"If Social isn't Natural, Don't Use Social"
Philippa Snare - CMO Microsoft, at Like Minds Salon talk, June 6th 2013
Over 40 women (and a sprinkling of men) gathered in the bright and sparkling upstairs room at SWAROVSKI CRYSTALLIZED™ on London's Great Marlborough Street for the 4pm afternoon event writes Graham Stewart. Philippa Snare - Chief Marketing Officer at Microsoft UK - was the guest speaker at the second in the monthly Like Minds Women in Business “Salon Talk” series. As Andrew ‘Drew’ Ellis and Andrew Gerrard of Like Minds donned very fetching aprons and served tea and cupcakes. (Photographs of this are in circulation but only to a select and mature audience.)
Photo courtesy of Rachel Miller
Philippa delivered a relaxed and informal talk that was both engaging and highly personal. She started by saying that she had been criticised recently for failing to Tweet while presenting and would unapologetically continue to fail to tweet during this talk, too.
The first part of Philippa’s talk covered her route from childhood to Microsoft, with the emphasis on how she had not performed with any traditional academic excellence at either school or university. Indeed, at school, she had paid less attention to classes and more time looking through the windows (some sort of prophesy there, perhaps!) thinking about what if and what next.
So, predictably, she achieved relatively poor grades but still headed off to university. There she wrote a dissertation on how the Internet was destined to change things. A prescient subject but her tutors - believing that the Internet was full of adult themed content and games and would never amount to much - graded the paper a D. So Philippa left university armed with a 2:2 but with the conviction that she could and would do something. It was encouraging to see that her self-belief withstood all the customary blows of the British education system.
She joined a start-up that was building an online directory to compete with BT. This was eventually rebranded as Scoot - and sold to BT, which Philippa believed, at the time, was selling out to the enemy.
After this success, she was invited back to her school to talk to the students. She enjoyed reading out her old school reports - which stated that she would never amount to anything - but made sure she related this to the traits of creativity and future thinking available to everyone. Her old university asked her back, too. After her talk, they graded it - and still only gave her a 2:1 because of her poor spelling!
Philippa’s next role was working with a company building an online payment system (before the days of PayPal). This, too, was sold when Microsoft acquired Expedia. This brought her into contact with Microsoft and, after a couple of false starts, she joined them to create the business case for developing MSN. From there, she oversaw the purchase of Hotmail and the growth of Messenger.
Driving a change in perception
The second half of Philippa’s talk focused on the part social plays in business - and in Microsoft in particular. She is firmly of the belief that if social doesn’t come naturally, then don’t do it. Don’t blog, don’t Tweet. Forced or unnatural social engagement is, more often than not, counter-productive. Clumsy use of social can look like poorly synchronised ‘Dad Dancing’.
She sees her main role at the moment as driving a change in the perception of Microsoft. Survey after survey will turn up a host of terms for the company that are positive but the one word that’s never used is “innovative”. The way to drive a change in perception and to get the company to be perceived as innovative is through social tools and technology.
A stimulating Q&A session covered a range of topics, including:
- How Philippa is using the hiring of younger people to break down the age culture within the organisation;
- How Microsoft is seeing - finally - growth in its market share for phones, which is allowing it to begin to offer elements of seamless lifestyle integration. She used the example of easily swiping videos from device to device as you move through the house (TV to tablet to phone);
- Why you should forget the limitations you are labelled with and base yourself, instead, on your strengths. Seek out roles that play to those strengths. Nobody needs a job description that’s given to you - make your own!
- How Philippa wants to see Microsoft communications focused on those changes of perception rather than about pushing out products;
- How Microsoft is really poor at self-PR. It irritates Philippa that so much is made of Google’s famous time given for employees to work on their own projects, when this has always been the case at Microsoft. The company is a thriving ecosystem of high achievers, spare time projects, and focused charity giving. Obviously, this is something that needs to be more widely appreciated.
A final thought
As someone who was first exposed to Microsoft software in the corporate environment from around the time of the first release of Windows, I’m as cynical as the next ex-developer and IT manager when it comes to my perception of the great beast from Seattle (and I don’t mean Steve Ballmer). Philippa has a major task on her hands, in my opinion, to make Microsoft appear cool to a new generation of technology-savvy users and to improve the company’s image among long-term developers and IT professionals.
However, here’s the thing: the messages Philippa got across in her short talk - and in the Q&A that followed - about herself and the company ethos within Microsoft were enlightening. If she can use social tools successfully to convey these impressions, they will eventually counter the typical bombast and misplaced arrogance that so often appears to be the public face of Microsoft.
And for those of you just wondering - here's a photo of "Cupcake" Drew and "Cuppa" Andrew in their outfits. Rather fetching, don't you think?
Photo courtesy of Thomas Power
Reporting by Graham Stewart
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