One day not long after she took over Microsoft’s U.S. ad sales machine, Robin Domeniconi met with Steve Ballmer to present her plan for bringing the company’s media products to market.
On a large whiteboard Domeniconi wrote down the names of Microsoft’s many ad-enabled products, more than 40 in all, ranging from the well-known (Live Search, MSN Homepage) to the obscure (Windows Marketplace, anyone?).
Then she gave the eraser to Ballmer and asked him to rub out anything she couldn’t sell without talking about the technology underpinnings of the product.
It was shocking, she later recalled, how many of the company’s ad vehicles required Microsoft’s sellers to explain their platforms and delivery mechanisms. That put Microsoft at a disadvantage, because agency buyers aren’t typically interested in technology.
“We can’t shove our products down an advertiser’s throat,” she said. “Basically, I just opened the door to a closet full of things just totally crammed in there, and I need to figure out the best way to organize this closet.”
Her hire at Microsoft marked a big shift for Domeniconi — from a career overseeing sales in New York’s traditional publishing and broadcast circles to leadership of the Web’s third largest property and an 1,100-strong sales force.
Before Domeniconi took over late last year, account executives were selling the company’s products separately — a strategy that was sewing confusion and inefficiency in Microsoft’s dealings with brands.
Her solution to this problem was to end the practice of product reps pitching directly to clients, and to replace it with an audience-driven strategy. Under the new approach, reps conduct listening sessions with clients. In a first meeting with any given advertiser, a salesperson will get as much information as possible about the demographic and goals for a campaign. That rep then goes back to Domeniconi’s product team specialists, who help assemble a custom media package.
“Product specialists optimize…how they’re going to reach our audience through all of our products,” said Domeniconi.
In one example of this, Discovery Channel recently worked with Microsoft to promote the fifth season of reality show “Deadliest Catch.” Discovery invested its entire online media budget with Microsoft in a buy that included homepage takeovers on MSN and MSN Mobile plus video, search, mobile, and in-game placements on Massive and Xbox Live.
In its early talks with Discovery, Domeniconi said, “We never talked about Massive or Xbox. It was a delivery mechanism.”
Domeniconi has little in common with her fellow Microsoft division heads, who are mostly male and, unlike her, completely steeped in technology. By contrast, she cut her teeth in the old world of New York print and broadcast media. In her last management role she was media group president at Time Inc., prior to which she led women’s lifestyle magazine Real Simple as publisher and president.
Yet by all accounts Microsoft hired Domeniconi because of those old school credentials, not in spite of them. Multiple sources inside and outside the company believe she is hitting the right note, both with top brass and the rank and file. They say her drive to decouple the company’s ad products from its vast audience — ranked third among media sellers with 126 million monthly uniques, according to Comscore’s April numbers — is in line with its thinking when it hired her.
“It is a product-driven culture — Microsoft broadly, not just the ad sales team,” said a knowledgeable source who asked not to be identified. “The fact they brought her in knowing she had a very different view of the world was step one. My sense is that her message is being heard internally. That’s the second step. The third is that the sales people translate that into sales.”
While that final proof has yet to come, Domeniconi is betting the farm she can make it happen. With the recession and other factors still roiling display ad budgets, it’s a tall order.
“I go home with a stomachache every night,” she said. But she takes that as a good sign. “I’m like a pit bull with a bone in my mouth.”