Soft Sell

Microsoft is the corporate success story of the decade. Kate Nicholas talks to UK MD David Svendsen about his communications and business strategies

Microsoft is the corporate success story of the decade. Kate Nicholas

talks to UK MD David Svendsen about his communications and business


If you had to pick one industry as an emblem for the 1990s, it would

have to be information technology. Pick one company, and it would be


‘Where do you want to go today?’ asks its Windows 95 advertising

campaign, conjuring up impressions of boundless individual freedom

served up by netsurfing visionaries. The unspoken answer is anywhere you

like -because the world runs on Microsoft software.

Empowerment is the essence of the Microsoft offering. And it is a

powerful appeal, very much in tune with the times. The product launch of

Microsoft’s Windows 95 was attended by the kind of frenzy normally

associated with teenage pop groups.

But curiously Microsoft is also all about control. While it aims to

empower its customers, it also seeks to tighten its vice-like grip on

the sector.

Having virtually swamped the market with its Windows platform, the

company is now seeking to dominate the Internet, going so far as to give

away its browser Internet Explorer free, in a direct challenge to

competitor Netscape.

It is this kind of tactic that has earned Microsoft its cut and thrust

reputation - a tough image which is curiously at odds with the culture

cultivated by Gates at his Seattle headquarters where casualness is

almost obligatory.

This air of competitive informality does not always go down well. The

combination of ‘the vision thing’ and its apparently effortless

superiority can lead to accusations of arrogance. One computer industry

journalist describes the company’s image as one of ‘people dealing in

platitudes who enjoy showing off their rivalry with competing software

companies’. A bit harsh perhaps, but no more than a market leader of

such dominance should expect.

But while Microsoft Limited managing director David Svendsen may have a

taste for Gates-style aphorisms, he certainly doesn’t fit the ‘killer in

blue jeans’ image normally associated with the company. Instead he

conveys a curious mix of Australian geniality and dynamism. He is also

anxious not be seen as autocratic or arrogant, and quietly tries to

dissuade our photographers from taking any ‘power shots’.

Svendsen joined the Corporation back in 1984 as sales and marketing

director for Australasia. Four years later he moved half way round the

world to head up Microsoft’s relatively young UK and Ireland operations,

turning it into largest software company in the UK.

‘Empowerment’ is also one of his favourite words. Over the last few

years he has ‘empowered’ his staff by a slow, but sure devolution, if

not of power, then at least responsibility for communicating the

Microsoft gospel.

The company’s ten board members and unit heads all have a corporate

communications remit and a file of press cuttings to prove their prowess

as spokespeople. When it comes to product and services there is an even

greater spread of responsibility with around 40 or 50 members of staff

‘empowered’ to act as spokespeople across the company.

Considering the level of trust implied by such a democratic arrangement

it is somewhat surprising that Svendsen has only recently turned his

attention to internal communications.

Darren Briggs, formerly a project manager for British Airways

development department joins the company in August as its first internal

commun-ications director. He will be responsible for keeping staff up to

speed with the rapidly changing corporate and technical developments and

co-ordinating Svendsen’s interface with his employees.

Tools at his disposal include, not surprisingly, e-mail (in theory

employees can e-mail suggestions/complaints to Svendsen or Gates at any

time) and the Internet, on which many groups within Microsoft have

already established a WWW presence. Svendsen admits: ‘It is a fact of

life that while we were good at communicating to our external audiences

we could have done a much better job at doing that internally.’

Considering the speed of change in the IT industry over the last few

years, it is not surprising that Svendsen had his hands full

communicating the intricacies of Microsoft products to external

audiences - a task at which the company has been consummately


Strategic corporate communications is, however, a fairly new development

for the company. With Microsoft’s entry into the home market three years

ago, the brand name has developed different product-related meanings for

a diverse audiences, forcing the need for a coherent positioning of the

corporate brand.

As a result, the last 18 months have seen a greater involvement of

communications specialists in business development. ‘Over the years we

have taken a very business, sales and marketing view of the role of

communications, [but] as Microsoft’s remit and business base is getting

wider - backed up by Bill Gates’s role as industry visionary - I am

finding the demands on Microsoft beyond sales and marketing are getting

broader,’ says Svendsen

‘Empowerment’ - of customers this time - lies at the core of Svendsen’s

corporate strategy. Having spent years talking bytes and RAMs to

techies, Microsoft has recognised the comprehensive pitfalls of a

product-centric communications strategy and has instead become supremely

consumer-friendly, talking in terms of benefits.

