Terry Crews Launches Virtual Production Studio Amen & Amen

When Los Angeles halted in-person film and TV production last year, actor and entrepreneur Terry Crews took on a role he’d never played before: nurse. Going into what he calls “battle mode,” he spent the better part of lockdown caring for his wife Rebecca King through her breast cancer diagnosis and a double mastectomy. To make a challenging situation more difficult, he faced an all-out attack from the internet over his tweets regarding the Black Lives Matter protests.

Out of the darkness of 2020, Crews created a state-of-the-art launchpad for the next generation of storytellers, named Amen & Amen.’ His new virtual production studio is set to open in Pasadena, California in late July. Equipped with furniture designed by Crews and cutting-edge technology that accelerates the filmmaking process, the small, pandemic-proof space will play a big part in Hollywood’s messy recovery and beyond. 

So what does the pec pop king and father of five know about building a virtual production studio? At first, Crews admits, not a whole lot. But after propelling Old Spice into the fan culture stratosphere, immortalizing Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” illustrating a children’s book, writing two books (most recently, a memoir with his wife, Stronger Together), and leading a prolific acting career without formal training, no order is too tall. Ahead of the feverishly awaited eighth and final season of his sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, airing on August 12, we spoke to Crews about his latest venture.

Click here for a tour of Amen & Amen with Terry Crews and David Rielly, group creative director of a.network’s space.camp.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Nina: I saw on your Instagram that you rang in 2020 in Shanghai. You come home and shortly after, quarantine and Black Lives Matter protests are underway. Where’s your mind at?

Terry: When the George Floyd incident happened, I actually went on CNN and was asked to speak because of an Instagram post I put out that basically said I could be George Floyd. I have experienced very, very violent racism in my life. I don’t know too many people who have had four police officers point their guns at their head at a traffic stop, and that was me. This was back in 1982 when I was on the Rams. And then once the country was tending to get very, what I would call “segregated,” I saw the need for all of us to work this thing out together. 

About a week later, I put out a tweet that said, “Defeating White supremacy without White people creates Black supremacy. Equality is the truth. Like it or not, we are all in this together.” My issue was the fact that everyone needs to be involved, be it white, Asian, Hispanic, every nationality, every gender needs to be included. And I wanted to be very, very succinct in what I said. But it really blew up all over and it caused a huge backlash on the internet. But I stood firm and I followed that up by saying it doesn’t matter what race, what color, creed or denomination, I’m going to stand with good people, no matter what. We need to include everyone at this table because what we had and what we still have is an amazing opportunity for all of us to really see each other.

What did a typical day in quarantine look like for you?

This quarantine was especially difficult because my wife was recovering from a double mastectomy right before the world shut down. My wife was diagnosed in early February with stage one breast cancer, and it took us for a loop. She took this like a warrior and she attacked and she said, you know what? I’m going to go in and get my treatment and let’s make this happen right away. so we scheduled a double mastectomy. And it was a miracle because that was right before everything started to fall and everything started to shut down. She came out of the hospital probably a week before they called all of the quarantine actions in L.A.

So I was taking care of my wife during this whole time. We had no caregivers in the house. We had no housekeepers. We had no one even coming through. I was her nurse for roughly five months straight, on top of all of these things happening in the world. So it was a really tough, tough first five months of the quarantine.

I decided, OK, I’m going to go into what I would call battle mode. I had to be strong for my family. But one great idea that came out of the pandemic was my virtual studio. I decided that I was going to build one of Los Angeles’ best, most incredible virtual production studios that it’s ever seen. This is what I was consumed with during the entire pandemic. I mean, every day I would go down there and work on and find out what else we needed.

When did you first have the idea to create Amen & Amen?

The first time I got the idea was back in May last year. We had to come back and do judge cuts for America’s Got Talent and we were the first production to go back to work in the middle of a pandemic. I saw the technology of this AR (augmented reality) wall. It was this small, pitch LED wall technology that we used to create virtual environments for the acts. And I went… “Oh my God.” When I saw it, I went, oh, this is the future and I need to be a part of this.

We decided that small was going to be the new big because the thing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is my sitcom, is that we could not go back to production simply because there were 400 people in the crew and cast all working in close proximity.

What was your vision for Amen & Amen?

One thing about Hollywood is that most of these studios are filthy because they’ve been there for 100 years. But I thought, OK, we’re going to do this small and clean. I was actually looking for a gym because I was going to make my own little gym. I found this beautiful place on Maple Street in Old Town [Pasadena, CA] that used to be a stable for the firehouse, which is now a studio next door. And it was open. I couldn’t believe it. We grabbed it.

We redid it from the inside out. And I mean everything. We redid the bathrooms and I had these special, Neorest toilets, which I call the Lamborghini of toilets, put in. We redid the air conditioning with a UV system that cleans the air. We insulated the place; we have a handheld mobile UV light that they use in hospitals that would disinfect all of the equipment every night; we have a handheld UV light that you can run over all the keyboards and anything that’s touched by human hands would be clean. We had ‘Purell’ stations put in, and it has a little outdoor area with seating. So only the people who are necessary could be inside.

We put in outdoor professional steaming units that steam all of the doorknobs, I mean, we went in. You’re going to be safe when you come through our doors because I’m liable for the safety of my employees, the safety of my family and any client that will come through there.

