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Chris Erb

Interview: Chris Erb

Chris Erb
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This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc:  Chris Erb, founder, Tripleclix

Gaming, lest any of us forget, is an expensive diversion, from blockbuster titles to in-game purchases, post-launch content, and high-end merchandise.

Nevertheless, gamers have been trained to spend money; it’s embedded in their DNA, and in the gaming space at every level.

A note to non-gamers: The gaming community has evolved far beyond teenagers to include more mature consumers with impressive levels of disposable income. Significantly, many of them are now choosing food and beverages with gaming in mind

To break it down, 2019 will see the global gaming market hit revenues of $152.1 billion. About 45% of this will be derived from mobile, the largest segment in the gaming market. America will again be the #1 gaming market at $36.9 billion projected this year.

Esports, which is expected to post $1.1 billion in revenue in 2019, gets a lot of the attention from mainstream people outside the industry but makes up less than 10% of the audience that watches video game streaming with roughly 12% of those viewers in North America.

For years, gaming opportunities for consumer brands had been pre-packaged esports sponsorships or media buys on Twitch. But as brands–at the prodding of Tripleclix founder Chris Erb and others–took notice of studio’s long-lasting direct relationships with gaming fans, they increasingly began seeking to authentically navigate the gaming space and increase their spends

Erb has spent two decades in the gaming industry managing iconic brands such as Dungeons & Dragons, Pokémon, Madden NFL, and EA Sports.

This was not so long ago, and the gaming world back then was unmapped: A traveler like Erb could and did wander, and found that he was in the gaming space at the exact right time.

As the senior director of marketing for the Madden NFL franchise (2005-2010), Erb managed and coordinated the day-to-day strategy and marketing of Madden NFL, that became a $3 billion dollar franchise for EA Sports.

As VP of Brand Marketing for EA Sports (2010-2013), Erb was responsible for driving strategy and marketing for the EA Sports brand. He oversaw a cross-functional team that focused on consumer marketing, licensing, brand identity, consumer engagement, and brand partnerships.

In addition, his team was responsible for partnership activation across franchises within the EA Sports label including Madden NFL, FIFA, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NHL, NBA, NCAA, and Fight Night.

After graduation from the University of Washington with a B.A. degree in business administration, Erb had landed at Wizards of the Coast (from 2000-05), where he led a 20-member cross-functional team running the Pokémon, and Dungeons & Dragons portfolios. And oversaw the launch of NeoPets Trading Card Game, and the Star Wars Trading Card game

More recently following an 11-month stint at Legendary Entertainment as the media company’s EVP of brand marketing, Erb returned to the video game industry in 2014 and founded Tripleclix in Westlake Village in California.

The boutique agency specializes in connecting brands and the gaming industry. Among those at its doorstep so far have been Xbox, Wizards of the Coast, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Kellogg’s, Mondelez, Gillette, Hollister, Taco Bell, Jones Soda, and General Mills.

You are 47. That’s old to be in the gaming space.

(Laughing) Yeah. That’s one piece of research I wish you hadn’t done. I’m old.

Gaming currently stands as a $120 billion industry with more than 1.6 billion gamers playing video games on an average of 7 hours a week. Advertising, films, music social and TV programming are driven by demographics. Is it the same for the gaming industry?

I hope not because I’m in that other (age) bracket. No, I don’t think it’s anything like that. The greatest thing about the gaming industry is that it is inclusive. If my dad wanted to engage with Madden or play Gears of War and went to play organically at an event or online, he‘d be embraced. This is our culture and everybody is welcome. It is definitely an inclusive medium.

Now, if you go into social media, everybody has their challenges within their platforms but, as a whole with the gaming industry, nobody is excluded. Everybody is included. You will see that platforms have tons of authentic, inclusive messaging. So yeah, I don’t think that anybody is shunned away from that space. The marketing is pretty broad. The way they buy media, the way they spend media is a little bit different, but everybody is welcome. Some of the programs that Tripleclix builds on with Cheez-its and Pringles are because it (gaming) is really a broad audience. The people that shop at Taco Bell are definitely 13 to 18-year-olds, but I feed up on Taco Bell, and I’ll be eating there until I die. So you will also have that older audience. I think that using brands to connect with broader age groups and audiences is one of the strengths of the partnership marketing programs that we work on.