‘I wouldn’t want to get the view over that Microsoft is a product

technology company and it has this PR strategy to sell the hell out of

these products,’ he says. ‘It is important to get as close to real

customers and customer benefits as possible in order to make technology

meaningful.’ In fact, wherever possible Svendsen prefers his customers

to ‘tell the story’.

After the publication of Gates’ HG Wells-style world vision book, The

Road Ahead, it is hardly surprising that Svendsen is eager to position

himself within the bigger picture. In line with the company’s ‘Microsoft

helps you learn’ advertising platform, Svendsen has picked on education,

one of the hottest topics on the electoral agenda, as a pet cause. In

April, the company offered free copies of Windows 95 and accounts to the

Microsoft Network to 30,000 schools across Britain.

‘If the UK is not educated to be able to employ IT in a very positive

way, and to be skilled in the right way, then the country is going to

miss many of the benefits that the information highway will actually

yield,’ says Svendsen, who personally handles a significant proportion

of the company’s rapidly increasing government relations activity.

‘There is a need for Microsoft to be talking to, be advising, and to

influence some of the discussions that Government are establishing in

terms of IT’s role in education and planning,’ he says.

Microsoft is, however, by no means the only IT brand clamouring to

secure the loyalty of the a new generation of web-literate users. IBM,

for example, has recently committed itself to a pounds 60-plus million

marketing budget to re-position itself as the leading global software


For while the battle may be about technology, it will be communications

which will win hearts and minds of this new breed of empowered


COMMS: Choosing the right channels

‘Right from the very start of Microsoft in the UK we have outsourced our

PR,’ says Svendsen, who talks about the ‘leverage’ of the relationship

with Text 100, Microsoft’s agency of 15 years. ‘We have a long-term, and

I would emphasise, strategic relationship [with Text] which has been

very fundamental to our view of the role of PR,’ he says.

In addition to product-related campaigns, such as the PR-led Windows 95

launch, Text also handles corporate affairs, business-to-business

communications, and has recently taken on a government relations element

- a role previously handled, and now shared, by Svendsen. The Red

Consultancy also handles a consumer campaign for Microsoft’s home


In-house at Microsoft, the seat of corporate communications manager

remains empty since the departure of Madeline Thomas-Crabb in June to

take up a new career in consultancy. She was previously responsible for

the company’s advertising, Microsoft’s low key involvement with

charities such as NSPCC and the ‘empowerment’ of disability groups, as

well as, what Svendsen refers to as ‘reputation’ - ‘that is tracking the

position of Microsoft in the market place: aspirations versus reality’.

In fact, the real responsibility for PR, corporate communications, and

some element of government affairs lies with director of marketing

services Shaun Orpen. Orpen is one of ten board members and unit heads

who report directly to Svendsen. He in turn is supported by Colleen

Farrell, whose role Svendsen describes as communications co-ordinator

and champion of PR.

INTERNET: Great expectations

In August 1995 the company launched its Microsoft Network, the first

tier of an Internet strategy finally made public in December 1995.

Typically, Microsoft has managed to pare down its Internet strategy to a

convenient soundbite - ‘embrace and extend’. Svendsen says this means

the company is ‘embracing’ the ease of use offered by Windows 95 and

‘extending’ into the Internet within its own product range. The message

to customers frustrated with the built-in obsolescence of much modern

technology is that this is an addition to, rather than a replacement

for, existing Microsoft products.

In one of its first UK sponsorship deals, the UK company recently used

Euro 96 as a showcase for Microsoft’s new Internet technology. The

company joined forces with Digital, SEMA and BT to roll out an advanced

IT system to help run Euro 96 and used its Internet Explorer and a

variety of publishing tools to help create the Euro 96 web site, which

in turn was accessed by 5,000 journalists.

Last month, a deal was also signed with Compuserve, which will

distribute Microsoft’s Internet Explorer with its installation CDs, in

return for inclusion of easy access to Compuserve on Windows 95 and the

Microsoft Network

‘I wouldn’t want to relive Windows 95 with all of the associated hype

which that product brought,’ says Svendsen. ‘What is meaningful now is

to get the information out in a very coherent way. The Internet is an

explosion, a revolution, the next generation - all of these words - and

you need to be careful that you don’t hype that up to the extent you

raise expectations far beyond what is possible today.’

‘A lot of our messages are aimed at that part of the market that needs

to be investing today to extend and capitalise in the Internet

tomorrow,’ says Svendsen. ‘So we are talking to the developers, other

industry players, the integrated companies who are wanting to publish on

the Internet. Because if that is not done in this way, the expectations,

however high, just won’t be met.’

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