comedy, delivering flowers for my
wife's floristry business
Last book read: Private Eye Annual
Motto: If you have to work, you may as well enjoy it