There are many reasons why gaming is now bigger than ever, but two major reasons are evolution and technology. With the growth of high-definition screens in the home and the constant need for content, gaming is the perfect fit. Also, the generation which grew up playing games now have their own children and are sharing their passion with them.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I have been in the industry for a long time, and I‘ve been around, and gaming used to be something for a certain segment of the audience. It has become far more mainstream. I kind of compare it a little bit to my grandparents not really needing a telephone in the house. Then, maybe, my parents didn’t need a TV in the house. Now video games have become acceptable. So it’s just the growth of the industry and the passion. People no longer say, “Do you play video games?” They say, “What video games are you playing?” So it is mainstream, and the average age of a video game player is 32-years old.

What’s currently on Tripleclix’s plate?

Right now we are launching a bunch of programs with Cheez-its, and Pringles for Gears 5, and we have some Rockstar Energy drink programs coming to market. We are pretty focused on 2020. How do we start building programs for stuff that is coming next year?

How much staff does Tripleclix have?

About 12 people.

When did the light go on for you to launch Tripleclix in 2014? Did it go on in the decade you were at Electronic Arts (EA) or afterward while at Legendary Entertainment?

It was at Legendary, for sure. I got there, and I missed the gaming industry a little bit. My job was to help navigate their leaving Warner Bros. and going to Universal. So I was working for Thomas (Thomas Tull, then chair of the board, and chief executive officer of Legendary Entertainment), and helping to navigate that.

Legendary Entertainment has such great vehicles like Pokémon, Pikachu, and Godzilla.

A great studio. Great things. When I was there it was Godzilla, Pacific Rim, and Hangover Part III. When I was there we became more fan-centric. We skipped New York Comic Con so we could just start doubling down on social (media), and really bringing that to life. I had a really good experience there, but I couldn’t get out of my head how many agencies supported the movie industry, and that I didn’t have any of that support when I was at EA.

It was quite a cushy job Legendary Entertainment. A corner office, and all the perks of the film industry.

Well, the truth is that when I got there I noticed that a thousand agencies supported the movie industry. So it was a huge flag and I said, “Hey, the gaming industry needs exactly what this film industry has; it is support from brands and all of those things.” That is why I left and started Tripleclix. The idea is that we built this agency to help brands to navigate the gaming space. Getting into the movie space for brands is pretty easy. Call the studio, and they commit so much above the line media for marketing, and then you roll. The challenge for brands is the movie might be good; it might not be good, and you probably have a two-week window of marketing…

And a viewer is likely only going to see a movie once or twice. Three times top.

Totally. So it is tougher for brands to judge, and see if that is a success. A lot of brands have 6-week programs. Taco Bell will run a 6-week campaign. Well that doesn’t really work in the movie industry, but it works in gaming. You don’t need to be there on a long stay for a video game. You can be early to promote it or you can be late. Kellogg’s just did an Overwatch program, and Overwatch launched 2 ½ years ago.

Meanwhile, engagements by traditional agencies with the gaming world have been rather muted. It’s been like, “How big is the gaming industry? I’m not sure what you guys want to do here.” And this is the biggest segment of the entire entertainment industry.

Yeah. That is literally exactly why I built my agency. I spent 10 years at EA running the Madden franchise, and the EA Sports brand. Before that I was at Wizards of the Coast running Pokémon. When I wanted to do collaborative partnership marketing, and lifestyle marketing I had to do it myself. There were no gaming agencies that I could go to who really understood the space. Then I left the gaming world, and I went to the movie industry…

There were agencies that developing creative, and working in gaming, but there was certainly no major marketing agency that understood the space or the consumer. Most gaming opportunities for brands would be pre-packaged esports sponsorships or media buys on Twitch. They wouldn’t dig as deep into the marketing as your Tripleclix team.

Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I think that most of the agencies want a piece of the gaming business, but the agencies are so big, and they have so much going on. I think that what gets everybody’s attention is esports.

You started Tripleclix in a bedroom in your home?