I think small is the new big because this virtual wall creates any environment you want.

Tell us more about the virtual wall.

What we found using Unreal Engine is that you can actually digitally create the foreground, and this is one thing they did on AGT (America’s Got Talent). Unreal has created all of these wonderful virtual environments that they were giving away for free. And we were like, what?! It’s groundbreaking.

One thing we decided to do was go all in because once I saw this, I said, wait a minute. The vision was to create a full-fledged movie. You wouldn’t even have to do the turnarounds. What you do is turn the background around, not the actor. It was so sick because all you would need is a 3D play of any environment and you could be anywhere and no one would know the difference, which was so scary. We got the best, best pitch LED wall we could afford. The wall we have is at 1.2 [pixel] pitch.

We were like, “OK, we’re going to need one wall.” And then we found out we would do better to get a dog-leg, so we have a 20-foot wall by a 15-foot wall. This creates the environment fully so you’d be able to get lighting. It gets people’s faces off the other wall while you’re in the background. It was really, really difficult at first because the whole time I was like, this might all be a mistake. But, to me, it’s worth it. I said, “if we do this right, if we just make our mistakes quickly, we’ll be able to adjust on the fly.

What style were you going for design-wise?

I’ve always been a big fan of Milk Studios, the one down in LA… because it’s so classy, oh, it’s a beautiful place. Like if you got a photoshoot at Milk, you know it’s ‘the big time.’ I wanted the studio to compare with Milk. So we put walnut on the walls at Amen & Amen. We upgraded every detail of the studio. We changed all of the lighting and made it really clean and beautiful.

We’re still working on it every day. There are always little things we’re adding. We added bookcases. We basically outfitted the whole place with the furniture that I’ve designed—my new armchairs, my sofas, my benches, my tables. We wanted it to feel like you would never want to leave. It feels a little bit like Melrose Place, but it’s in Pasadena, you know what I mean? And we love Pasadena.

Who do you hope to work with and what do you hope to work on at Amen & Amen?

Well, first of all, I plan on doing a full film that I wrote there. This is the ultimate goal—to show people, “Wow… you can do this from beginning to end.” We’ve had so many people who’ve come and vetted it. I’ve had the head of Disney, Paul Briggs, who directed Raya, come through and give us all kinds of advice on the workflow that they do at Disney. He recommended this technology called Bluescape which is basically like Pinterest for projects, so we put up two giant touch screen monitors adjacent to the wall. I was just so thankful.

Then I brought in the AGT guys that create all these wonderful video packages for all the acts. They helped us decide what camera system would work best with the wall so we got a RED KOMODO because it has a global shutter so it captures everything on the wall perfectly.

And I had the DP from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, my man Rick Page, come down and he was like, “Terry, do you know what you can do in this thing?” And I was like tell me, tell me!

We also hooked up with Stargate [Studios], which is in South Pasadena. Sam Nicholson, a leader in virtual production, came by and audited our studio. He’s been pivotal in coming through and helping us build this studio. Right now we’re about to get all our volumetric lighting, which is lighting that attaches to the ceiling that changes color to the background. So let’s say you’re in the desert and it’s a hot day, that same sun will play against the volumetric lighting in that color, which will be indistinguishable from you being in the real place. It’s unreal.

A company called AR Wall came in and created the tracking system. They have proprietary software that allows the camera to move perspectives inside of every environment. So when the camera moves, it looks like it’s there. I mean, the background moves. And you just go, “oh, my God, you would never know.”

I never ever thought, I know what I’m doing. We don’t even know, even now, the capabilities of what this could be. But we’re finding out day by day because the technology is changing so fast every day, and we’re ready. 

What role do you hope Amen & Amen plays in fostering the next generation of artists?

Artists have the hardest time owning their own ideas. If you write a novel, you can own it when you sell it. But if you write a script, you don’t. I’ve been on sets where the writer has never been invited to watch, which I think is a shame.

A lot of times it’s their vision but Hollywood has a way of taking things and yanking them from people and it’s lost forever. I’m not saying people are evil, but what I’m saying is that when you’re viciously competing, things get really, really weird. And artists don’t want to be a part of that. They just love to create.

Here in Amen & Amen, with this technology, people can create their own intellectual property from start to finish, at least in some sort of iteration. Let’s say you have a graphic novel. You can do it stylized. You can actually do a film.

This is going to be my big test when I start. In the fall, I plan on doing this movie I wrote in the studio to show people it can be done from the beginning to the end and you can create your own IPs, own your IPs, and if someone wants to expand it or take it, make it bigger—that’s up to you, not up to them.

You’ve played an array of characters — from Latrell Spencer in White Chicks and President Camacho in Idiocracy, to Hale Caesar in The Expendables and Terry Jeffords in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Is there anything that unites these disparate roles?

Yes. One reason why I think I’ve been able to last is that they’re all a version of me. They’re all Terry Crews. Remember, I never went to acting school and I didn’t start acting until I was 30 years old. So everything I had was just me to go off of. It may not be the studied way, but it was the way I knew to do it because I said, man, I just have to be myself. When you are yourself, the characters become alive. The truth is when you’re acting, it doesn’t really work. It looks a little “ehh.” But every character you see is really, really talking out of their own experience.

