The Windows 95 "Start Me Up" Story
In my book, Strategy First, I tell a brief account of the Windows 95 "Start Me Up" story; how Microsoft came up with the idea and acquired the rights to the iconic Rolling Stones song for its Windows 95 TV commercials. I have been asked many times for the full behind the scenes story. Since 2020 is the 25th anniversary of Windows 95
(the launch was August 24th, 1995), I thought the time was right. Enjoy.
It was early spring in 1995 and the computer industry was already abuzz with electricity and expectation centered around Windows 95, a product that promised to transform the still nascent software industry and usher personal computers into the consumer mainstream.
As the leader of the Windows 95 marketing effort, I developed the “E” marketing strategy: Educate, Excite, and Engage. I talk about this more in my book Strategy First. The high-level goal? To make Windows 95 a consumer phenomenon.
One of the ways we wanted to achieve that goal was via TV advertising. Microsoft had never done a product-based television ad before, but we had a budget to do so for Windows 95. I had several team members who would work with our ad agency Wieden+Kennedy (WK) on the campaign, but it was my job to approve the initial concept that would guide the ad development. WK was well briefed, had a solid understanding of our goals, and was working hard. They had a lot of creative ideas, but nothing seemed to be exactly on point, and I rejected two or three of the first concepts they presented. To be fair, I was a demanding client, but the stakes were high enough to justify reaching for perfection. Windows 95 was a special launch and to help achieve our goals we needed a bold, on-strategy ad campaign.
Finally, WK presented the idea of a campaign based on the song “Start Me Up," the popular single from the Rolling Stones I981 album Tattoo You. I fell in love with the idea immediately. The core idea behind the messaging for Windows 95 was that it would enable computer users to do new things and easily handle tasks that were previously difficult. Plus, we wanted to convey that new users would find computers much easier to use with Windows 95. The “Start Me Up” concept would address those issues by talking about how Windows 95 could help users start doing more, start discovering more, creating more, playing more, getting more work done, etc.
Plus the idea tied directly to the “Start Button,” an iconic centrepiece of the product design that customers would select everyday they used Windows 95. It was an on-strategy idea, creative, unique, and catchy. But then WK told me that they had been unsuccessful negotiating the rights for the song, so the campaign was a non-starter. The Stones wanted us to pay $10M to sponsor their next concert tour before they would consider giving us the rights to use the song. WK knew that number wasn’t feasible. A heated discussion ensued. I wanted to know why WK would present us a winning idea if that idea wasn’t possible to achieve. They told me that the reason they pitched it was to see if I would negotiate with them myself – they figured we had nothing to lose.
But there wasn’t much time. We had to start shooting the commercial to complete it in time for the August 24th launch. WK set me up with an entertainment broker, who set up a meeting in Amsterdam with key Stones personnel. Bill (Gates) and I met and agreed on what I could spend to try and get the deal done. Deep down, we knew our number was a fraction of what the Stones wanted, but that was not going to stop us from trying. The negotiator for the Rolling Stones was Michael Cohl, the promoter and organizer of their concerts. Normally, a deal like this would not go through a band’s concert promoter, but he was the contact that we had. It soon became apparent that he was part of the small group of band members and managers that made the important decisions. Needless to say, pulling off a deal with Microsoft would also help out Cohl. A groundbreaking deal with Microsoft would help the Stones secure additional deals to use their music in other commercials in the future.
The Stones were performing two “unplugged” concerts on May 26th and May 27th at the Paradiso in Amsterdam shown in the pictures here. Some of the tracks on the Fall ’95 Album Stripped came from those May shows. Keith Richards reportedly said those concerts were the best the Stones have done. I flew out to meet their team and discuss the deal on May 25th, but had to return on the 26th – my schedule was beyond packed during the frenzy of Windows 95. I don’t remember the hotel name, but it was an old elegant posh European hotel, and we sat in a big ornate conference room as we negotiated back and forth. Outside, Stones fans assembled hoping to catch a glimpse of the rock stars.
While I was by myself, Cohl had a litany of folks with him and we discussed the deal for hours, without making progress. The Stones wanted more money than I was willing to give as well as limitations on how long and in what way my team could use the music. Cohl asked me if I could stay the next day to discuss the deal more and attend the concert. Since my schedule wouldn’t allow me to stay the extra day, he instead invited me to the dress rehearsal that night. The dress rehearsal was fantastic. I was one of only two non-Stones personnel in the Paradiso. It felt like a private show just for me. They played a full concert for almost three hours. They were tight—it sounded fantastic. They would stop periodically to discuss something and joke around. I remember Jagger giving fellow bandmember Ron Wood a hard time about all the cigarettes he smoked, but mostly they talked about the music. It was very, very cool.
The interior of the Paradisio
At the end of the show, Cohl asked me if I wanted to meet the Stones. I thought about it for a brief moment and then politely declined. It had been such a perfect night—my own private Rolling Stones concert—and I didn’t want to ruin it. I’d met enough famous people during my time at Microsoft that I preferred to hold on to the perfection of the concert rather than risk tarnishing that. It is worth noting that I experience outrage from people about half the time when I tell them I could have met the Stones, while the other half think I was a genius to just end the night with the perfect concert. I’ll let you be the judge.
