War has been declared in the $5-billion video game market. The combatants are leader Nintendo and parvenu Sega, two Japanese warriors slugging it out on a well-demarcated battlefield" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

Fighting machines By Ann Coope

War has been declared in the $5-billion video game market. The combatants are leader Nintendo and parvenu Sega, two Japanese warriors slugging it out on a well-demarcated battlefield

It began on Tuesday with the day’s agenda faxed to ADWEEK’s New York offices, demonstrating the qualities for which Leo Burnett is known: service and attention to detail. Or rather it would have begun with an agenda, had it not got lost in the transmission process.
Thus I arrive on Wednesday, sans agenda, at Leo Burnett’s purpose-built, 32-floor, granite-and-steel worldwide headquarters on West Wacker Drive in Chicago. It’s 9:30 a.m., a time that razes everyone, including me, because according to the agenda now in front of me, nothing is due to happen until 12:15 p.m.
Chaperone/pr person Lisa Lagget does her best to entertain me for the next three hours in light of, presumably, the unavailability of the interviewees and/or the agency’s unwillingness to change schedules once indelibly rendered in print.
We talk Leo Burnett. There is a lot to talk about. The 1993 edition of The 100 Best Companies to Work For in America has just been published and Burnett is the only ad agency included. The study cites the agency for its long-term clients and employees, and its excellent benefits and pay packages. “Burnett does tend to be a big soppy place,” the book says, “in keeping with the corny, heart-tugging commercials they execute. They don’t go in for hardedge advertising. This is an all-American place, Mid-western, old-fashioned, down-to-earth.”
An impromptu tour of the agency reveals every wall plastered with examples of “corny, heart-tugging commercials” for Maytag, Hallmark, McDonald’s and Kellogg, interspersed with such Leo bons mots as “Good advertising lifts up, not down,” and “Nothing is ever good enough around here.” At the appointed time, I begin my afternoon at Burnett.
12:15 p.m. (Client overview)–Leo Burnett may not be known for hard-edge advertising, but the $60-million Nintendo account definitely puts the agency in the fast lane. Video games are hot, fun and quick, and their advertising has to reflect that.
Account director Bob Shen and account supervisor Taylor Bryant say things like “The name of the game is the game,” and discuss “evolving overall playing experiences.” They also say that Nintendo has 90% of the market (although most sources put it at 80%); that the target is boys between the ages of 4 and 17 (girls do not make much of a dent in this market, which is dominated by adolescent testosterone); that adults need permission to play; that the hardware compares to movie theaters and the games compare to movies; and that Nintendo has better graphics and games than rival Sega.
While his agency may not admit it’s at war with Goodby and Sega, Shen at least acknowledges that Burnett and Nintendo are involved in a skirmish. “We always feel we’re in a battle no matter what the product is,” he says. “Even if we have 90% of the market, you’re only as good as your last campaign.”
1:30 p.m. (Creative overview)–Group creative director Allen Klein is a quiet man in his 40s with a shock of hair that stands to attention without apparent benefit of artificial inducement. His corner office is decorated with one life-size poster that portrays him as SchwarzenKlein and another that shows him as SuperKlein–gifts from the 40-person group he oversees. Klein has been at Burnett for 21 years and people at the agency describe him as a “lifer.”
Why has he stayed so long? “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve always found that every time I got tired, something else came along to interest me. I have great autonomy here. I’ll have (Burnett ceo) Rick Fizdale in my office and he’ll offer his opinion, but what I say goes.”
Humor is considered Klein’s forte, and it shows in Adult Game Boy spots. In one, a voiceover asks, “Did you have your fun today?” as men and women are seen playing ball in subway stations and golfing in their pajamas.
“What we do is just part of the whole puzzle,” says Klein. “Everyone wants to work on this business. Nintendo is the established player, they have the best games and that’s what they’re known for. The message of Game Boy is ‘Hey, cut loose, you’ve done it.'” In the background, Lisa Lagger dutifully makes notes.
