Network agencies move into gaming, but who’ll top the leaderboard?
We log on with four network newcomers and an indie incumbent to find out where the gaming agency sector is heading.
As we explore in our latest deep dive, gaming leveled up this past year. New media opportunities mean brands are taking the sector more seriously as a channel, while the increasing popularity of esports has opened up new possibilities for sponsorship and influencer strategies. Meanwhile, sales of games are also on the rise, giving publishers and developers cause to consider their own marketing tactics.
With that in mind, the entry of four network gaming shops in the last year is hardly a surprise. Specialist agency DDB FTW, Publicis’s Publicis Play proposition, Dentsu’s Dgame division and Havas Entertainment are all hoping to apply their marketing connections and network nous to the sector. But they’re not the first to play this game, with established independent agencies, such as Waste, also ready to compete. Who’ll come out on top?
DDB Worldwide launched FTW (For The Win) back in November, out of DDB Prague’s offices, as the world’s first specialized esports and gaming network agency. Gavin Cheng, managing director of the shop, tells The Drum how the agency was launched according to a startup model, within the network. ”It’s a hometown story. It was launched by Darko Silajdžić at DDB Prague, and we worked with DDB Paris and DDB Dusseldorf to help form the initial relationships.
”This was very much birthed out of DDB Prague as a mother agency to provide support in the early days. It’s one of those cool startup stories... it started there and just kept kept going.”
DDB had already identified gaming as an area of potential growth at its Hunter’s Conference the year prior, but the pandemic accelerated the network’s plans. ”It’s a massive wave. Anybody in the agency world, or anyone who’s even casually connected to popular culture, realizes what’s happening,” says Cheng. ”So that was it: let’s hit the ground, let’s run as fast as we can and make progress.
”The scale is absolutely off the charts. Gaming is a channel, but it’s also a culture. So it is spawning language, music, fashion behaviors, technologies that are touching all angles.”
Launching with ESL – one of the largest esports organizations in the world – as an anchor partner, the team now numbers 16 and is working with World of Tanks publisher Wargaming ahead of its next mobile title. The agency serves brands and companies native to the gaming world, with the latter its bread and butter.
Cheng says FTW’s edge comes from its gamer pedigree. ”Gaming is so wide. We need to understand that there are so many tribes. Understanding that prism of culture is one of the fundamental pieces that that we need to bring to this to this equation.
”We live it, we love it. We’re in this because we’re gamers.”
Put together late last autumn after more than a year on the drawing board, Dgame is Dentsu UK & Ireland’s specialist gaming division. Led by Peter Jacobs and Luke Aldridge, it kicked off proceedings with Dentsu clients Mondelez and Kellogg’s.
Aldridge tells The Drum that he and Jacobs originally began the division as a ”passion project”, spurred on by new developments around in-game ad placement tech, before it grew arms and legs. ”We put together a small crack team of people at different levels of the organization to help us build Dgame and launch it,” he says.
The group pulls together expertise from across Dentsu’s British operations to service brand clients reaching out for the first time into gaming. One of the division’s biggest successes to date was a campaign for Cadbury Heroes, which saw it create a bespoke Street Fighter tournament for the Bournville chocolatier.
”We created a tournament format where young people trained their relatives – mums, dads, uncles, aunties, older brothers and sisters – on Street Fighter. We chose that game because it has that retro appeal but young people are still playing it.”
After a three-week run-up, the tournament climaxed in a live final held at the GFinity Arena in London and broadcast live on Twitch and YouTube, resulting in millions of views for the live event and after the fact.
Focusing on FMCG and retail brands, the team has its eye on the still-growing esports sector, which Aldridge predicts is set to ”proliferate”.
”Esports is appealing for brands because the sheer viewership numbers are enormous. But it’s mimicking sports sponsorship at the moment, whereas I think as it matures over the next five years, we’ll see esports become a lot more accessible.”
With more casual players getting involved and a transition from an activity for hardcore gamers and observers, to mass participation, Aldridge says the opportunities for brands will grow further.
He also predicts opportunity in ”immersive experiences”, such as Fortnite and Minecraft’s customizable maps, as virtual reality gaming and IP that promotes a ’metaverse’ experience gather speed. ”There’s an opportunity for brands to create those immersive experiences, whether it’s VR, AR or within gaming platforms... creating branded worlds that are just fun for users to be in.
”The brands that create experiences that are the most frictionless, the most social and the most fun will be the most memorable, and they’ll win. And, of course, the ones that get in there and do it first will have the best results, if they do it correctly.”