I heard that Amen & Amen created puppets based on your previous film and TV characters. Tell us about them.

I got a lot of backlash for things I said and people got really, really mean on the internet. So I created this puppet who basically represents every troll. He hates Terry Crews. He really dogs me out. All those mean tweets or mean things that people say, he’ll say to me, but he’s me. And we call him Lil Terry.

Then I created AGT Terry, who I call AG Terry. He’s my angel. He’s like, you’re the best. I love you. He cheers me on. Then I have President Camacho who deals with political things. And then I have Julius Terry from Everyone Hates Chris who kind of deals with financial stuff, like saving money. I have another puppet of my wife, who is much cuter, and there’s a puppet of my son.

We got together with a brilliant company that created these puppets that really look scary… like you touch them and it’s got skin. It’s not a Muppet. He’s like a really distorted version of me. We’re going to do a reality show with the puppets that we could do at the house. 

And actually, I really want my puppet to have his own branding deal. There are a lot of things that people may not see Terry Crews right to represent, but that the puppet Lil Terry could be perfect for. There’s some product, something somewhere, that may not be me, but the puppet Terry could work in any kind of advertising situation.

My whole philosophy has always been go ahead and try it. If you can do it, do it and see what happens. You know what’s funny? People do not remember my failures. And there were plenty of things I did that sucked, and no one ever comes up to me about those. They come up to me about things that they love. The same goes for building a studio — we’re just going. It’s totally for experimentation and freedom. I don’t need to make money. I have other things for that. This whole thing is just to try stuff. The funny thing is that you end up making money when you do that.

It feels like whoever follows you on your social channels gets to experience the genuine Terry Crews. What community or brand-building tips do you have for creators and brands, perhaps even for your son and rising star Isaiah Crews?

My biggest piece of advice is to team up. I like to share. Terry Crews by himself? Ehh. But me in an ensemble—wonderful. I’ve always done better working with other people. All the way down to a 30-second TikTok. I teamed up with Michael Le and his little brother Jonathan, and we did a TikTok that went so viral. It’s almost at 100 million views.

The team up is everything. Like when Supreme does a new backpack with another company, you know what I mean? I’ll never forget when Dior did the Air Jordan shoe.

That’s me. I want people to go, oh, man, he would be great with so and so. And I have to say this, too, because I worked with Ayzenberg on my Crackdown 3 deal and it was so great. Right now, Dave Batista is trying to do Gears of War and he’s always brought me up. I told him I would love to do this with you. So I’m putting that energy out in the universe. Because my thing is you’re much, much stronger when you team up. And that’s the title of my wife and I, our book, Stronger Together.

Do you have a dream brand partner?

Old Spice was iconic. You can’t really beat it. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even think that relationship will ever be surpassed. You can get as good but Old Spice, man, those guys, it was incredible. I also did a Nike campaign before the Old Spice stuff. I would love to regroup with Nike or another fitness brand like Adidas. I said this to David [Rielly]—I don’t mind selling. Terry Crews is for sale. That’s why I pop my pecs. But what I’m selling is health, wealth, and love. That’s the Terry Crews brand all the way.

When I say wealth, it doesn’t mean being richer than anybody. It’s about having wealth through your experiences. Living life to the fullest and doing things all the way makes you wealthy. Health being I love fitness. I love being in shape. I love the fact that I’m 52 and have the energy to hang out with the 25-year-olds. The third thing is love, and that we all truly have to love each other. Love is literally the energy of the universe. It makes your world operate. Once you find out what it is and who it is you love, now you know your purpose.

You have dozens of brand deals and commercials under your belt—have you noticed one factor that sets successful creative apart from not-so-successful creative?

The story is paramount. I am really good friends with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Those guys did The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They’re amazing. They actually directed the pilot for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Oh, and they are story mavens.

The creatives who know how to tie in a story and make you care, they continue forever. Look at James Cameron, from Terminator to Aliens all the way to Avatar. The story is so big, every time those movies are on I have to watch.

Even in advertising, what’s so amazing is that they know the brand story and they’re able to tell it so that you can get it. I’ve never seen it fail. Where I’ve seen creatives fail all the time is when they make you look at bells and whistles. Like this looks like a commercial, but it’s basically a rip-off of everything people have ever done.

When do you plan to officially open Amen & Amen?

I would say we’re about a month away. I’m getting a star on the Walk of Fame on July 30th, which is my birthday, and July 29th is actually my anniversary. So it’s a big, big week. We’re going to have a huge party for about 200 people at the studio as our giant summertime coming out, and I call it “My Love Letter to Pasadena.” We knew in July the world should be pretty much open. We are requiring that our guests be vaccinated.

We are going to be very, very picky about who gets a chance to be here because the technology is so good and it’s also very, very delicate. Right now, though, I do want it to be a total experimental place. There are certain people that I said, “just come here and experiment.” One of the organizations I want to come and just experiment any time they want is Ayzenberg.

You’ve built a custom gaming PC with your son. You and your wife recently launched your audiobook Stronger Together. You’re about to open Amen & Amen. You’re back as the host of America’s Got Talent. You even have your own cryptocurrency now. The list goes on. What venture or medium are you eyeing next?