Yeah, and when I talked to Thomas about wanting to start my own thing, they (Legendary Entertainment) paid out my contract, and I started out in a spare bedroom in the house. We have twins who were 3 or 4 at the time.

Obviously, that’s a conversation first with your wife.

Oh yeah. “Hey, I’m going to quit this job, and start something new.” An amazing woman. She was supportive and knew that I had this passion, and hopefully we would build this out. If not, I could find another job with my resume. I wanted to roll the dice. I’m not an entrepreneur at heart, but I saw an opportunity, and I wanted to see what we could do in the space because it was something that I was passionate about.

While you had previously held managerial positions at corporate companies, you had backroom support systems as well. As the owner of Tripleclix, you faced small business responsibilities including hiring staff, doing payroll, planning budgets, and so on. Having a team of people that you are responsible for. All that is a significant challenge.

Yeah, I was trying to figure it all out. My wife knows finance well, and she set it up to do payroll and to do taxes. We have to pay tax in Washington because we have a client there. It is an educational process, but we are trying to scale this thing and get it as big, and as authentic that is manageable. It is a fun time, and I have been enjoying it. I get to stay home and see my kids more than I would with a corporate gig. So it’s a perfect time for us to spend a little more time with the family, but also to try something that I’ve never done before, I work probably 24/7. My kids get to go to video game conventions. They just turned 9. I asked where they wanted to have their birthdays, and they said my office. They just wanted junk food and video games which my office is packed with. So it has worked out for everybody.

Gaming is in the midst of a significant transition, moving away from what was once a somewhat singular experience to increasingly more social experiences. The next few years will be all about gamers playing what they want, when they want, on whatever devices they want. The industry will likely explode with the further advent of digital streaming and esports, and with the launch of 5G networks. Still, gaming sales and marketing will likely continue to be focused on engagement.

You promoted gaming engagement while at EA Sports by opening sports bars, gaming retail locations in airports as well as a gaming partnership with Carnival Cruise Lines.

I was doing Madden Nation before esports was the thing. We were doing the bus tours, taking kids around the country to competitively play Madden. We were doing collaborations with Nike with shoes before lifestyle and video games was a thing. So yes I’ve been blessed to be in this space at the right time, and have the marketing kind of excitement to be able to pull some of those programs together. With EA, it was about getting controllers in people’s hands. I always thought that Madden was a magazine subscription and, How do I get kids to re-up their magazine subscription? How do we show that the game is better? What’s new? “You and your friends are playing the new edition, and you are going to need this to move forward.” But it was about getting controllers in hands in economical ways. How do we license out?

We opened an EA Sports bar at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Vegas because the world goes through Vegas. We put it at the Cosmopolitan because there were something like 600,000 people that walked past the front door every day. So when you go to the EA Sports Bar there, you get sat by a hostess, and she gives you a menu of the games that are on TV or the games that you can play. So I am going to get you for an hour or two In Vegas, and on a cruise ship I’m going to get you for 7 days. What if the EA Sports Bar is the only place that you can watch the Super Bowl as well as play Tiger Woods PGA Tour at the bar? So I am going to get you for 7 days there. At an airport we will get you for 20 minutes. We will charge your mobile device. You can come in here, and play some games. So it is about connecting with consumers and getting the gaming in their hands. It is the same with Madden NFL. I and people like Jordan Edelstein, Tom Goedde, and Sandy Sandoval would pick the Madden cover athlete. Consumers then picked because this was right at the beginning of social taking off in 2009 or 2010. It was, “How do we let consumers pick the cover of Madden?” So we partnered with Doritos. Doritos, at the time, really wasn’t into video game promotion. They were like, “Why would we do a video game promotion?” I was in Dallas for two weeks convincing them that letting their consumers pick the cover of Madden could be a really big deal. Ten years later Doritos is really into gaming, and consumers think of them because of that.

You had a long run at Electronic Arts (2005-2013) including working at EA Sports. You worked under Todd Sitrin who was Group VP marketing, and later senior VP marketing at EA Sports in that period.

I worked under Todd Sirtin my entire career at EA, luckily. He’s a super good guy. I love everything about Todd. I spent almost 10 years under him. So I worked on Madden (NFL). When I took it over Jordan Edelstein was running that, and I worked for him on Madden 05. Then Jordan moved in the company, and Todd gave me the opportunity to run the Madden franchise.