Despite its technology and its appeal for both adults and kids, Klein doesn’t believe Nintendo is considered cutting edge. “There’s the potential to do something cutting edge with some of the newer games, but mainly the games are fun and we try to portray them as that. We do whatever’s necessary, whatever’s right for the category. It’s like doing a movie promo. It’s a very different kind of category to work on. Every game is its own entity–as opposed to other products that remain the same all the time.”
And what does he think of Sega’s work? “Pretty cool,” he says. “They’re doing exactly what they have to do.” He looks relieved when our alloted 45 minutes are up. “Was that all right?,” he asks.
2:15 p.m. (Adult Game Boyl–Copywriter Jonathon Hoffman resembles Christopher Reeves in Superman mode, and his partner, art director David Carlson, resembles a blonder, more dapper Clark Kent. In Hoffman’s non-corner office, Ray Charles croons on the stereo and a book about the ’60s lies on the desk (Hoffman is fascinated by the period and says his mother was a flower child).
“Advertising video games to adults is very new,” Carlson says. “It was something that hadn’t been done before and we had to establish a presence.”
Adds Hoffman, a former Wall Street trader who arrived at Burnett after stints at CME and DDB Needham, “It’s a solitary experience for adults. Parents are put off video games by being beaten by their kids. The whole campaign was designed to position it in adult life.”
One example is an in-flight magazine ad with the headline “As long as you’re up here, why not zap a few aliens?.” The ad’s body copy then continues with “If you’re already reading this ad, you’re very bored.” In Rolling Stone, readers are asked “Have you had your fun today?” above shots of parking meters, a briefcase and a vacuum cleaner.
A TV spot for Adult Game Boy shows speeded-up footage of people in airports and crowded elevators. “The adult world is designed to keep us moving,” says the voiceover. “And while this may make us more efficient, it’s not exactly a party.” The spot ends with a man being told his flight is delayed. “Cool,” he says, and continues playing Game Boy.
“I love selling toys to adults,” says Carlson, who started out at The Richards Group/Dallas and then moved to Earle Palmer Brown/Bethesda, Md. “It’s really easy to get caught up in the whole game. I really believe in the stuff. It’s fun to take an ad with an attitude like this and see it in a business publication.”
What do they think of the Sega campaign? “Cool,” says Hoffman.
3 p.m. (Kids Game Boy)–When copywriter Becky Swanson first started working on Kids Game Boy she thought, “Gee whiz, I’m never going to like it.”
“The first couple of spots we did we were pretty ignorant about what was involved,” says Swanson’s art director partner, Bill Stone. “We just sneaked by.”
“But we knew about kids,” adds Swanson as we sit in Stone’s relentlessly neat corner office, which is dominated by huge Munch-like painting by Stone of an executive meeting. “I’ve got nieces and nephews; we’ve worked on McDonald’s.”
“Then we totally got sucked into it,” says Stone. “I’ve been known to be up at 4 a.m. and playing Nintendo in my underwear.”
In the two years Stone and Swanson have worked on Kids Game Boy, directors have rarely turned down their boards. “We’re used to them turning down boards on other work, but not this,” says Swanson, who’s been at the agency almost nine years. “From a production standpoint the work is different every time.”
“Creatively, it’s fun,” says Stone, an eight-year Burnett veteran. “We get to deal with aliens and frogs and the kids love the various technologies.”
“Kids know much more about this stuff than you do,” says Swanson. “Kids look at the commercial far more than any adult. So the ann is to be as hip as they are. Kids have such a highly developed bullshit barometer. They know immediately whether an adult is talking at them. You have to treat kids as you do adults. It’s no different than talking to adults.”