I want to own a farm. There’s some property I’m looking at where my grandmother lives in Edison, Georgia. One thing I got from the quarantine is that I need outdoor spaces. I thought I liked football, but what I really liked was playing outside with my friends. I went to Iceland with Bear Grylls and had the time of my life because we were outdoors, and I realized I need more of that. A farm would give me that. It would give me this connection to the Earth, where I could just be out there tilling the ground, watching something grow, and taking it from the seedling all the way to my table. That would be hot. That’s hot!

Reddit, Burger King And Warner Music Win Grand Prix At Cannes

This year’s in-person Cannes Lions was canceled due to the pandemic, but the show will go on. The creative marketing community has convened for Lions Live, the virtual version of the international festival. Each day members can tune in for a live broadcast of sessions, which are also available on demand. The winner of each awards category is being announced during “Daily Awards Show,” which comprises five 90-minute virtual shows covering 28 award categories and hosted by Juan Señor in Cannes. Ahead, a roundup of the Cannes Lions Grand Prix winners so far, including H&M, Burger King, Reddit and more. See the complete list of winning brands here.

Design Lions

H&M “Looop” by AKQA Stockholm

Giving new life to old clothes, the world’s first in-store garment-to-garment recycling system was featured in this spot AKQA Stockholm created for H&M. The brand installed the waterless and dye-less system on the second floor of their store in the heart of Stockholm, Sweden.

First launched in Hong Kong in 2018, the 40-foot-container-sized system was tested in a warehouse in Stockholm before it was purchased by H&M. Surrounded by sound-proof glass and stationed atop an anti-vibration floor, the system operates with zero impact on neighboring businesses or shoppers. 

Shoppers can head upstairs to witness the eight-step recycling process, including ozone sanitation, shredding, cleaning, fiber web, slivers, high speed rotor, ply yarn and knitting.

Outdoor Lions

Heineken “Shutter Ads” by Publicis Italy Milan

Ensuring the survival of bars destined to shut down permanently after the pandemic, Heineken redirected its outdoor media investment from out-of-home (OOH) advertising dollars from billboards and bus stops to closed bars’ shutters.

Over 5,000 bars across the globe participated in the sustainable media buying venture, themselves earning a combined 7.5 billion, and earning Heineken 40 percent more media value than the traditional OOH. The venture was so popular, other beer companies followed suit.

Creative Data Lions

Warner Music “Saylists” Rothco, Part of Accenture Interactive Dublin

Warner Music decided to help children with speech impediments by developing an algorithm that analyzes over 70 million songs and categorizes those with particularly helpful repetition patterns and sounds to make typically boring speech therapy fun. 

Direct Lions

Burger King “Stevenage Challenge” by David Madrid

Burger King sponsored the lowest-ranking football club in England’s lowest-ranking division – Stevanage F.C., placing their logo in FIFA ‘20. 

BK then launched the Stevenage Challenge, calling on players to sign the league’s best onto the Stevenage team and post their goals on Twitter in return for free grub. The campaign produced over 25,000 shared goals, made Stevenage the most-used team in career mode and caused shirts to sell out for the first time ever.

Social & Influencer Lions

Reddit “Superb Owl” by R/GA San Francisco

Reddit crashed Super Bowl LV with a five-second spot. It spent its entire marketing budget on that slot, which is why it excluded celebrities, actors and even a script.

The ad aired after the world learned about the David versus Goliath story that was Gamestop – a battle that rages on even to this day. The message highlighted how powerful it is to rally around an idea, and how Reddit is the place to do just that.

Over 300 news outlets covered the spot, which earned over 6.5 billion impressions and caused the actual site to crash after a 25 percent increase in traffic. Plus, it was the most-searched ad of Super Bowl Sunday.

Media Lions

City of Chicago “Boards of Change” by FCB Chicago

To encourage more black voters to vote in the 2020 presidential election, Chicago launched a campaign called Boards of Change, constructing voting booths out of strand boards that were once used to prevent Black Lives Matter rioters from damaging buildings. The result: a record number of voters.

Creative Strategy Lions

Cheetos “Can’t Touch This” by Goodby Silverstein & Partners San Francisco

Everyone knows you can’t touch anything after you’ve eaten a bag of Cheetos. The company has embraced this truth and the messy residue it leaves on fingers in a campaign with an average Joe discovering all of the obligations he’s freed of due to cheesy fingers. MC Hammer, and his iconic phrase “Can’t touch this” helped officially launch the brand’s Cheetos Popcorn. 

Entertainment Lions

Asics “Eternal Run” by Edelman London

Asics invented a race without a finish line in its new campaign that takes place in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. The idea was to determine if, with the technology in the shoes, 23 runners would run farther than they predicted for themselves.  The spot amassed 1.7 billion impressions plus 71 percent ran farther and 71 percent of consumers who saw the campaign said they’d choose Asics.

Entertainment Lions for Music

Mercado Livre “Feed Parade” by Gut Sao Paulo

Brazil, home of the world’s largest Pride parade, was forced to cancel 2020’s festivities. Mercado Livre, who normally sponsors the event, decided to sponsor a virtual version of the parade by inviting influencers to tag themselves on an Instagram feed of Brazil’s most iconic avenue. Next, one of Brazil’s most famous LGBT artists released a music video featuring the Instagram handles of the 60,000 people who participated. As a result, engagement was up 1,200 percent above average, 63 million people were impacted and the spot earned 500 million impressions.