You were young to be running the Madden franchise.

Todd said, “Don’t screw this up” which was a vote of confidence. I was very excited. We really did bump things up with Madden. I pretty well ran everything on Madden, but after 4 or 5 Maddens, that’s like 10 years on anything else. It was a very daunting responsibility. It was myself and a couple of people, and a cross-functional team. It was 24/7, 365. So (in 2010) when I was ready to bounce and go and find something new Todd said, “Just go and do whatever you did on Madden with all of the other brands.” He let me create a position (VP of brand marketing for EA Sports) to work and run. Partnership and lifestyle marketing crossed all of the franchises. So I got to work with the FIFA team, and Tiger Woods and Madden and built out the promotional programs that we were doing with Gillette, and Coke as well as trying to elevate the brand. Doing fun things you mentioned like the airports and bars, as well as those collaborations with Nike doing custom shoes which at the time wasn’t really a thing but is now really big in culture. It was fun being first in that space.

Esports, which is projected to post $1.1 billion in revenue in 2019, makes up less than 10% of the audience that watches video game streaming with roughly 12% of those viewers in North America. Esports may have a very bright future, but it is very much in its infancy.

Yeah, it’s really small, and the revenue is going to be a billion dollars next year. Yes, it’s in its infancy. Esports is amazing. It is really good for gamers. And it’s great for brands because we are just getting into the space. What gamers really appreciate is that the entire industry is built on micro transactions and helping gamers and such.

And subscriptions.

For sure. All that stuff is great because it makes the gaming experience better. I think that is the avenue for brands to come in, and help build that out. So when you are working with a video game that has micro transactions, having brands come in and take those micro transactions funded still with the studio, but give it to the consumers. So it’s for the betterment of games, right?

(A recent study by Dr. David Zendle from York St John University, co-authored by Dr Paul Cairns from the University of York, suggest that consumer spending within video games may create gambling type issues.)

Micro transactions in gaming are growing. Gamers, in general, are spending $4 per day on micro transactions. An intriguing evolution in gaming because the only previous financial outlay was the gaming console itself, and $60 to $80 for a game. That was it. There was no augmentation.

Yeah, and I see that as a huge opportunity for brands to be authentic in the space and to give gamers what they want when they are buying brands that they love. If you love Pringles (sold in more than 140 countries) how do you get rewarded for buying Pringles in the gaming space? It makes your gaming experience better because you are engaging with a brand that you love. We’ve done it with Chips Ahoy!, Pringles, and Cheez-its. Gamers already love and engage as they are buying the products and programs that they love they are being awarded with a gaming space.

A significant aspect of the esports space are the differences between esports athletes and content creators.

Esports athletes tend to be salaried and play for professional esports teams. They tend to focus on a single game that they are constantly practicing for competitions. Each team in the League of Legends Championship Series, for example, receives an amount of money to provide salaries and to help with operating expenses. In addition to basic compensation, teams and players can earn additional money by means of winning or placing in competitions.

(Professional esports athlete Ryan Hart from the UK,  one of the greatest multi-fighting game players to have ever competed, now holds 4 Guinness World Records with over 400 tournament wins globally. Hart has worked as a presenter, TV host, Esports commentator, and provides consultation for a variety of clients. In addition, Hart pioneered a sponsorship model that many young competitors follow.)

Content creators, like Ninja, and Dr. DisRespect, are entertainers and are focused on making entertaining content around the games they play. About 90% of the online streaming views currently come from people watching content creators.

Yeah, 100%. You speak to that well. Esports is about helping brands understand the difference between the esport athletes, the content creators as well as the games themselves, and where people’s attention is. I think that the best way for brands to engage with esports is, rather than sponsoring big spends of money, is doing something for the gamers, and then using esports as a mechanism to promote the programs that they are doing. If you are doing an Overwatch program, rather than just sponsoring a league is how do you reward them with content from that game, and then promote that from within the league? There are some great ways to tie the promotion that you do with the great megaphone that esports can be. Brands care about pulling stuff through retail, and putting more things in retail, and selling more products. So, from an agency perspective, our role is to help with selling and sell thorough for brands.

