Girl Guides: Rovio’s Michele Tobin on building the company’s ad business from the ground up

Michele Tobin built Rovio's advertising business from scratch

Continuing The Drum’s Girl Guides series, Natalie Mortimer catches up with Michele Tobin, senior vice-president of brand partnerships and advertising at Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, finding out how she built the entertainment company’s ad business from the ground up.

From tech novice to mobile master, Michele Tobin has negotiated the wild west of mobile ad land and made it through the other side into an industry that is witnessing almost 100 per cent year-on-year growth.

As a self-confessed mobile evangelist, Tobin escaped the lure of Hollywood – where she spent the beginning of her career at Warner Bros. working in international media buying – to work at an early iteration of Millennial Media when mobile advertising was but a whisper in the wind.

“My friend Paul Palmieri was starting a business seven or eight years ago called Millennial Media and he asked me if I wanted to be part of it. It sounded interesting so I came on board as employee number seven or eight. We were in one room, getting started, and this was pre-iPhone, so the idea of mobile advertising was a little forward-looking. We did a lot of evangelising.

“I worked both at bringing publishers on board to the networks as well as with advertisers to bring them into the mix, which was something I’d never done before, and as we grew that side of it was really interesting.”

Tobin worked her way up to the head of Millennial’s global entertainment division and it was at this point she heard the conflicting cry from TV networks who called for deeper integrations but with more contextual relevance, something she says is the opposite of what a network does, which is “aggregate an audience across all kinds of publishers”.

Soon after, Angry Birds owner Rovio came knocking, and Tobin gladly accepted an offer to build the entertainment company’s advertising business from the ground up, which by anyone’s standard was no mean feat (in 2014 the company reported a full-year revenue of around €156m).

“When Rovio came to me and said, ‘hey we’d like you to come in and build our advertising business’ it seemed like a really unique opportunity because it was still – certainly this division – basically a start-up,” she reveals. “I like building things from the ground up, but yet within the backdrop of a brand that is globally recognised and has one of the largest global audiences on the planet.

“That seemed really interesting and because we are the outsider it allows us to do those more interesting, integrated things for brands that they’d been asking me to do for years – so I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”

Under Tobin’s direction Rovio has negotiated a variety of ground-breaking ad integrations including native advertising opportunities with fashion and cosmetic companies for the company’s growing female audience.

Looking back at her career, Tobin says her biggest challenge to date was being an early adopter of ‘content’ and making the daunting step into Silicon Valley as a self-confessed technology novice.

“Stepping away and taking my first job in Silicon Valley as the ‘content person’ for a technology company was challenging and scary because I knew very little to nothing about technology at the time – just enough to know that something interesting was happening. That’s really what took me on the path to where I am now in the intersection of content and technology.”

Discussing the growing number of women succeeding in the digital sector, Tobin says the landscape is “certainly changing” and definitely “heading in the right direction” in terms of the balance of male and female employees in the industry.

“There are never enough women because if you look around there’s still more men in senior roles, but if I look at when I started in mobile business development over a decade ago, and going to conferences back at that time, I’d very often be the only woman there. That’s significantly different now. I’d say it’s headed in the right direction and there’s been a tremendous amount of growth towards equality.”

So what does the future hold? Tobin is obviously proud, and rightly so, of the successful ad business she has built at Rovio and is looking forward to future ad tie-ups and integrations (past deals have included YouTube shows and movie ad integrations).

“The current job is just awesome,” she enthuses, “being able to build this business from scratch to reaching over 250 million monthly active users. It’s unlike being a little start-up where you’re going, ‘well this is going to be big’ – we’re telling a pretty interesting story. We’ve got a fun brand, we’ve got a massively engaged audience and we’re rolling out interesting products that are delivering great results for advertisers.

“For me I think that’s really exciting, building a team globally with great people; that’s certainly what I’ve enjoyed doing and continue to do. I feel like we’re in constant recruitment mode and I look out at our road map and see all of the new fun stuff that’s launching and I see more to come.”

This issue was first published in the 21 January issue of The Drum, which you can purchase at The Drum store.

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