Entertainment Lions

Sinyi Realty “In Love We Trust” by Dentsu McGarrybowen Taipei City

In Taiwan, ‘marriage’ also means ‘build a home.’ But having the highest divorce rates in Asia and the second highest in the world means home building is steadily decreasing.

Sinyi Realty addressed the phenomenon with a campaign in which they created a new term, “The Age of Doubting Marriage.” The campaign’s film aimed to encourage young people to not be afraid of marriage. Key opinion leaders kept sharing, thus sparking celebrity commentary. The result: 14 million views and 2020’s most popular ad in Taiwan.

Industry Craft Lions

Dove “Courage is Beautiful” by Ogilvy London

Dove paid its respects to front-line healthcare workers battling the pandemic and saving lives with a campaign that featured workers’ faces immediately after removing their protective gear. The brand also displayed the names of the doctors and nurses featured in the film. The message was simple: courage is beautiful.

Digital Craft Lions

Epic Games “Astronomical” by Epic Games, Inc. Cary, North Carolina

Fortnight and Travis Scott partnered up for a one-of-a-kind in-game concert. The event features a 30-foot tall Travis performing a brand new track, one that reached the top spot on the charts post-concert. The virtual concert was a boon to the game: 12.3 million Fortnight players watched live and 27.7 million unique players in-game participated 45.8 million times across five events.

Film Craft Lions

Libresse “#wombstories” by Chelsea Pictures Los Angeles

In confronting the narrative young women are taught about their period, wanting and having children, and other issues surrounding periods and reproduction, Libresse’s 2020 campaign gives a voice to the unknown or unspoken truths about women’s periods, vulvas and wombs. 

An all-female team of animators and illustrators anthropomorphised the womb and creatively depicted what happens inside a woman’s body when she’s on her period, having intercourse, experiencing period cramps or giving birth, to name a few.

Pharma Lions

Woojer “Sick Beats” by Area 23, an FCB Health Network Company New York

Children with cystic fibrosis are forced to wear airway clearance vests that allow them to cough up mucus in their lungs, a routine they describe as “the worst part of the day.” Woojer discovered that 40 hz is actually as effective at loosening mucus as traditional CFS therapy. In response, they made a vest that syncs to a child’s phone, pulls those frequencies from music on Spotify then delivers them to the child’s chest. They scanned Spotify’s 30 million songs and pulled those containing the 40 hz tone.

The campaign featured clips of children wearing the traditional vests before unboxing and wearing Sick Beats vests. The difference in their behavior is awe-inspiring.

Health & Wellness Lions

Essity “#wombpainstories” by AMV BBDO London

Essity chose to address the fact that 62 percent of women do not feel they can talk openly about their experiences by asking them how they felt. They animated and illustrated their stories by anthropomorphising the womb, embracing all of the love and all of the hate for the womb. Women became braver and began sharing their experiences. These experiences were then recycled and compiled to create the world’s first pain dictionary and digital pain museum. 

The result: over 100 million views, increased market share (8.1 percent UK, 14.1 percent RU, 9.9 percent DK), 200 percent increase in followers, and best of all – no more shame.

Lions Health

COPI (Central Office of Public Interest) “AddressPollution.org” by AMV BBDO London

COPI’s campaign attempted to address the reality that roughly 8 million (25 percent) addresses in the UK have air pollution levels above World Health Organization limits by launching addresspollution.org and promoting it on building projections and billboards and via direct mail. The website includes access to free reports of the air quality at every address in London. The reports include a simple rating system along with specific health and financial costs. The initiative also pushes for legal action to mandate disclosure of air pollution ratings within the property industry by connecting citizens with their elected officials. 

The campaign was so effective, COPI changed the law, obligating estate agents to disclose information that COPI’s website gives them. Property portals now include addresspollution.org’s rating on every listing, and air pollution has become impossible to ignore.

How Gaming Found Purpose In 2020

Gaming has been steadily on the rise for years but the pandemic was a boon for the industry, catapulting it to record levels of revenue and usage. To understand what entertainment and gaming habits will look like in a post-pandemic world, Activision Blizzard Media conducted research on consumer entertainment changes over the course of 2020. The company announced the findings during a segment in its Cannes Lions Live content series, “The Future of Gaming.”

In “How Gaming Found Increased Purpose in 2020,” Activision Blizzard vice president of global business marketing, measurement and insights, Jonathan Stringfield, discusses the implications for marketers trying to keep up with the shifting behaviors of gamers.

According to the research, conducted by Activision Blizzard in conjunction with MFour Mobile Research and OMG Research, there was a 91 percent increase in digital media consumption, with shopping apps, short form video, streaming and gaming among the top forms of media consumed. Below we break down the key takeaways from Stringfield’s analysis.

Social Connectivity

Given the solitude experienced by many last year, social connectivity was found to be a primary purpose of digital media consumption, according to the research, notes Stringfield. Specifically, of those who were newer or returning to gaming last year, roughly 40 percent indicated social connectivity as one of the primary reasons for engaging with it. Games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a perfect example of how consumers found a medium in which to relax and socialize with others in a virtual world. Innersloth’s online multiplayer game Among Us marks another example of how friends and coworkers interacted in a natural and fun way during lockdowns.