Havas Entertainment, the new entertainment-focused proposition from the Havas network, was launched in February with a brief to help introduce brands to cultural media of every stripe, including gaming.
While just three months out of the can, there’s 30 years of experience behind it, says managing director Nick Wright, who himself worked with PlayStation for 12 years during his stint as partner at Amplify.
Echoing DDB FTW MD Cheng, coronavirus provided an opportunity to address what Havas considered a gap in the market, says Wright. ”The pandemic was quite a sobering moment for us to go: ’right, let’s make decisions, let’s do things that we should have done a long time ago’.”
Wright suggests the sector has expanded significantly in the last year: ”We have seen 10 years of growth within 24 months.”
The proposition addresses four verticals: music and culture, film and TV, toys and gaming. The latter, Wright says, accounts for a quarter of its business and is its fastest-growing element; the team just won the account for Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary which has dominated card-games for decades.
Endemic gaming clients (that’s publishers and developers to you and me) include Square Enix, Sega and THQ and are now serviced by over 100 staffers out of its King’s Cross headquarters, now Vivendi’s own UK base.
”There’s quite a disparity between what audiences want, what the industry is doing and what agencies were offering,” Wright argues. ”Gaming is not as mature as other sectors, but it’s on a journey. The opportunities now go beyond esports. You can put a billboard in Call of Duty now. You can do programmatic buying within certain games. It’s now got enough to be a contender, a respectable player in terms of a media owner now, and for brands to really start activating within it.”
Launched with a core team of specialists drawn from Publicis Poke, Spark Foundry and Publicis Sport & Entertainment, Play formally launched this January, the cross-agency proposition having already debuted work for Samsung, Gillette and KFC.
”Play is a handy lens to put over the category of gaming, to bring that into focus for clients,” says Tom Hostler, who juggles his role as head of brand experience at Publicis Poke with a new position as part of the central Play triumvirate, alongside Spark Foundry’s Simon Jones and S&E’s James Anderson.
Freshly furnished with its own livery, the proposition won’t be spun out into a separate agency, Hostler says. Instead, it will work with its three feeder companies to help clients react to the increasing role gaming plays in the behavior of consumers.
Recently, it has integrated branded content and worked with esports influencers to bring Gillette’s ’Made of What Matters’ into Fifa 20, spin out EE’s Wembley Stadium sponsorship into a successful YouTube series called The Wembley Cup and provided an exclusive Samsung Galaxy skin to Fortnite players. The latter project delivered an 243% increase in new buyers across 18- to 24-year-old category, 202m earned media impressions and a 97% increase in search traffic.
”It’s all about brands trying to use gaming as a means of engaging and reaching audiences in the same way they might use web or social,” Hostler explains. ”Gaming is part of the mainstream culture and it is an increasing part of media plans because of that. Gaming is reaching almost parity in terms of its gender split and the average age of a gamer is mid-30s. This is going to be part of every Publicis Groupe action plan moving forward.”
In contrast to the four network agencies that each debuted in the last year, London-based indie shop Waste has been in business since 2006. Named Content Marketing Agency of the Year and Digital Agency of the Year at The Drum Awards in 2020, its staff now numbers over 70.
Co-founder and managing partner Visar Statovci recalls its first campaigns, for Sega, went out when games still arrived in boxes and the agency’s headquarters was a converted Camden church. ”The industry has gone through some major shifts and a massive evolution – and we as an agency evolved with it,” he says.
15 years later, the agency is still working for Sega and works exclusively with other endemic gaming brands, including Riot, Nintendo, Warner Brothers, Supercell and Zynga. It offers services spanning strategy, creative, design and art, motion and 3D tech, as well as maintaining an in-house animation studio.
”We’ve hit that sweet spot of being big enough to be able to handle massive projects and campaigns, but still small enough to be fast and not expensive,” he says.
It has also begun expanding its client roster by working with an indie publisher, RyseUp, as it markets its early access title RoboQuest. With a more involved relationship than usual (the agency has been involved since the early days of development and struck a revenue sharing agreement with the developer) it has had a guiding hand in bringing the title to market. ”We’ve helped shape the marketing strategy, the community strategy, as well as everything else that follows... all the production work in the social channels, for example.
”Working with an indie has been really interesting, enlightening and a great experience.”
Despite the entry of major agency networks into the space, Statovci isn’t worried about competition. He emphasizes Waste’s knowledge of the sector and experience working with games companies.
”For us, it’s good, it gives more credibility to the whole space. To be honest, for some account pitches, I would hate to go against them. But I am 100% sure that there will be times when they would absolutely hate to go against us.”
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