Microsoft's Ward aims to gain ground on Google

Commercial director Chris Ward tells Media Week how innovations such as Microsoft's new search engine Bing will push the digital boundaries.

Microsoft Advertising commercial director Chris Ward
Microsoft Advertising commercial director Chris Ward

As a young newspaper journalist, Chris Ward, commercial director at Microsoft Advertising, wanted to change the world. So it's no coincidence he has ended up working at the world's biggest technology company that, over the past 25 years, has done just that.

With this month's launch of its new search engine Bing, Microsoft hopes to position itself at the forefront of technology innovation and is open about its ambition to be a strong second to Google in five years' time.

Although search has not changed in the past six years and Microsoft's own research suggests 30% of consumers abandon a search unsatisfied, Ward maintains: "Search is one of the most valid things we do. That is why Bing is hugely important and Microsoft is investing whatever it takes to innovate for consumers."

Even though Bing has replaced Microsoft's Live Search, Ward denies there was a failing with the previous search function. He claims its small share of the UK search market - 4%, according to Nielsen Online - is due to Google being such a strong player, with strong customer loyalty.

Ward says Bing's unique features will not be enough to overcome Google's loyal user base, so it will have to deliver on relevancy and start by upselling the service to existing MSN users. He comments: "Now we will see growth, as we have a development cycle working on new features. But we won't shout about it until we can deliver on relevancy."

Ward, 47, has been a stable pillar at Microsoft for the past 13 years, overseeing MSN's news website and the MSN portal. During his time at the firm, Microsoft has expanded exponentially, with MSN now reaching 30 million unique users a month.

However, Ward believes there is still much to do. He says: "The industry hasn't really cracked it in digital. But as long as we continue to try to push the boundaries, I will remain an enthusiast as there is still so much to play for. That's why I'm still here."

But Ward will only remain in place for another month before he takes a three-month sabbatical - a benefit open to all Microsoft employees of more than 10 years' service. A passionate environmentalist, he plans to take his long-term partner Siân and two sons Euan and Callum for a six-week holiday to the US, before travelling to Costa Rica to see the rainforest.

The remainder of his time off, which Ward says will be an "interesting" time when he can experience life without any stress-related work, will be spent on his second passion - fly-fishing in North Russia, British Columbia and Scotland.

Gunpoint confrontation
Ward's adventurous lifestyle was evident early on, when he decided to go into journalism to bring about change. However, his 10-year career in the early 1980s at national news­papers including the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and the Daily Express came to an abrupt end following a terrifying experience.

Ward recalls: "I was covering a story following Turkish tycoon Asil Nadir, who had absconded to Northern Cyprus following a fraud claim. I tracked him down, but had a gun pulled to my head by his bodyguards. I then realised I didn't want to change the world that much."

Opting for a safer working environment, he moved to MSN to set up its news website. He also became involved with setting up and expanding the commercial team, Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions, with former ad director Tom Bowman.

Last year, the commercial team changed its name to Microsoft Advertising to reflect its extended sales offering beyond MSN and to mark its expansion from 95 to 190 people following the acquisitions of digital marketing services aQuantive and Atlas.

However, Microsoft has not escaped the global downturn and, earlier this year, it was forced to cut 1,400 jobs globally as part of its plan to reduce costs by $4.5bn.

Last month, 34 staff were made redundant in the UK and EMEA commercial team. Ward says: "No business has been immune to the downturn. What we are doing is getting the business in the right shape for the future."

Ward insists he will return to his now 180-strong UK team - which will be managed by sales director Chris Maples while he travels the world - and is looking forward to moving the business forward.

Strong content
One major opportunity for advertisers will be MSN's portal, which Ward aims to position as a one-stop-shop for consumers. This will be complemented by plans to roll out long-form content on the MSN video page.

Thanks to Bing, and MSN's strong content proposition, Ward says Microsoft Advertising will show the value of planning and buying search and display advertising together.

"The trick is to make the experience between search and MSN seamless," he says. "Advertisers are keen to understand the customer journey. The more insight we can deliver, the more targeted advertisers can be."

However, Ward says the challenge is getting advertisers to understand the impact of online advertising without a measurement tool. He is keen to hear the results of talks between the UK Online Measurement company, founded by the Internet Advertising Bureau and the Association of Online Publishers.

He concludes: "Digital media consumption has changed in the past 10 years and the industry is struggling to get ahead in a way that makes sense, so advertisers feel confident investing a greater proportion of their adspend in digital. This is an industry challenge that needs to be addressed."

2001 Commercial director, Microsoft Advertising
1998 Business development director, MSN
1997 Head of content acquisition, MSN
1996 Joined Microsoft to set up MSN News
1990 Staff journalist, Daily Express and Sunday Express
1987 Freelance journalist, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times
1985 Trainee reporter, South London Press

Hobby Fly-fishing
Marital status Lives with his partner Siân and two sons, Euan, 13, and Callum, 11
Lives South London

Ward on..
The TV market: TV has never been cheaper and that's a strong pull for advertisers - they feel comfortable using the medium because they can measure the impact of it.
Traditional media versus digital media: We have come a long way with digital, but there is more we can do. There is still a gap between consumer use and online ad spend, but the gap is closing. We have to make advertisers feel comfortable with advertising online. Some of us still read newspapers, but as an advertising medium, press is less effective than online.

The recession: We are experiencing a year-on-year decline in digital and search is only growing single digits at the moment, which has been a rude awakening for the industry. But the decline is temporary, because as we come out of the downturn we will see positive growth in display and search. The sector will regain its strength because online advertising does work. Online is where consumers are spending more time than ever before, and that's where advertising money needs to go as well.

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