Stringfield reports that although all age groups turned to games as the medium through which they connected with family and friends, it was parents in particular who were some of the “biggest gamers out there.” Given that they were called upon to parent even more—to act as a teacher at times while juggling work from home—gaming played an integral role in how they connected with their children. Gaming also enabled them to achieve a sense of escapism and decompress amid the chaos of the year.

Of the 27 percent of individuals who reported being new to gaming in 2020, over 76 percent stated that they were revisiting, according to the research. Given that the majority of gamers last year weren’t new to gaming, Stringfield is frequently asked the billion-dollar question: will individuals stick with it in a world quickly reopening and returning to normal?

Simply put, video games will be a part of our media ecosystem in the long haul. Roughly 73 percent of individuals surveyed intend on maintaining habits like gaming. This isn’t a conclusive answer, so only time will tell how the current patterns shift and evolve. But as Stringfield notes, given that human behavior tends to change fairly slowly, the research points to the probability that gaming isn’t a “one-and-done” for 2020.

Emotional Need

In addition to the social connectivity that multiplayer and online games afforded consumers, respondents reported feeling emotions such as happiness, calmness and the feeling of being entertained while playing games.

Among the individuals that increased streaming video consumption, that uptake was almost synonymous with video games at  about 76 percent. Stringfield says that this finding highlights a “strategic blind spot” in the industry that video games are as fundamental to individuals’ media ecosystems as other entertainment forms like streaming, which most would consider indispensable today.

Implications For Brands

Activision Blizzard’s research solidified that digital media played the role of “the hero” for individuals throughout 2020. Now brands have an opportunity to capitalize on consumers’ growing relationship with games, namely integrating with these platforms in a way that’s mindful of the need states that users have for engaging with them.

Stringfield says that it’s imperative brands integrating in this space understand why individuals come to these platforms. Doing so will create connections with them that are stronger than the connection otherwise created by advertisements that ignore the game’s context and purpose. Integration should be seamless enough to the core experience so that individuals are not broken away from the platform or miss out on the benefits they derive from them.

To answer the question of whether video games are here to stay, Stringfield affirms that gaming has been on the rise for years, so the numbers witnessed in 2020 were only building on a trend that’s been in the making. And the games won’t just be played by tweens, but by all cohorts — millennials, Gen Z and older generations.

Xbox And Bethesda Games E3 Showcase Recap

Last weekend, the international gaming community tuned in to the Xbox and Bethesda Games E3 Showcase, a 90-minute show that unveiled the latest from Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda and the Xbox partners from around the world.

An Xbox logo-turned dial swiveled and the clock counted down during the opening hype piece to kick off Xbox’s entire E3 livestream. Ayzenberg Group, Xbox’s longtime creative partner and social agency of record, produced the animated video that set the tone for the entire show.

“It’s an honor to open the show because there’s so much anticipation and excitement in the air. This year to celebrate Xbox’s 20th anniversary and the year we’ve all been through—our inspiration was to look back over the past 20 years of exciting E3 fan-driven moments to remind everyone of where we’ve been and to be able to look forward to a near-future when we can all be together again to celebrate the love of gaming,” said Gary Goodman, chief creative officer, Ayzenberg Group.

Xbox delivered on that hype, announcing 30 new games, 27 of which will be launching on Xbox Game Pass day one later this year and next. There are 11 new games available today, including Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Arx Fatalis and Fallout, among others.

Back-to-back monthly releases for Xbox Game Pass, a packed holiday line-up and two exclusive Bethesda games coming in 2022 are part of Xbox’s larger commitment to deliver the “most diverse video game line-up in the world,” according to a recap of the E3 showcase on the company’s blog, Xbox Wire.

Xbox’s subscription has become a popular discovery engine since launching in summer 2017. Citing recent research, Xbox reports that members of Xbox Game Pass play 30 percent more genres and 40 percent more games. Additionally, 90 percent of members said they played a game that they wouldn’t have tried without Game Pass plus members spend 50 percent more than non-members.

As Xbox celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the company is exploring new subscription offerings and developing ways to bring Xbox Game Pass to more screens. For one, it’s working with global TV manufacturers to embed the Xbox experience directly into internet-connected televisions without requiring any extra hardware except a controller.

Some other ways Xbox is making Game Pass more accessible include the creation of new purchasing models like Xbox All Access to enable consumers to buy a console and Game Pass for a low monthly fee; building its own streaming devices for cloud gaming to reach gamers on any television or monitor without the need for a console; and later this year, the addition of cloud gaming directly into the Xbox app on PC and integration with the Xbox console experience.

Ayzenberg Helps Announce Xbox’s Series X Mini Fridge

It’s a safe! It’s a subwoofer! It’s a mini fridge! To close out its Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase at E3, Xbox broke the internet with the announcement of its first-ever Series X Mini Fridge, set to launch this holiday season so fans can “Xbox and Chill.”

The mini fridge made its world premiere in a 60-second video that garnered 1.6 million views within the first 24 hours of posting. That’s 300,000 more views than its 90-minute E3 showcase video featuring upcoming releases from Xbox Game Studios and Bethesda Softworks. The mini fridge video also ranked number 12 on YouTube’s worldwide trends.