Watching others playing video games just makes sense.

You run into people all the time that say, “Why are people watching other people playing video games?” My answer is, “You have a basketball hoop in your backyard, and you are watching the NBA. Why aren’t you just playing basketball?” It is just a different age and a different group of people that are engaging in it. That’s the differences between an esports athlete and a content creator. With the athlete, you are trying to watch the best people do what you aspire to do. The content creators are just entertainers, and they are great at it.

Last year, Drake and Travis Scott made headlines when they broke Twitch’s viewing records by streaming Epic Games’ smash hit Battle Royale Fortnite alongside the celebrity gamer Ninja. Look at some of the recent viewing numbers that K-pop’s BTS, and American electronic music producer and DJ Marshmello are rolling up. 

And yeah those content creators have earned it. Those kids are making content that is entertaining and engaging and people are connecting with it. Content creators are very creative, and talented at bringing entertainment. Everybody can do what they do by playing a video game and streaming it, but to be able to bring in the audience you’ve got a special talent to be to create something that is engaging and entertaining which is great.

Why would Aaron Greenberg, general manager of Xbox Games Marketing, pick Tripleclix a small boutique specializing in the gaming space in its first year, to rethink the marketing strategy around Xbox’s titles when he had all of the major agencies out there to consider? Why you?

That is a great question for Aaron Greenberg.

You ran into him at a convention?

Yeah. Aaron is a great guy. I had just launched my agency, and I had a history of working with Xbox. I pitched Aaron on the idea of us building an agency, and about connecting brands with gamers. Aaron had just taken over games marketing lead there so he was willing to roll the dice on an agency. I had worked for Xbox for a while so we didn’t look like a random three-person agency.

The gaming industry is small compared to other entertainment sectors. As well, there’s a generation within it which has grown up with gaming, and it’s very much a relationship business.

Yes, it is definitely a relationship business. When I left EA after spending a decade there I still felt like I was still the new kid. Nancy Fong– EA’s 20th employee who has been there 36 years, and is currently the senior director, Global Workplace Experiences–who I love, she’s still at EA after I left a long time ago. She shot the original Madden NFL cover with John Madden breaking through the chalkboard. Nancy was at that shoot shooting the original Madden game, and she’s still at EA. It speaks to how great this space is, and how committed people are to living within the space.

Yes, it is definitely a small world, and there was the opportunity to connect with Aaron because both of us had been in the industry for a while. One of the other things is that there aren’t a ton of video game marketing agencies in the world. There are a lot of big agencies that want to get into gaming but we have always found that the advantage of Tripleclix is that our history is in the gaming space, and working with brands. You say the gaming space is a relationship space, but so is the brand space. I’ve worked with Gillette for years and years. We’ve been doing Kellogg’s things for a long time. I did a Doritos program 12 or 15 years ago now. So the relationships in the marketing world are really small. We treat everybody really well because you know that you are only going to have couple opportunities. There aren’t a thousand chip companies in the world; nor are there a thousand beverage companies. It’s a pretty small world.

One of the great things coming in 2020 will be Xbox’s new console, currently codenamed Scarlett.

I believe so. I know literally nothing about it. That’s a great question for Xbox, but every time that they have launched something, it’s been spectacular. I’m pretty excited about what they are going to bring to market.

Is E3 where the big game rollouts are annually announced?

The big moment is E3. You get all of the big announcements there. Gamescom (in Germany) is a physically a bigger event, but it’s a consumer-centric event. And there’s PAX West in Seattle, that just happened, which is again a consumer event. that scales everything from board games to consoles which is great.

A campaign is successful if…..

The only way programs work is that everybody wins. If the studio sells more games. If the consumers are excited about the program and get value. if the brand is seeing a lift, whether it’s in sales or in purchase intent. So yeah, all of the programs that we work on everybody sort of wins. It is always consumer first, and making sure that the gamers win, but how do the studios, and how do the brands win as well?

While a gaming campaign may center on offering an authentic experience it may also be about revealing exclusive content, say for Gears of War, or even awareness in the case of, say Cuphead, the run and gun video game. Most every game has a distinguishing characteristic.