3:30 p.m. the following Monday (Telephone interview)–“I don’t think we’re in a war,” says Bob Akers, creative director on Nintendo Super NES. “The competition’s the same whether we work on McDonald’s or Charlie the Tuna. We’d be dumb not to be aware of it.” Akers joined Burnett in 1983, left in 1986 to work at Hal Riney/Chicago, but came back to Burnett in 1990. Why did he return? “I couldn’t stay away from it,” he says. “This is one of the best places to work.”
Akers loves working on video games. “We’re selling fun, and this is fun,” he says. “In this category being a leader works. Kids don’t want to have the losing system. You have to position yourselves as a leader, you build up a certain amount of equity and superpower. It’s all to do with power and attitude. We don’t like to knock each other’s work. We’re too busy minding our own store.”
The ’60s theme is set by Sonny and Cher crooning they’ve got each other, babe, on the taxi radio as I cruise in from the airport. In downtown San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury hippies still hog the streets and head shops sell tie-dye T-shirts to flower children’s children. A Dead concert is scheduled for the weekend.
While at Leo Burnett I arrived three hours early, at Goodby I arrive four hours late, because of weather, all bad, causing flight delays.
If Leo Burnett’s foot soldiers will not admit they’re at war, Goodby’s troops are lobbing hand grenades in all directions. Tousled and having already pushed 40, founders Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein (Andy Berlin moved on to DDB Needham/N.Y. last year) seem perfectly in tune with the city’s counter-cultural mien. Around the corner from Goodby offices, at the trendy Fog City Diner, they start talking about the Sega review and it’s hard to get a word in edgeways.
Jeff: “Everything was heightened from the beginning. We were up against Wieden & Kennedy and we’d never beaten them before.”
Rich: “Wieden was known as the youth agency; FCB, the large stable agency; and we were the intellectuals.”
Jeff: “We told Sega, ‘W&K already has a youth account in Nike. You’ll be their second one. But you’ll be our first.'”
Rich: “There wasn’t anything we didn’t think about in that pitch.”
Jeff: “Everybody in the agency had to learn to play a game.”
Rich: “Everybody in the agency came to the pitch. Looking back it was probably suicidal.”
Jeff: “We hired Jerry Garcia’s sound system . . . “
Rich: “We put on a light and audio-visual show. We had everybody sit in the bleachers.”
Jeff: “We assaulted Sega.”
Rich: “Sega told us they wanted Sega to be part of the popular culture.”
Jeff: “They said, ‘We want it to be like Coke and Pepsi by Christmas.'”
Jeff: “So we did 30 spots in two months.”
Rich: “Then Sega launched the CD-based system. That’s going to be huge.”
Jeff: “I think Nintendo missed a big marketing opportunity with that. We sold out of 300,000 units over Christmas.”
When they stop for breath, I point out that Nintendo doesn’t seem too worried, and is planning its own launch in early ’94.
Rich: “It’s sour grapes from Nintendo.”
Jeff: “The first one in the market is obviously going to take a huge chunk of it.”
Rich: “It’s a big war and it’s all we think about. And kids who play Nintendo side-by-side with Sega say Nintendo is for little kids.”
Jeff: “Kids tell us, ‘You two should go head-to-head.’ They love nasty advertising.”
Rich: “Our next task is to get the younger kids.”
Rich: “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s definitely war.”
Jeff: “It’s like Super Mario vs. Sonic the Hedgehog.”
Rich: “Joe Montana vs. Bo Jackson.”
Jeff: “It’s a big decision for a kid to spend 60 bucks on a game, so they can’t screw up.”
Rich: “This is the MTV generation. The advertising is obnoxious, it’s low and it’s in your face.”
Back at Goodby’s two-story, brick-and-glass worldwide headquarters, directly across the street from Atlas Citron Haligman and Bedecarre’s worldwide headquarters and not far from Hal Riney’s worldwide headquarters, Jeff conducts a tour. Down in the basement lurk the production people. Account executives are billetted on the first floor. Creatives take up arms on the second. All the offices look similar (exposed brick, exposed beams and glass fronts) and so do all the employees (youthful, hirsute). If having long hair is not actually a requirement of employment, then it seems to overtake people once they’ve been there awhile.
