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The Drum Labs Gaming Gaming Advertising

In-game advertising shows great potential – but marketers have these demands


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

May 26, 2022 | 10 min read

Gaming has historically been an ad-free zone – but that’s changing with investment and infrastructure integrating with the most popular titles. Media buyers are excited by the opportunity to reach a whole generation of consumers who aren’t available on TV channels. As part of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, we explored whether in-game advertising can meet the needs of marketers in 2022.

Elden Ring

‘A poster ad for a fast-food restaurant in Elden Ring probably isn’t going to work’

At The Drum Labs venue in London on Tuesday May 17, senior reporter Chris Sutcliffe questioned a crack panel of experts to learn how brands should go about buying in-game ads. It coincided with the launch of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive – spearheaded by an introductory explainer for marketers.

Is in-game advertising ready for the coming demand?

Ashley Bolt, managing partner of gaming at Havas Entertainment, says that adland is aware of the potential of in-game advertising, but fears there is “trepidation.” For one, advertisers don’t want to invoke negative reactions from their media placements and there is a belief that gamers are hostile to brands.

“Until the ads are seamless and accepted by gamers, we won’t see advertisers jumping fully into it,” says Bolt. “There are places where ads are appropriate, like a sports game or a racing game where it is realistic and can enhance the game, but a poster ad for a fast-food restaurant in Elden Ring probably isn’t going to work.”

Lewis Sherlock, senior-vice president of programmatic at Bidstack, has years of experience placing in-game ads (in Football Manager in-stadium hoardings, for example). He agrees placements must make sense, but other than that ad space can be inserted almost anywhere, on any game world and on any device. 3D worlds are a bit more difficult though.

“The 2D assets actually have to look and feel like part of the game.” There are publisher-end tools to make the inventory (usually a billboard) look native to the land, whether it’s a mud-strewn rally course or a windy post-apocalyptic hellscape. As long as it’s somewhere an ad could feasibly be, there’s less friction for players.

For the marketer looking to make the leap into virtual out-of-home advertising (VOOH), businesses such as Bidstack have been rushing to meet wider digital standards. For example, its placements are buyable in IAB standard formats – the industry standard.

But marketers are unsure how they should be measuring engagements in gaming. They don’t know how to appraise and value the experiences.

Bolt agrees. “So you’ve bought a hoarding in a football game. What’s the value of that? There’s no way to measure.”

Click-through rates rely on clicks. Gamers are unlikely to do that, but does that erode the value of hours in plain sight of the player? There’s surely a brand-building platform there?

Bolt adds: “Clicks are coming down the pecking order, which is good because they don’t necessarily mean effectiveness.”

Why invade the game? Be the game

Last week we explored the return of the ‘advergame’ and whether a Snap Lens counts.

Andrew Douthwaite, chief commercial officer at Dubit, helps make branded games for the ‘metaverse’ in the belief that for young people, gaming is replacing TV as the dominant channel of advertising.

The business knows that branded gaming environments have a positive impact on these players. “It’s more engaging. There’s an actual fun element to it,” says Douthwaite.

But unlike TV, these environments are rarely a scale play. They form the foundation of a wider gaming strategy around building an engaged community. And he reminds marketers that efforts in gaming spaces expand beyond. There’s a social media impact and a brand affinity from doing a cool experience in gaming. He points to the Grammy’s Roblox gig as an example, as well as Nikeland’s output.

“We’ve seen a lot more brands approaching it from a community perspective and then building a game on top of that.”

It’s an easier approach and perhaps a sensible first step into gaming. Meanwhile, the conversations with advertisers are getting more sophisticated.

Matthew Parsons, head of gaming UK at Azerion, an entertainment ad platform, says that over the last few years marketers have stopped asking if their audiences are in gaming, and instead where they are in gaming.

But they’re wondering how these activations fit into a 360° campaign, or what the media mix should be.

Parsons adds: “They wonder where it fits, but we see gaming as part of an always-on strategy.”

That means not considering an allocated gaming budget. The space is already fragmented and diverse, so advertisers should consider how to navigate the ecosystems and platforms, and find a route to market through immersive in-game ads, display or rewarded video – not be ‘pigeon-holed’ into any single approach.

Parsons concludes: “We see gaming as a really important part of the broader digital plans.”

Next, Tom Purcell, programmatic partnerships manager at Admix, asks marketers to first consider their objectives.

“Where’s your audience? What platform and game best gets you there? Are you trying to drive video views? Are you trying to drive clicks? Banners in-game have been treated as a performance medium – that’s on its head.” He sees banners as more of a brand-building platform that cannot be well measured by clicks.

But, regardless, Admix is looking to create a click capability on its in-game ads. If marketers want gamers to be able to reach their sites and products, Admix will test it. Right now, that means when a player stands next to an ad for a set amount of time, a prompt could hover up for an engagement. “It’s something we’re testing. We don’t know how it’s going to go with players, but it’s worth testing. Brands are interested in it.”

Players may like it. In light social spaces with desired skins and items, they may want to immediately warp to the product via an ad.

This debate is instructive of where in-game advertising is.

It is exploring a balance of what gamers will tolerate (perhaps like), and what marketers are keen to buy and measure. Now there’s a baseline of interest in the space, the funding exists to build what’s next.

Purcell adds: “[The industry is] releasing tools like performance metrics and hoping for a standardization of the channel. All these things take time and infrastructure to do. And then there’s also the planning cycles, which probably for macro reasons have been longer than they should be.”

He’s optimistic that these are small barriers that will soon be overcome.

“There’s been a massive increase in interest and understanding, and we can’t wait to learn more about this exciting new channel.”

For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.

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