Yeah, that’s definitely true. It’s the same as for movies. The studios are going to spend a ton of money explaining the differences in movies and trying to get you to watch the trailers. The fun thing about our space is that when we launch a game or when we announce a game people are dying to find out more about it. People want to watch the trailers. The big movies everybody will watch the trailers, but it’s really the small movies that they really need to work to get people to find out about and build that awareness out. It’s similar to our space, but with big social (media footprint) and with the way the community is built, you do one big thing within our space, and all of sudden your game is elevated significantly. Then the brands can come in and build programs around that and it really feels like something. “If Kellogg’s is getting involved then this is going to be a big one.” Having the brand engaged with the game helps elevate the conversation from a big game to it being a cultural moment.

At the same time the challenge remains to keep the messaging authentic.

Yeah, totally. So if a brand is going to get involved how do we get involved so it makes an experience? If we are going to ask a gamer to do something then they are going to get a reward for that behavior. How do we make sure that that we are taking care of the people we are asking to do something is critical to all of the things that we do? Gamers first is always the thing that we think about.

At the same time, gamers, as well as the public in general, are being pounded by advertising, and social media messaging. So if you are sending out a message, you have to cut through the clutter, and cut through the “Well that didn’t suck” syndrome.

Yeah, totally. That’s important. If I send someone 10 messages a day, most of them may not resonate because people have 10,000 other marketing touchpoints during the day. So (with gamers) it’s about engaging in the space that they love, and talking to the right people, and making sure that the message is actionable, and exciting for them as well. That’s why I think being on a package at retail is one of the bigger opportunities to have communication with the consumers. Getting on Pringles cans or Cheez-its boxes is a huge billboard of messaging. It is a non-traditional way to break through to consumers. Obviously, movies have been doing it forever, and our space is trying to be far more active in that space engaging with consumers. When I ran EA Sports there was a lot of blocking and tackling of all of the traditional things that we did. Breaking out of that traditional mode is a little bit of icing on the cake. When I was running Madden it was nice to have “the need to have” and we are seeing engagement of brands being less “nice to have” and more of a “need right now” to make sure that your message is touching all four quadrants of the audience.

Everybody is focusing on social media and things like Twitch. Meanwhile, traditional media still doesn’t know what to make of gaming.

Yeah. It’s an interesting point. I think that finding the gamers for some people is getting harder and harder but for some people it’s getting easier and easier because we know the places that they are living.

The build-up for the launch of Gears 5– developed by Vancouver-based The Coalition–has been massive. Gears 5 (no War this time in the title) launches this week (Sept. 10th, 2019). Once more you’ve partnered with Rockstar Energy and added new programs with Chips Ahoy!, Cheez-its, and Pringles.

Tripleclix broke gaming marketing ground on Gears of War 4 with the hip hop duo Run the Jewels and Rockstar Energy collaborations. Rather than just reaching out to Run the Jewels and licensing one of their tracks for Gears of War 4 or placing an ad, Killer Mike and El-P were playable characters, and a trailer for the game previewed an exclusive track “Panther Like A Panther” by Run the Jewels. Those types of things are fun to do.

Yeah, it is the fun stuff that engages the consumer. So you are exactly right. Using those IPs in those games, and associating the right brands with them, and giving that content for the consumers promises that our programs don’t end up on Reddit because we are going to make the consumers happy. We are going to do things that are engaging, and that adds value to the experience because to me gaming is the greatest form of entertainment in the world. So how do we help the studios, help the publishers, help the brands make this space better?

An interesting aspect of gaming is that once a game is successful it breeds a franchise. Madden NFL is a $3 billion dollar franchise for EA Sports. While there are film franchises most feature films are new and live and die over a two-week window. With gaming, consumer traction of a single game may lead to a franchise because gamers want to keep playing the newer versions.

I agree and a lot of credit (with Madden NFL) obviously goes to the NFL. They are the ones that built that brand, and I’m sure that it’s a decent-sized check that goes to the NFL to be able to play within that space. So yeah, that game is a natural. The exciting thing is it that it is sort of the lean forward versus the lean back in the entertainment space. People watch movies, but people play games.

