Getting In The Game

With in-game ads expected to generate $800 million annually in four years, up from $120 million in 2004, it’s no wonder the biggest players in the agency world are paying the medium more mind.

“The interactive agencies really jumped on us—no surprise, since their radar is always up for new stuff. But of late, the big, traditional shops with TV budgets are getting in the game,” explains Richard Skeen, vp, ad sales for the gaming ad network Massive Inc., whose blue-chip clients include Coca-Cola, Nestle and Paramount Pictures. “People criticize the media shops a lot, but in this case, it’s a testament to the agency realizing how quickly things are changing in the media world and trying to be out in front of it,” Skeen says.

Skeen—who started his career in the agency world, at J. Walter Thompson, before moving on to sales positions at GQ, The New Yorker and—says that when his company launched a little more than a year ago, only about half a dozen people across the big agencies were devoted to gaming. Now, of the top 20 shops, more than three-quarters employ either a person or a team devoted to gaming deals.

“It’s a little like MTV,” says Skeen. “When it came out, advertisers sort of scratched their heads, then ka-bam, they got it. When we go to see clients in their mid-30s, they often don’t get [the potential of in-game ads]. But when we see senior people with 14-year-olds at home, they totally get it. Of course, agencies dealing with twentysomethings know this stuff like the back of their hand.” Massive’s network includes such game titles as Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Funcom’s Anarchy Online.

As gaming catches fire, the agencies will play an even bigger role on behalf of their clients chasing the elusive 18- to 34-year-old male, with some 70 percent of this group estimated to be into video games. Once again this year, the upfront network TV buying season brings much hand-wringing over the shrinking young male audience—and marketers in greater numbers are looking to other platforms, including video games, to deliver the demo. It’s a captive audience, to be sure: Massive estimates that young men spend an average of 12 to 15 hours a week playing video games. “They’re not spending anywhere near that time watching TV,” Skeen points out. “Desperate Housewives may be a hit, but 33-year-old males ain’t watching it.”

Dan Goodman, executive director of OgilvyInteractive, says that despite the current hype over gaming, his agency has been involved for several years in such placements on behalf of clients like IBM. “It’s not so much an area that we haven’t discussed with our clients before, but it’s a new opportunity given the adoption curve and the kinds of games coming out. From our perspective, it’s about continuing to find new and innovative ways to connect with the consumer beyond just the Web,” he says. And despite the focus on young men, the gaming audience, he points out, is more diverse than many realize, as young women are actually the fastest-growing demo in the medium.

Much of the buzz around in-game ads is being generated by small, gaming-devoted agencies like Massive and IGA Worldwide—which last month announced it was forming a global specialist media group dedicated to ad opportunities in the game space.

“I don’t think you can take as any kind of indicator that a company has launched a [gaming] division as indicative of them being any more advanced than any other agency,” says Jeff Minsky, director of emerging media platforms for OMD Digital, which has being doing in-game executions for some three years and has relationships with gaming publisher Electronic Arts and in-game advertisers including Cingular Wireless. PlayStation is also a client.

Minsky explains that one cannot place the gaming business “in one box—it’s many different things geared to many different audiences.” OMD has gaming specialists within its digital media teams in New York and Chicago, and will soon on the West Coast. But the agency is not launching a separate division devoted to gaming. “Our philosophy is not that we are trying to undervalue the opportunity of video games, but that [the executions] are done well and done correctly as part of the overall media landscape,” Minsky says.

Darren Herman, chief creative officer of IGA Partners, says small, gaming-devoted companies like his have an upper hand. “You can build a team at an agency … but there’s no way they can keep up with every game publisher and developer and all the technology on the horizon to keep current with all games,” he says. “The agencies have to work with us. We’re a sort of outsourced video game department for the agencies.”

Herman’s shop has close relationships with several broad-based agencies, handling video game placements as part of the multimedia campaign—headed up by agency Avenue A/Razorfish—behind this spring’s video release of Disney/Pixar’s animated adventure The Incredibles. Incorporating Red Bull into Xbox’s latest Judge Dredd game, IGA’s newly acquired Hive Partners worked with agency BBDO.

There are pitfalls to the gaming juggernaut. While revenues from gaming ads are poised to explode, Minsky points out that there recently has been some “pushback” on the part of game publishers doing integrated marketing deals. “If you look at the revenue driving business, it’s certainly scaled up in recent years, but [ads] are nowhere near what’s made on sales [of games] alone,” he says. Ad deals “take time away from companies trying to develop new games.” That said, OMD clients looking to capture the attention of young men—McDonald’s, among them—continue to push into the in-game market.

Then, there’s the gamer revolt. Those involved with in-game ads like to tout the fact that, unlike other media, marketers’ messages via games cannot be so easily avoided, especially in cases in which a brand is integrated into the actual game. “It’s an audience that is 100 percent engrossed in that video game,” says Massive’s chief marketing officer Nicholas Longano. But gaming advertisers are keeping an eye on a brewing rebellion among those who buy and play video games, angry that their favorite pastime increasingly is cluttered with appeals for fast food and energy drinks.

Steve Parsons, on the gamer Web site Joystiq, fumed over ads on Funcom’s Anarchy Online, taking issue with Massive’s contention that gamers see in-game ads as “heightening the sense of realism.” Parsons’ response: “Yes, ram advertising down our throats. Make sure we have no avenue of escape. After all, nothing quite adds to the realism of an RPG [role-playing game] set in a futuristic world like an advert for an online casino.”

OgilvyInteractive’s Goodman warns that in-game ads “face the same challenge to any other opportunity—if it’s abused, it will be rejected.”

Tony Case is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.