As group director of Denuo division Play, Saneel Radia, this year's Media All-Star for Nontraditional Media, is best known for successfully, ingeniously leveraging video games as a content platform. And just as a fast-moving video game can be a challenge to keep up with, so is Radia.
"The most fun part about working with Saneel is his genuine passion for what he does. When you talk to him—assuming you can get your own words into the conversation—his eyes light up like an 8-year-old when he gets going," says Paul Edwards, director of media operations in General Motors' advertising and corporate marketing unit. "He loves and lives the gaming world like no one else I've ever met, and we're lucky to have him on our business."
During a head-spinning telephone interview in which this reporter, frankly, had trouble keeping up, Radia apologizes for being on constant hyperdrive—explaining that, as he's had to educate clients and advertising colleagues about the exciting new opportunities presented by gaming, he's had a lot of information to get in, with very limited time to do it. "When Play started three years ago, I spent, over the first 18 months, about 90 percent of my time evangelizing the space," he recalls. "You talk to people who don't have a lot of time, so I'm a fast talker. My entire personality comes in a caffeinated beverage."
At Play, which bills itself as "the first consumer marketing services company focused on the video gaming industry," Radia has executed programs on behalf of clients including Procter & Gamble and General Motors brands. In partnership with GM Planworks, Radia and Play developed plans around the Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC and Saturn nameplates. This past March, Radia oversaw the creation of the first Pontiac Virtual NCAA Final Four Tournament, which merged connected console gaming, live events and branded integration. His recent campaign for Cadillac offered the first free, downloadable content pack available on the Xbox 360 for the Project Gotham Racing 3 video game. Radia also helped establish the industry's first broadband upfront at Starcom MediaVest Group.
Pontiac's NCAA campaign was particularly innovative in that it cleverly, seamlessly merged the real and virtual worlds, incorporating CBS Television's footage of the tournament into a video game, says Radia's boss, Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo and himself a former Media All-Star for Interactive Media. "People are spending an incredible amount of time in the [virtual] world," Tobaccowala says. "My sense is that it's a big part of the future and we're going to see more of it, that combination of the virtual and real worlds."
Tobaccowala calls Radia "a sort of mash-up of four skills in a world where you increasingly need to be multiskilled." He explains that Radia is expert at generating and identifying ideas, selling those ideas, activating and managing media plans, and keeping in "continuous learning mode." As a bonus, the exec adds, Radia's interests aren't limited to gaming, as he's also an avid reader and music enthusiast.
"Saneel has been an innovator and a key contributor to Pontiac's success in the video game space," says Dino Bernacchi, Pontiac's advertising manager. He said Pontiac wanted to reach its young male target in unconventional ways, yet demanded that media opportunities aligned with the brand and, in his words, did "more than just provide logo exposure." Bernacchi says Radia's "vision of how to help bring developers and advertisers together while ensuring the content is of value to the gamer is important and a skill that not many have or understand. It also doesn't hurt that he's a tough negotiator."
The exec, who calls video gaming "one of the most fertile, targeted and expanding environments," calls the Pontiac Final Four plan "a daunting task" that was "executed flawlessly with tons of exposure" via platforms including MSN and Yahoo. Results-wise, the plan scored a slam dunk for agency and client, with 95 percent of participants saying they planned to return next year and an impressive 50 percent saying they "felt better" about the Pontiac brand after playing.
Nontraditional formats like video games are catching fire as some traditional media continue to lose reach and influence. Explains Radia: "Nothing in our industry gets more press than the fragmentation of media. You read and hear the same thing over and over: People need to get smarter and find more creative ways to reach consumers. But few people say, 'Here's the solution to it.' What's funny is, I don't see this fragmentation issue as a problem at all. That is completely in any marketer's benefit if leveraged appropriately. Twenty years ago, we said how great it would be to be able to communicate with the individual person with an individual message. Now, technology allows us to do that, and everybody says it's a problem."
In talking—and talking and talking—with the twentysomething Radia, what's clear is that this is a media professional whose knowledge and savvy far exceed his years. Radia says holding such a powerful position at such a relatively young age has raised some eyebrows.
He relates that when one client learned his age, the client's blunt response was: "Are you f---ing kidding me?" Another time, Radia went into a business meeting and, after about 10 minutes of meaningless chitchat, the client openly wondered, "What could be holding up the group director?" Radia had to explain that he was, in fact, the man. "How old are you?" blurted the stunned client, who looked as though "she wished she could pull the words back as they were coming out her mouth," Radia remembers. For the record, he turns 28 this week.
Radia sees his relatively young age as an advantage, however, as it puts him closer to his target. "Most of this stuff tends to be for the younger demo," he shrugs, adding, "and I can honestly say I'm part of that."