You can watch a film and respond emotionally to it at the time, and three days later you may forget the experience. Gaming is an innately deeper level of engagement. Gaming is personal and is potentially providing long-lasting relationships. Spend 700 to 800 hours playing a game, you are emotionally connected to that game.

Yeah. Exactly. That is why consumers love their games so much and why they are so protective of them. If I am a huge Star Wars fan I will watch the new movie two or three times. I will buy it on DVD and I will have my kids watch it two or three more times. So we will spend 12 to 14 hours watching Star Wars but when Gears 5 comes out I will spend 500 to 600 hours deep in that world.

The same thing with being in the Halo universe.

The same thing for Halo for sure. Halo is an iconic franchise. That is one of the reasons why I love gaming so much. When IPs and brands come out, and you get super deep into them then it gets super personal. The important thing for brands to realize is that you can do a quick Star Wars’ promotion, and it might not land, but you need to land your promotions in video games or consumers are going to call you out. You need to be more thoughtful in our space because gamers are so protective of the brands and the world. And we need to do things to respect the worlds that they have built, and how much those people do live in that world.

To bring a game to market is daunting. Firstly, the field is highly competitive and the costs involved are sizeable. From salaries for the development—programmers, sound designers, graphics and animation teams as well as acquiring software, data, Intellectual property, and character rights. It can take years to bring to market. It can be put up on the Unreal Engine (a suite of integrated tools for game developers to design and build games, simulations, and visualizations), but then the game may fly or die in less than a few months.

Yeah but you see far more bad movies than you see bad games.

Why is that?

I don’t make video games. I just market them. Personal opinion is that I think that it’s about art. Movies are more art, and you are bringing something together over a quick period of time with a whole bunch of voices. With video games. there are far more people involved, but it’s a far more shared vision, and you can play as you are building the game out. You can see where the challenges are, and where the upside is. Look at Grand Theft Auto. It is one of the top-selling games, and they (the designers and publishers) spent a lot of time making them, and they are going to spend six, 7 or 8 more years to make the next one. So it’s a commitment to time. It’s a commitment to quality. There is a shared path. When something is a challenge the studios can find a way to address the things that they need to address. Games are a service, and you can always add to them, and you can build them bigger. So it’s a little more challenging than the film space where you have a couple of people that have a vision, and you hope that you are taking the vision the right way. (Writer/director) Christopher Nolan is a magician bringing his vision to life. You need to have that captain of the ship there. There are people who build IPs in the gaming world, but there is definitely a shared vision.

At what point do you want to be involved with a brand and game studio in for marketing?

It’s in phases when we work brands. Brands have a really long buildup. We are working with brands right now (on projects)  that are 12 to 14 months out. We are working with brands for what are they doing for holiday 2020 right now. We are bringing to retail programs right now that we have been working on for 9 to 12 months. So it’s a bit of a cycle; but unlike film, with the gaming studios, it takes a while to make the games so you can get involved in the process much earlier which makes it great. I think that is part of the reason why brands can engage with it. We don’t know the games that are going to ship in 2022, right? But the film industry sure knows what the films are going to be. I can give you Disney’s slate for the next four years. They (film studios) are definitely planned out a little bit more. When we step into a game we know what the Triple-A titles are going to be, and we try to get involved as early as possible, but it doesn’t need to be two or three years out. We try to stay on the brand’s schedules and their windows. When do Kellogg’s or Mondelez have timing in their windows, and how do we build programs that fit into those windows?

So instead of chasing down game studios in order to then secure a brand, you are more inclined to work with brands and then find a game that would work with their product? That’s a reversal of the traditional silo of seeking out a brand leading up to game launch.

Yeah, I think that is a great analogy. We do a little bit of both. We work with the studios and figure out the games, but the opportunity for growth for our agency was that I started it to be a voice for brands in the gaming space. Kellogg’s is a client of ours. Mondelez is a client of ours. We work with fun brands. A good example of a brand is Hollister which is one of the top brands for Gen Z. How do we bring gaming to the Hollister space so that they can have authentic conversations with Gen Zers who love the space? Also, we try to connect with brands and then help bring them properties, and games that will help them with what they are trying to achieve; whether it’s communication with the right generation that they or selling or selling through. Or figuring out what kind of marketing plans that feel traditionally authentic to the space, which is really important. Everybody uses that word (authentic) but this space truly needs to be something that is rewarding the gamers and helping them understand why this brand is there.