Every art director and writer works on Sega by design, says Rich. “The whole idea is that we don’t want anything to wear out,” he says. “Everything should be a surprise.”
Now worth some $95 million in billings, Sega had sales of $800 million in ’92 and projects $1.8 billion for ’93, fueled partly by new products such as CD-based systems and a flurry of new titles. The TV spots are funny, fast, filled with unpredictable images and cacophonous noises. While kids love them, adults hate them.
The ads deliberately poke fun at Nintendo. “Dog,” seen through the eyes of a dog, examines the differences between Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s Super NES. “If you were color-blind and had an I.Q. of 12, you probably wouldn’t care which portable you had. Of course, you wouldn’t care if you drank from the toilet, either,” says the voiceover. That’s followed quickly by a shot of Super NES and the words, “Creamed Spinach,” a direct reference to the greenish color of Nintendo’s screens. Then comes a shot of Genesis and the words “Bright Beautiful Color.”
Planner Irina Heirakuji discusses how it all came about. “Sega is an upstart, so we had to accentuate the positive,” she says. “Our mission was simple. We had to beat Nintendo, make Sega the coolest brand to have and a part of popular culture. GBS is a young agency. Not many people have kids, and not many people have game experience.”
When Goodby first got the assignment in May, Heirakuji and Jon Steel, director of planning, developed a program that would take the agency into the bedrooms of 12-16-year-old boys. “With research you might call up thousands of kids and ask them questions,” says Heirakuji, who has a warm soothing manner and an office with a homey feel and curtains that she made herself. “We actually went into their houses and videotaped everything,” she says. “It’s like doing cultural anthropology. We asked them questions like, ‘How do you feel when you play games?’ It’s how you do it rather than what you do. You have to have kids trust you. We tried to blend in. I sat on the floor with no make-up and no jewelry and watched kids play video games.”
In the room next door, Nintendo’s Super NES sits next to Sega’s Genesis. I’m addicted within seconds to video games. In Sega’s Streets of Rage H, I become Blaze, exterminating twentysomething punks before being eviscerated by a Mr T-lookalike to a chorus of cheers from onlookers at the door.
Art director John Butler and copywriter Mike Shine are former Chiat/Dayers who went freelance during the big New York turnaround two years ago.”This is one of the few places I’d take a job,” says Shine.
“They’re really good to creatives,” says Butler. “Not a lot of people leave. There’s no need for a hierarchy. There are few titles.”
Butler and Shine worked on the print campaign for Genesis and Game Gear, which appears in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. For Sonic the Hedgehog II, they conducted a semiserious interview with the game’s creators that appeared in the ad. The headline “An attitude, tons of enemies, and a running mate with the mind of a 4-year-old. (No, it’s not another presidential election.)” wraps around the interview. The visual is a nightime desert shot of two characters in shorts wearing TV sets on their heads.
“We focused on how and who designed the games because kids are interested in how they work,” says Shine.
“Video games are a bit rebellious,” says Butler. “Because it’s something your parents can take from you. So the ads have to constantly reflect that wise-ass attitude. We’re trying to make Sega part of popular culture.”
What do they think of Nintendo ads? “Pretty good,” says Butler. “Some are better than others.”
Are there any benefits to these games, I ask? Do they improve hand-eye coordination? Aid concentration? Improve reading skills? Probably not, says Butler and Shine, but they’re great fun to play.
For producer Ed Galvez, who joined GBS from McCann-Erickson/S.F. a year ago, the first four months working on Sega were a nightmare. “There was a lot of pressure and short time frames because of the nature of the business,” he says. “The client didn’t decide till the last minute, so the creatives only had two days or so and we had to put it together immediately.”
