In the seemingly never-ending quest to help clients move beyond banner ads and informational Web sites, interactive shops are beefing up their ability to assist brands in developing their own online games.
Tribal DDB, Organic, R/GA and other Web shops say gaming is a way to deliver more immersive brand experiences, rather than rely on one-way messaging through outbound advertising.
In the past year, Tribal DDB has created online games for clients like McDonald's, Philips and Volkswagen. Now, the Omnicom interactive shop is taking the expertise it has developed to create a specialized unit out of its Dallas office.
"Gaming is one of the new tips of the spear for successful marketing, and it really demands expertise because it is a complicated environment," said Christian Dietrich, head of the Tribal DDB gaming unit. The gaming group of about 20 is about to kick off a video game campaign for Philips tied to this summer's World Cup. The Web game lets the user go from kicking goals on the street to playing for a local club to taking the field in the World Cup.
Dietrich and other agency executives say that while gaming is not the silver bullet of engagement, it is a viable tool for reaching an audience that stretches far beyond teens wired on Mountain Dew (though it's good for reaching them, too). A study released last week by the Consumer Electronics Association found that in the 25-34 demographic, women played video games more than men. Overall, the average age of video gamers is 30. Still, gaming resonates most with the young: A Pew Internet & American Life Project survey last year reported that 81 percent of Web-connected teens played online games.
For that reason, Tribal DDB clients like Mountain Dew and McDonald's see it as critical to reaching young consumers less likely to be passively watching TV, according to Dietrich. Tribal DDB created an entire games channel on the Mountain Dew Web site, in addition to other initiatives, to weave the drink into the gaming culture. "Brands are just now learning how to leverage gaming the way for years they've been leveraging sports and music," said Jason Katz, account director at Tribal DDB.
The willingness of consumers to interact with games has led Web agencies to evolve their view of advergames from amusing diversions to potent marketing vehicles that can generate leads and provide quantifiable returns on brand metrics, according to agency executives.
R/GA created a 3-D advergame in November to introduce Subaru's 2006 Impreza. The Interpublic Group agency presented the Impreza Shakedown racing game to the client as an alternative to a traditional ad approach centered on mass media advertising, according to R/GA executives. Instead, the game promotes Subaru by introducing users to the brand by having them pick an Impreza model and configure it. The game included a direct marketing component by collecting leads for test drives, which Subaru was able to tie back to sales.
The Impreza game worked because it sprang from the brief, rather than being retrofitted to the campaign, said Kip Voytek, vp of interaction design at R/GA. "It's a game that was on-brand and on-target for the audience," he said. "There are a lot of places where games are being done that don't make sense." One such instance he points to: the Sith Sense 20 questions game developed for Burger King's tie-in with the Star Wars franchise last May. Voytek praises the clever execution, but doesn't see the connection with the brand at all.
The need to integrate the gaming experience with the brand has made car advertisers early adopters of online gaming, since racing games are natural fits. Chrysler, for example, has created 40 games for its brands.
But even those interactive agencies most devoted to the practice are in many cases letting specialist shops like Fuel Industries and WildTangent do the heavy lifting. A highly tech-savvy agency such as R/GA will outsource work for some campaigns to specialists, like it did for parts of a Nike Gridiron game, depending on the turnaround and skills needed for the project.
"I'm not sure how you benefit more than by using a company that has a set development team and a process," said Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer at Organic, which has done the strategy and creative development for several Chrysler games. "It makes about as much sense as keeping [director of photography] and director on staff at an agency."
Fuel has worked with shops like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, OgilvyInteractive and Atmosphere BBDO, as well as directly with clients such as Best Buy and Fox. With console games now getting blockbuster movie-type budgets, the bar is higher for advergames, said Mike Burns, CEO of Fuel. A solid immersive game needs a budget of up to $300,000, he said, and gaming expertise beyond the purview of Flash designers. For agencies, "it's not developing the actual competency of execution," said Sean MacPhedran, creative marketing strategist at Fuel. "It's about building that understanding of the gaming environment."
That's the approach taken by Tribal DDB. While it has a dozen video game programmers on staff to build games like the Philips soccer game, the gaming unit's brief is broader. Instead, it seeks to tap into gaming in its many variations as a "lifestyle and subculture," according to Dietrich. In addition to advergames, Tribal DDB will link with game publishers, console makers, industry trade shows and other parts of the gaming ecosystem, acting as a lookout for clients to integrate in a useful way, he said.
That echoes the role Brandon Berger plays at OgilvyInteractive, where he is senior strategist in the digital innovation group and in-house gaming guru. Sitting at the junction of media and creative, he pursues everything from advergames to possible tie-ins with console games. "It's about having the expertise and relationships," Berger said. "It allows us access to do anything in the gaming space."