Ayzenberg Group—Xbox’s creative partner for the better part of a decade and social agency of record—and its in-house creative and animation teams worked tightly with Xbox to surprise fans with what ultimately became the highest performing asset of the show.

“For Ayzenberg Group, the E3 timeframe is the Super Bowl of marketing events for the game industry. This year, Xbox decided to truly embrace the meme that their Xbox Series X console looked like a fridge and produce an Xbox Mini Fridge. We were approached with less than two weeks to the big show to craft a video that landed this message with a combination of Xbox bravado and a tongue-in-cheek wink to the fans,” Gary Goodman, chief creative officer, Ayzenberg Group, tells AList.

The Mini Fridge, powered by “Xbox velocity cooling architecture,” caused levels of Xbox fandom to grow exponentially, as evidenced by enthusiasts’ comments across Xbox social media channels. The throughline? Xbox is the master of memes.

As Mikel Zugarramurdi Sandoval put it on YouTube: “They don’t just embrace the meme…they became the meme.” Another user, Read Me, said: “I’ve never bought an Xbox, but I NEED this!” The fridge may even become more popular than the console, according to Sprite-Nation: “Ngl, I wanna buy this more than the console.”

Xbox planted the idea for a mini fridge last April during Twitter’s first ‘Brand Bracket’ competition in which 16 brands battled it out to become the best-tweeting brand on the platform. When people voted to see Xbox and Skittles in the championship, Aaron Greenberg, Xbox general manager, Xbox Games marketing, Microsoft, tweeted: “Help @Xbox win this and we’ll put into production this year REAL XBOX SERIES X MINI FRIDGES!”

And so, the Twitterverse delivered. Now, Xbox fans have even more to look forward to as they feverishly await a Series X and Series S restock. In the meantime, Xbox, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, teased thirty titles during its E3 showcase, 27 of which will be included with Xbox Game Pass.

Small Is The New Big With Terry Crews

Terry Crews is a busy man. You get the feeling that he’s always working on the next iconic character to include in his menagerie of outsized personalities. Or expanding his library, designing new furniture, crafting puppets… nothing seems out of Terry’s realm of genius. It’s hard to see how he finds time to do everything he’s doing, which now includes helming his own studio.

The name of the studio is itself is a reminder to Terry that talking doesn’t always equal doing and that the best ideas are self-evident. Amen & Amen, a double-affirmation meaning ‘so be it’ twice for extra emphasis, says a lot about what motivates Crews.

“Health, wealth and love—that’s my brand. That’s Terry Crews.”

To ring in Terry’s new center for production in Pasadena, California, the Listen In team visited Amen & Amen to take a tour of what the actor & entrepreneur has been up to since the start of the pandemic. 

Terry shares the impact commercials had on him growing up and his personal history with iconic campaigns, what inspires him, which commercials he won’t work on, why Terry is probably the most vulnerable of ‘The Expendables’ and a special look at “the new studio for the new millennium,” Amen & Amen.

About Listen In: Each other week on Listen In, Ayzenberg VP and ECD Matt Bretz, together with a rotating cast of hosts from a.network, interview experts in the field of marketing and advertising to explore uncharted territory together. The goal is to provide the a.network audience with actionable insights, enabling them to excel in their field.

The Growth Of Mobile Games: What’s Next In Creativity And Innovation?

Today the gaming industry is generating more annual revenue than the music and film industries combined. Over the next few years, the number of potential mobile gamers will grow exponentially as Ericsson predicts there will be 1.5 billion 5G smartphones in use by 2024.

During a virtual panel at Digital Media Wire’s annual LA Games Conference, Ayzenberg president Chris Younger spoke with industry leaders from Anzu, Google, Com2us and more about the growth of mobile games and how they’re navigating privacy updates, in-game advertising and community-building efforts beyond the industry’s record-breaking year.

With the arrival of iOS14 and IDFA updates, users must opt-in to share their phone’s serial ID, which will forever alter the way mobile game publishers measure, target and acquire. Apple introduced a proprietary solution, SKAdNetwork, enabling ad measurements to take place. Nevertheless, 47 percent of people said they’re unlikely to consent to sharing their Apple device identifier with apps that seek it.

The stakes for the mobile game industry is particularly high as digital ad spending is set to increase 20 percent this year with mobile ad spending accounting for approximately 75 percent of all digital ad spending.

When asked how Google is approaching the matter, Brandon Cubillas, head of industry for app gaming at Google, said that although it’s been a pain point not being able to track the new pandemic-induced influx of mobile gaming users, he sees the privacy changes as an opportunity to test new methods.

“We’re looking at things like exploring the effectiveness of signed-in users, which is privacy-compliant and doubling down on incrementality tools. The progress we’ve made in integrating Google Analytics via Firebase SKAd partners has opened a new trove of audience data that we’re leaning into to inform creative marketing strategies, game experience strategies, dynamic deals and updates” said Cubillas.

At Zynga, the response has been to invest in in-house resources. The company recently acquired mobile ad and monetization firm Chartboost to buffer against IDFA, noted Gabrielle Heyman, head of global ad sales, Zynga.

“It’s about bringing control in-house and being more in charge of your destiny by being able to control every piece. For Zynga, we’ve acquired a lot of studios, a lot of talent and a lot of users so being able to cross-pollinate all our games to our 170 million monthly uniques and having the ad tech infrastructure to be able to do that has been part of our strategic look forward,” Heyman said.