Last year, Taco Bell had a campaign in which limited edition Xbox One X consoles were rewarded every 10 minutes (between October 18th and November 21st, 2018) by purchasing a double chalupa box. Winners received their consoles 72 hours after winning. The console included Taco Bell’s famous ‘ring’ when powered on.

Great fun.

Yeah, Taco Bell has been in this space for a long time and really understand consumers and how authentic Taco Bell is to their consumers. If you are going to do something at Taco Bell, Will Bortz and the people running these programs really understand their audience, and build programs specifically for them; and how do they find the right brand to engage with their consumers. Will has been great with the fun things that we have done at Xbox. It’s a good example of a brand that really understands not only their own consumers but the space as well.

You’ve have had a long and successful association Gillette.

Yeah, we are helping Gillette. Gillette has a bit of history in video games. We have done some fun things with them with EA Sports over the years. They are very authentic to sports. Gillette, in connection with consumers, is a very interesting play. How do we connect with that audience in sports and gaming and have that conversation?

It should be noted that Tripleclix doesn’t tap into a game’s development or marketing budget. By working with brands, you are using other people’s money.

Yeah, the way this space works is collaborative marketing. So how do we find a game that is looking for marketing support, and find a brand that wants to have an IP and work together. Then work together collaboratively, and bring relationships together.

Partnership marketing.

That gets back to that there’s a ton of blocking and tackling that needs to be done in the marketing spectrum, but this is the added value of the programs that work well together. Partnership marketing has always been nice to have but with all of the things that are happening in the world it’s tough to connect with certain age groups, and social media is a tough place to swim in some times.

It’s about positioning a “need to have” strategy in a much bigger and broader way.

In the film industry, if you want “Avengers” to be a global phenomenon then you are going to line up with the brands that are going to help share that messaging, and take that messaging to market. It’s the same for the gaming space. If this is going to be a cultural iconic IP, then you need the kind of brands that are going to help you develop the conversation.

How did you come to be born in Waverly, New York, and be raised in Seattle, Washington?

So I went from Waverly to Africa to Seattle. I lived in Algeria for almost three years. My mom and dad were then very young and they got the chance to travel the world. My mom taught chemistry, and my dad taught electrical engineering

How old were you when your family left Waverly to live in Algiers, Algeria?

I landed in Seattle in third grade. So I was 4 to 6 in Algeria. For sure I have some memories from living there. But we got out of there, and we landed in Seattle. My mom was one of a few employees at a company called Immunex. She spent her entire career as an executive there. It was a great biotech company. My dad was an electrical engineer, and he opened a bookstore called Waverly Books. So I grew up in Seattle and stayed for college at the University of Washington, graduated with a B.A. in business administration, and…..

You also then worked at GameWorks in Seattle.

Yeah, GameWorks sort of through college.

Was Pat Barth there then?

Pat Barth was my boss. He was amazing. I learned a ton from Pat Barth. I looked up to him quite a bit. When we launched the first GameWorks in Seattle, I reported to Pat who taught me everything about details and making sure that everything mattered. Pat was an amazing mentor. He was everything. He was consumer first. He was taking care of goods. He was making sure that if you walked the floor and you saw something on the ground pick it up. He was a stickler about making sure that the consumer is being taken care of then the experience is great. He was a great early mentor for me.

You then worked at Wizards of the Coast from 2000-05 running the Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons portfolios. You still work with Wizards of the Coast.

I do. I got 6 years there (as senior brand manager) running Dungeons & Dragon, and Pokémon too.

Didn’t you also oversee NeoPets Trading Cards and the Star Wars Trading Card Game?

Yeah, I literally launched the first Neopets game when I was there. I spent a long time working on that before it launched. Yeah, I ran the Star Wars Trading Card game and the RoboRally game which is a lot of fun.

Pokémon remains eternally popular.

I have 9-year-old twin boys. I love Pokémon, and my kids are loving Pokémon. I’m glad that my kids are engaging in such a fun brand.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.

He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

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