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From burgers to gaming: Activision Blizzard’s Fernando Machado on reinventing Call of Duty

Former burger king Fernando Machado is going all in on gaming

Half a year after the Burger King marketing mastermind left the fast food giant for gaming empire Activision Blizzard, Fernando Machado is preparing for the launch of a shiny new installment of Call of Duty. At the same time, he’s hoping to help clean up the industry’s long-standing problems following Activision’s $18m sexual harassment settlement and is looking to invest more deeply in innovation than ever before.

Call of Duty: Vanguard is Activision Blizzard’s latest work. Tell me about the creative process of bringing this project to life.

It has been an intense journey. Vanguard is based on World War II. The difference between Vanguard and some of the other World War II [games] is ... two things. One is that Vanguard happens on all fronts, not just in Europe – which is typically how World War II is portrayed.

And [secondly] as with any new title that we have, it’s amazing to see how technology evolves. One of the things we wanted to communicate was exactly how amazing the graphics look, how immersive the game looks, how realistic the game feels. We could have [marketed the game by] geeking out on the technology. I’m sure that some people would be interested in that – the geeks like me would probably eat it up. But rather [we decided] to do something that would really capture the imagination of a broader audience.

So when [independent agency] Gut came up with the idea of like, ‘Why don’t we have real conflict photojournalists capturing the [game] images since they look so realistic? Maybe that will give us a completely different look than the typical look that we create.’ And we fell in love with the idea.

We chose two photographers who are known for being conflict/war photojournalists from [publications] that are reputable ... [They immersed] themselves in the motion capture studio, holding this camera, which is basically a portal into the engine of the game and captures images. Then, together with them, we made a short list of the images. I think that the result speaks for itself. It looks super real. It looks very different. In the film, it looks simple ... and everything works, but it was a lot of work from the marketing team and from our motion capture studio to pull it off.

We started teasing the game a couple of months ago – we had different trailers, which is kind of the typical thing we do that works really well. We made the announcement of the different game modes. Last week, we announced zombies. [The launch has required] lots of hard work from the team, [which has happened] in parallel to all the other work that goes on [with] Call of Duty: Warzone, which is our free-to-play [version].

How is marketing for a gaming company different from fast food advertising?

There are many similarities in terms of trying to do things differently and breaking the mold on how brands communicate...

I’m lucky that I had an amazing marketing school with Unilever – I was there for 18 years. And then Burger King, and Popeye’s owner Restaurant Brands International (RBI), really gave me the chance to push the limits in terms of what can be done in terms of positioning, advertising, design and all that.

Now, I’m coming in new to an industry that I love so much, and in a company that has been so successful historically. I’m learning a lot and being humble about the fact that I’m the new guy at the party. At the same time, I’m trying to leverage some of the things I learned at RBI or Unilever and experiment.

How have the first six months gone, and what might people not realize about your gig and the category at large?

I mean, I’m loving it... which is probably a phrase I could not say before, because that’s a slogan from McDonald’s. But I’m having a lot of fun. I love gaming; I always did, since I was a kid. I still have all my video games. I can finally tell my mom that it paid off — all the video games that I was playing as a kid. I think that gaming is an industry that is way larger than what most people think it is. I tend to ask my friends, what do you think is bigger: gaming or music? They say music. What do you think is larger: movies or gaming? They say movies. Gaming is larger than movies plus music today.

And people don’t even realize that it’s an industry that’s evolving really fast. Games today are very different than when I was a kid. My mom would call me to have dinner [and I’d push] pause, have dinner and come back. Today, you cannot do that – everyone is playing live. Gaming became this social loop among friends. And with that, brands and companies are evolving the way they design the games, the way they monetize, the way they advertise.

That’s great to hear. Can you share some of the key trends you’re seeing in the gaming space right now?

I see more and more games being a channel. Like, we have hundreds of millions of people that play [a given] game – you have Candy Crush [with] more than 215 million monthly active users. So, it’s a channel in itself. When I was playing Nintendo as a kid, it wasn’t. You could not upload content. It was: you buy the box, and that’s it. There [are] a lot of opportunities for brands to partner with gaming brands to create exciting content.

Most games already became more of like a platform, rather than just the game itself. What do I mean by that? Like, [Call of Duty:] Warzone – it’s like a party and I need to entertain people all the time so they keep coming. We own that virtual space. And the challenge is, ‘How can I keep that space exciting? And how can I continue to entertain people?’ This is very different compared to maybe 10 years ago.

Obviously, mobile will continue to grow exponentially. Mobile basically diminishes the barriers to entry, especially in some countries. Before Call of Duty mobile, if you wanted to play Call of Duty, you needed to have a console, which can be expensive. I mean, I’m Brazilian — not all my friends in Brazil will have a PlayStation 5, but everyone has a smartphone in Brazil. Same with many other countries, such as India. And I’m talking consoles, but [with] PCs, it’s even more expensive to play a game.

If I were to pick three things, I would say mobile [is continuing] to grow, games [are becoming] a platform to entertain people, and to think about games as a channel to reach people. Some of those things are not at [their] full potential. There is a ton of opportunity to grow and explore and to come up with really cool, different things.

Earlier this month, Activision Blizzard came to an $18m settlement in its recent sexual harassment and sex discrimination case. How is the company thinking about inclusion and equity right now? And how will PR issues factor into your plans for the future?

There is a lot going on, in terms of ... not just the settlement itself, but in terms of doing the right thing. I’ve been here for six months and [everybody] I’ve met are really good people who care. And if you think about the leaders – for instance, [executive vice-president of development at Blizzard Entertainment] Jen Oneal or [co-leader of Blizzard Entertainment] Mike Ybarra ... [who] were appointed a month or two months ago – those are really good people. Or Rob [Kostich] at Activision. Everyone here wants to do the right thing.

I hope that I can help be a catalyst for change, not just for Activision, but for the industry. Some of the challenges and problems we face are unfortunately not uncommon out there. And there should be zero tolerance for that type of stuff. I’m definitely involved in the conversation around PR and communications – I’m pushing and being very focused on making sure that we communicate better internally first ... to make sure that our people feel good about working here. People are very passionate about this company and I know that leadership wants to do the right thing. So hopefully, over time, by doing the right thing, it will shine outside [of the company, too].

How might you do things differently from a strategic perspective moving into 2022?

We do have to [be] ‘always on,’ because the games are always on. [But] every year is slightly different. We have slightly different beats in terms of new versions, new games or new modes that will launch. I hope we can continue to experiment and do things differently. I hope that we push what ... we know works better. It’s tricky because [many things are] so well done already – [but] there might be an even bigger upside on experimenting and doing some of those things differently.

I also hope that as I gain more experience in gaming, and in the company, that I manage to do things even faster – so that we can tap into some opportunities in the zeitgeist and also work in even closer collaboration with the studios and ... the product team. If you don’t plan, it will be difficult for you to influence [certain processes], because some of the cycles in terms of product development are long. [For example,] if you want to have a new character, if you want to have a new skin ... it’s not like, ‘Do it quick.’ It takes months to be able to do that. For next year, I’ll be able to have a complete cycle. This year, I arrived when many things were already in motion – and I was able to influence those things, but next year is a beginning-to-end opportunity.

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