Galvez, more used to working on accounts such as Pacific Gas and Electric, Del Monte and the National Dairy Board, had to adapt to smaller budgets. “At GBS the mind-set is that when it comes to developing creative ideas, you don’t need a lot of money,” he says. “Low budgets are refreshing. The average viewer is so used to seeing the Cokes and Pepsis of the world that when they see something rough, it catches their eye.”
The last thing Sega wants, says Galvez, is to be predictable. “We’ve done parody, effects, stock footage, animation. The name GBS opens doors. Directors are willing to work with us because of our reputation. And they’ll often do it cheaper because they want it for their reel.”
“We’ve been able to keep going further and further,” says art director Scott Aal. “Sega’s getting more comfortable with us. They’re getting used to working with different groups and methods. And we’ve had proven results.”
Adds copywriter Tom Routson, “In the beginning Sega was pretty skeptical. They said, ‘No way, you can’t do that,’ about the dragster spot. They didn’t think putting the Nintendo on the back of a milk truck or Sega on the back of dragster was funny or would work. But it did.”
“Kids want to see the game and they want to be entertained,” says Routson. “We’re up against MTV promos and videos and we want to be up there with the best. Kids are now bored with MTV so we have to work harder to grab them.”
What do they think of Nintendo ads? “Mediocre,” says Aal.
“Can’t really remember any of them,” says Routson.
“We wanted Sega to have an attitude,” says Aal. “And we wanted it to be the opposite of Nintendo. You’ve got to give Sega credit for picking an agency that would do something different. More and more kids are saying, ‘Hey, Sega is cool.'”
And what do they think of Goodby? “Most agencies have people you don’t like,” says Routson. “But here they screen people very well. Everybody socializes together. Few people leave.”
“Or if they do, it’s not because they’re unhappy,” says Aal. “It’s for more opportunities.” In the office of art director and surfer Erich Joiner, an REM song plays in the background and a poster for the movie Endless Summer hangs on the wall. “We never had a kids account before and this gives us a chance to do something that was wilder,” he says grinning. “We discovered that the more we can annoy adults, the better we can come off to kids. Adults hate the music.” Composed by musician John Zorn, it consists of screaming instruments being played as fast as possible. “It’s really obnoxious and annoying,” says Joiner, whose taste in clothes runs to baggy shorts and a sweatshirt.
According to Joiner, different games are directed at different market segments, so the commercials must fit the target. In “Dolphins,” a spot aimed at an older audience and art-directed by Joiner for a game called Ecco the Dolphin, an actor mimics Jacques Cousteau. “I am concerned about ze crew,” says the voiceover during film of a Cousteau lookalike on board ship. “Ecco ze Dolphin is so real, zey don’t want to go into the sea anymore.”
In a spot aimed at a younger age group that promotes an Evander Holyfield boxing game, footage of fighters is shown while a narrator says, “For centuries, man has been drawn to boxing for its science, strategy and grace. Of course, there’s also something to be said for re-arranging some poor chump’s face . . . ” At the end of every spot is the tagline “Sega, Welcome to the Next Level.”
“One of the strengths of this agency is how each team handles ‘Welcome to the Next Level,'” says Joiner. “It’s up to everyone’s interpretation. It’s like a gang thing. Everyone in the know knows it.”
Creative director David O’Hare, one of the few Goodby employees with a title, came up with “Welcome to the Next Level.” Essentially, says O’Hare, most Goodby creatives are a bit like kids themselves. “When we were working on the pitch, we’d have creative teams of kids come in and give tips on how to do it,” he says. “They’d tell us what levels were particularly challenging. They’d tell us how to do the ads. They wanted to see Sega vs. Nintendo.
“What’s interesting about this market is that you don’t have to tell a 6-year-old a lot. He’ll figure it out and tell you all about the games himself. Kids are much more sophisticated than adults and the challenge is to see how fast we can lash images up there and still have them figure it out. That’s one of the big reasons for doing 15-second spots–kids can figure them out quickly. Kids hate to be told what’s cool, and we’re not necessarily trying to do that. We’re just using what’s out there.”
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)