Editor's note: The [a]list daily went behind the scenes at the Ubisoft booth at E3 to sit down with senior vice president of sales and marketing, Tony Key. In our two-part interview, Key discusses how Ubisoft is approaching a very busy holiday season with new IP, new consoles and some high profile sequels on the horizon. Read part one here.
[a]list daily: You mentioned how the NSA scandal broke and it really tied into the theme of Watch_Dogs. Do you change your marketing when a current event happens that ties into your game?
Tony Key: Absolutely. At one point in Watch_Dogs, Aidan taps into the surveillance system of an apartment building and he's looking at what everyone is doing. We had a screen shot of this guy sitting in his apartment with a department store female mannequin sitting with him and he's talking to it. When the PRISM story broke on Wednesday, we had that screen shot out on Friday on social media and said 'You never know who's watching.' We were able to react very quickly, and that's what social media brings. You're not going to run that on television, you couldn't even get it on the air. That's the beauty of the speed of information now – if we're good we can react almost instantly and get something out there. The bigger the community that exists, the faster you can penetrate more people with that message.
Marketing used to be about managing the message. It's evolved a lot. I've been at Ubisoft for eleven years, and I've never seen as much change in how we market things than I have in just the last twelve months. I think we've changed more in the last two years than we have in the ten before. What works and what doesn't work is really evolving quickly.
[a]list daily: Do you think marketing will continue to evolve rapidly over the next few years, or is it reaching some new stability?
Tony Key: You don't know what's going to be big; what's the next Instagram or Tumblr or Facebook? How can I use them effectively? You just don't know what the next 19-year-old college dropout is creating in his garage right now that could change the world in the digital space. I have to be open-minded and aware enough to find that and figure out how to use it to reach people, if that's their preferred method of communication. I don't understand how that could suddenly stop. I just think the pace of innovation is speeding up. As soon as you get comfortable with something, somebody busts it out in a disruptive way and makes you rethink all your assumptions. Some of these things like Facebook and YouTube, I don't see them becoming any less effective in the foreseeable future. I think we're constantly going to be adding new tools to our arsenal as we go. It's making our jobs a bit harder because we can't rely on last year's marketing plan as a template.
What I really like about it is that it's forcing us as marketers to be just as innovative as the guys making the games. We look for very, very creative and savvy people in marketing who don't necessarily have to have the traditional training we may have been looking for five years ago or ten years ago.
[a]list daily: With new business models like free-to-play, doesn't marketing need to be involved early on because the best games have monetization well integrated with the design?
Tony Key: It's part of the product. There will be a lot of people that will swing all the way and say that's the future of marketing. I don't think that branding is going to go away, but I do think it's becoming more and more apparent that integrated marketing that's part of the product is a really strong way to engage and acquire customers. It's a skill set that's still blooming out in the marketplace – customer acquisition and utilizing all the tools at your disposal to do that. We're constantly looking for people who are good at that.
There's a lot of game designers who are even good at that. When you're in that mode of acquiring customers inside the game, or monetizing customers inside the game, the guys that are best at that are the game designers who are good at marketing. It's becoming sort of a hybrid position. From a branding perspective, you still need that too, especially with new products. Until Watch_Dogs is a free-to-play product, we have to get people feeling confident that they're making a good investment up front.
[a]list daily: Is this changing how you're structuring your department?
Tony Key: We're integrating much earlier with production on games. We discuss monetization strategies, we talk about the best way to do branding, we talk about the best way to launch the games - we do all that probably a year earlier than we used to. In the marketing group we've been hiring people to supplement what we already do who have skill sets we didn't have before. All of our brand managers have to understand the acquisition side of the equation, because you're doing both now. Our digital marketing team is two times bigger than it was two years ago, probably four times bigger than it was four years ago, and it's still growing. We have had to evolve our structure and how we're organized. I think that's true of all the big game companies.
It's pretty rare that somebody can come out nowhere without at least a couple of decent hooks to build on, even if the game is good. You can't phone it in. The better educated consumers are what we have to address as marketers. There have been studies around this – how many pieces of research somebody does before they buy something. What we saw is that video games are at the top of almost every product. The only thing higher than video games in the recent study I saw was cars. People would do something like 20 pieces of research before they bought a video game. People research everything now because the information is available. For us as marketers and as a game company we have to make sure we're providing value, because we can't put something mediocre in a box and expect it to sell any more.
[a]list daily: There are so many other ways to spend your time, people feel like they're making a commitment of time as well as money, and the game needs to be worthy of that, doesn't it?
Tony Key: We're competing for their time as much as anything now. It has to be a rewarding experience. It has to provide the value. The blockbuster games will continue to be a game that people are willing to pay for because the value is there. As a publisher, our challenge is to be providing that value.
[a]list daily: Changing topics: Are collector's editions a profit center or a marketing tool? It seems that to be considered a AAA title you have to have a collector's edition.
Tony Key: When you're creating a limited edition you're doing it because you know there's some segment of the consumer base that actually loves to collect and get more stuff. So you provide stuff they can't get anywhere else. Outside of that equation, as a publisher your goal is to at least not lose some of your margin by doing that. If you're lucky, maybe get a little bit more. It's our experience at Ubisoft that we have not made a killing on margin on collector's editions. It's something we do for the superfans. It does create good PR, so it sees some value there that justifies some of the effort.
It's a lot of effort to create these things. There has to be a financial bonus to put in all that effort. We have to feel like we're going to get good PR, we have to feel that we're going to sell all the ones we make, that we're making enough money to justify its existence. I've had experiences at Ubisoft in both directions, where we've actually made less on collector's editions because things turned out to be more costly than we expected, or we had to rush shipments from China. I've had situations where I made more on a limited edition because I got lucky and I was able to get really good pricing on something. I've had situations where I got way more PR than I thought I would. They're all so unique there's no blanket answer.
[a]list daily: Is there going to be a special edition of Watch_Dogs?
Tony Key: Yes, there will be. There's your exclusive news!