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OWNER'S MANUAL

What Groundbreaking Advertisers Know

Video game ads used to follow the same old script. But Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg wanted to shake things up. Here's how he did it.

A scene from one of Activision's hit games, "Skylanders."

Activision CEO Eric Hirschberg

Activision CEO Eric Hirschberg

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No matter how excellent or essential, products and services still don't sell themselves. Effective marketing and advertising are at the foundation of every successful business.

Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of the article.)

This time I talked to Eric Hirshberg, the CEO of Activision Publishing(If you have kids they've played Activision video games. Mine do. And I do too.)

Video game commercials tend to follow a standard script using in-game videos and graphics, but with Call of Duty you used Kobe, Jimmy Kimmel, and who can forget pizza guy. Tell me about the risk--and reward--of veering away from the tried-and-true.

As a lifelong advertising creative, when I came to Activision the first thing I noticed is the video game industry tends not to act as big as it is. Video games are at the mainstream of popular culture yet they are generally marketed in a way that feels like they're only for enthusiasts.

We saw an opportunity to take a brand like Call of Duty and make it more mainstream and more appealing. Of course you can't do that in a way that alienates or feels inauthentic to your core. So you have to find a voice that is absolutely delightful and satisfying to your core while also inviting new people in.

That ad was controversial even before it ran. We showed people of all age groups playing games--not just what people think of as the "young cool gamer dude." I felt success would definitely come down to execution, but I knew that if we let everyone who inhabited the fantasy world in the ad feel capable and cool and like they were on a thrill ride, then the ad would have wide appeal.

So that led to ads like the ones with Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington?

Absolutely. We started trying ads with very little game footage (NSFW), a blend of live and game footage to let the game come alive and let you feel what it's like to be in the game.

Characters live on screen, but behind the virtual environment are men or women sitting on their couches playing the game--those are the real characters behind the game. That's a universal insight.

In another Jonah/Sam ad we explored a second universal insight: the idea of progression. When you buy a new game you stink at first. Watching Jonah start out being a little inept and a little intimidated by the game, then watching him build his skills... and then seeing him a little over his head again... that has a universal appeal, because that's how we all feel when we play a great game.

Those are fun ads to watch, but you still had to be nervous about trying something new with one of your franchise games.

It's always a little scary when you break the conventions of how you market something.

But the biggest risk you can take is not taking a risk. If you're just formulaic, you just do the tried and true, you're guaranteeing you won't stand out, your ads won't go viral, your ads won't go nuclear. Safe doesn't get you far.

Breaking conventions certainly comes with a risk. The key is to set a high bar for your creative standards and make sure you execute with excellence.

Let's talk about that in a broader sense. You're launching Call of Duty: Black Ops II in November. How do you evolve a beloved product without alienating or even losing current customers?

When you're in that situation it's a two-edged sword. You have the opportunity to double down and build on your past success, but you cannot ever take your audience for granted or assume they will show up for the next iteration if there aren't new innovations.

With Black Ops II, I think we struck the perfect balance. The game is intense, strong production values, lets you feel you're in the middle of a military blockbuster, but we also took the franchise to new places with near-future environment designs, technologies that don't quite exist yet without being sci-fi...

Christopher Nolan did it with Batman: I was a big fan of Tim Burton's Batman but Nolan's was darker, grittier, less "comic booky." Suddenly there was a superhero for grown-ups. Yet it still felt like Batman. It still felt familiar. That's the creative journey we're on with Call of Duty, and with the second chapter of Skylanders.

When I saw Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure last year I thought you had jumped the shark with the franchise: a video game with toys? Of course, you were right. Tell me about the decisions behind that move.

Before we launched, a lot of people scratched their heads, if only just in terms of the marketplace: We were betting heavily on a kid game when most publishers were getting out of kid games. The dominant kid platform (the Wii) was starting to fade commercially, and here we were developing a new game and a somewhat new intellectual property with a new game play mechanic, the character toys.

Here's why we didn't listen and were so bullish. Player testing is a big part of our process and we watched a lot of kids play the game during development.

Since I come from advertising I've done a lot of focus groups, and I have never seen a product that did that well in testing. We have yet to meet the kid who places a character on the portal and his eyes don't light up. It's just a visual and visceral thing that has--even though I hesitate to say it this way--a magical quality. We knew were bottling lightning.

You're great at making a splash. Say I own a small business and I want to make a splash. Tips?

Lot of businesses, whether large or small, underestimate the power of breakthrough creativity.

Because it's hard to pin down, because it's hard to mechanize, people always feel like breakthrough creativity is the purview of some other brand--not theirs. They naturally like what they can measure, they can control, they can scale, and a lot of pieces of your marketing plan meet that description. In the media planning aspect you can study, learn best practices, optimize... but at the end of the day every business owner has to roll the dice on their message.

The brands that get it right, like Apple and Nike to name a couple, built huge impactful pieces of their business through creativity, and I'm always surprised that a lot of small business owners don't focus on that. It should be core to what you do.

Also keep advertising in mind when you're still in the product planning stage. If you think in terms of messaging you can quickly tell if something isn't yet simple enough for a consumer proposition. You can talk yourself into a lot of things until you have to advertise it, so I always have that lens on.

Always be thinking: Does it have a story? Does it occupy a unique place? Does it have a quality you can market in a compelling way once it starts competing with everything else out there?

That's what every great product has--so always think about advertising, even from the earliest stages of product or even company development.

Check out other articles in this series:

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Oct 19, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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