The pass I needed to get into the dress rehearsal
Back & Forth
Negotiations continued over the phone for a good month after I arrived back to the States. They asked for certain rights or limitations on how we could use the music, and I countered. They asked for millions more than my budget could afford, and I told them we weren’t even close and then offered something dramatically less that I thought was fair. I rolled the dice and gave my ad team permission to start moving forward with the commercial, assuming I could successfully complete the deal—though they were also working on a backup campaign, just in case. As time rolled on without success, my ad team was appropriately apoplectic, as we were already well beyond the time we should have had the music to complete the ad campaign in time. But some negotiations are a delicate dance, and this was definitely one of them. Finally, when I thought the timing was right, I told Cohl that this was my final offer. I gave them 24 hours to agree or I was going to go with our backup ads. Cohl knew about the time pressures surrounding the ads, so he accurately guessed that I wasn’t bluffing.
He called the next day to agree to my offer.
The Stones rushed the “Start Me Up” master recording to WK. The next day I got a frantic call from WK saying that the Stones had sent a later live version of “Start Me Up” that wouldn’t work well for the commercials. I called up Cohl and told him that I had to have the original version or there was no deal. After some wavering, the Stones agreed. I found out later that the reason they gave us the live version was that it was recorded after bassist Bill Wyman (he's in the blue coat in the "Start Me Up" video) had left the band. Giving us the original version of “Start Me Up” meant that Wyman got his allocation of the deal and the 1995 band members: Jagger, Richards, Woods and drummer Charlie Watts would earn less.
I also later learned that Jagger and Richards did not always see eye to eye on the deal. Jagger was less inclined to commercialize their music. I was told he was especially ready to just forget the deal when we made it clear we needed the original version, but that he did not want to piss off Richards over it because Richards wanted or needed the money. So, Jagger agreed, even if he had reservations.
After the deal was done but before the launch, Prince Rupert Lowenstein III, the money manager for the band decided he should come out and visit Microsoft because he was an old school investment banker and knew next to nothing about technology, tech companies or Microsoft. Although Microsoft was frugal (I flew coach many times with Bill in the early days), Rupert requested we have a limo pick him up at the airport and bring him to the campus. So we did.
Prince Rupert was smart and funny. He came dressed impeccably in a baby blue three-piece suit. His nails were manicured. He talked with a strong, wonderfully British accent even once commenting that the Stones could be "naughty." As his name implies, Prince Rupert was a descendant of royalty. I read on Wikipedia that his full name was Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffeneck and that his affectionate nickname was "Rupie the Groupie." Prince Rupert explained that in the late 60s, he got a call from a friend saying that a musical group called the Rolling Stones were in a financial mess. Rupert was told the Stones were stuck in a bad deal with their then manager Allen Klein. They had tax problems, thought Klein was ripping them off, and more. His friend asked if Rupert would take them on as a client. As Rupert explained it, he asked his friend to hold for a moment, put his hand over the telephone handset microphone to mute the phone and yelled upstairs to his wife, “Honey, who the heck are the Rolling Stones? They want me to be their manager!” Rupert said that his wife immediately yelled back to him “Honey, take the job!” So he did, even though he liked classical music and had no idea who the Rolling Stones were.
“Honey, who the heck are the Rolling Stones? They want me to be their manager!”
Meanwhile, the team was frantically working on the ad. WK and the head of Windows 95 advertising Cynthia Krass were going from location to location shooting and editing. When they came to me to preview and get my approval for the final ad, I remember how impressed I was with their work. I gave them only one material comment and that was to change the end of the ad. It needed a compelling emotional ending that fit the aspirational nature of the ad. As a result, the little girl who turns to look at the camera was added. The team did a fantastic job. Ad evaluation is subjective of course but, even today, folks tell me the Start Me up ad is the best ad Microsoft has ever done and one of the best ads they have ever seen. I recall analytically that it scored extremely high on all of Microsoft’s ad tests.
What I can definitively say is that the ad was an immediate sensation. We debuted it at the launch event to thunderous applause – everyone loved it! After the premiere, everyone wanted to know about our relationship with the Stones, how the deal transpired, and what we paid.
The $12 Million
In fact, after it was announced that we did the deal with the Stones, The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, published a story that Bill had called Mick and asked for the rights to the song. According to the rumor, Mick threw out a crazy high number – $12 million, figuring that Bill would say no but that Bill surprised Jagger and immediately agreed to his outlandish price. We all laughed hysterically when we heard this, as the real number was a fraction of The Sun's speculation. In fact, when one reporter called us to get our comment our PR person couldn’t stop laughing. As I recall, the story quoted the Microsoft spokesperson as laughing uproariously when asked about the rumor. Though never confirmed, it was believed that some Stones personnel made up the story to help them with future negotiations with other vendors. The story is still quoted (often as “legend”) on the web to this day. Other stories said we paid as much as $14M. More recently some stories have quoted a former Microsoft COO, who was aware of the agreement but had no involvement with Windows 95 or the Rolling Stones deal, as saying the price was closer to $3M. Now, of course, I know what we paid and think it is much more fun to keep it a mystery…