Kyu Lee, president, Gamevil, Com2us US, said that amid these changes, one of the company’s games, Summoners War, has shifted its focus slightly from user acquisition to brand and creating more content for its 100 million monthly uniques.

“The bigger thing is instead of looking at numbers, it’s been a great opportunity to engage more with the community and listen to what they really want. User voices can have a lot of noise and numbers speak reality, but it’s a good opportunity to look at what we have and what’s important,” said Lee.

Next, the discussion turned to innovation in revenue modeling for in-game advertising. Anzu, co-founded by Itamar Benedy, who’s also the company’s chief executive officer, is approaching this in a novel way as it’s the first company to address in-game advertising in the world of programmatic.

As brands’ perceptions around the mobile gaming industry change, there’s more opportunity for developers and publishers to work with brands to find the right target audience, Benedy noted. Anzu gives developers full control of ad placements, what content they allow and what data to share. After this one-time integration, Anzu can dynamically change the content and set it in a programmatic way, according to Benedy.

Liz Waldeck Pinckert, vice president, business development supply North America and Europe, AdColony, said the company pushes its team to play the games for at least one hour a day to guarantee proper ad placement recommendations.

“We try to become a user within the game. We look at data as well as actually become players ourselves,” Waldeck Pinckert said.

Adding to that, Heyman emphasized the importance of looking past programmatic and creating authentic bespoke ads that match a game’s look and feel.

“Our game studios actually love it because it’s non-cannibalistic revenue and it’s not competing against an ad unit that could be sold for performance or brand. The whole thing about gaming is winning, like your serotonin is being boosted and you’re getting stoked to win something. So the key for brands is to play a part of that elation and to give something better than you might get just for playing the game on its own, like have it be extra,” said Heyman.

On the topic of esports, Lee touched on Com2us’ efforts to increase user engagement with their newest title, Summoners War: Lost Centuria. For example, he said they added a TV button to the right corner that enables people to view other players as well as bet on game outcomes. Though they’re not streaming the content yet, Lee noted they’re going to launch esports tournaments soon.

When asked about viewing esports as a way to retain existing users versus a way to find new users, Lee said:

“What we learned is our game is so hardcore that the first time users watching the game don’t understand what’s going on. We want it to be both, but the reality is that it’s more user-focused.”

The subject of how to innovate around the owned and earned community rounded out the panel.

“You’re selling yourself short if you’re only integrating community features within your game. The full value can only be realized when you’re maintaining that environment outside of the game. That opportunity goes hand in hand with data about your users and incentivizing folks to create more user-generated content,” said Cubillas.

Click here to watch ‘The Growth of Mobile Games: What’s Next in Creativity & Innovation?’

Honesty Is The Best Policy, Even In Advertising

The world has changed radically. And no, we’re not talking about COVID-19.

With everything now discoverable, measurable and available in realtime, verifying the truthfulness of claims through independent data, social media and experts is now a given. Which means that after decades of ambiguity around the truth, the chickens are home to roost for advertisers.

Steve Fowler, SVP of A List Games, shares insights from his two-plus decades in the video game industry. With a past including the marketing of the original Halo, Fowler has witnessed broad shifts in game advertising, social communication and the mapping of consumer journeys.

Fowler dives into a discussion around honesty in advertising (as he says, “transparency is the best communication tool”) while also discussing the transformed relationship between players and game developers, pre-digital distribution, the history of games as products and the landscape-leveling impact of digital distribution. 

Other topics discussed include automating retention-based marketing, AR/VR’s impact on community enhancement and more.

About A List Games:

When it comes to executing marketing and publishing campaigns, our leverage is 25 years of legacy and expertise in game audience building under our roof. With the Ayzenberg Group’s support, A List Games can tap into the Ayzenberg network to execute world class marketing executions.

We love breaking from convention and adore the unprecedented. We offer scalable publishing solutions and negotiate “win-win” deal terms based on total investment. Got localization and QA handled? Great. Need help with user acquisition and first-party promotion?

Yeah, we can do that.

Led by passionate people with backgrounds in marketing and development at both the developer and publisher level, we have more than three hundred hit game titles in our collective portfolio.

For strategic leadership, our brain trust hails from Xbox, EA, Blizzard, Riot Games and FoxNext. We also have strong relationships in place throughout the industry, including development services companies capable of Q&A, Localization, Customer Service, Monetization and Production.

Get in touch: https://www.alistgames.net/contact

About Listen In: Each week on Listen In, Ayzenberg VP and ECD Matt Bretz and a rotating cast of hosts from Ayzenberg will interview experts in the field of marketing and advertising to explore uncharted territory together. The goal is to provide the a.network audience with actionable insights, enabling them to excel in their field.

Visa Elevates Danielle Jin To Head Of Marketing, Asia Pacific

This week in leadership updates, Visa promotes Danielle Jin to head of marketing for APAC, McDonald’s Canada names Alyssa Buetikofer CMO, Confluent hires Stephanie Buscemi as CMO, IBM’s NewCo taps Maria Bartolome Winans for CMO, Voss names Rachel Chambers SVP of marketing and more.

Visa Promotes Danielle Jin To Head Of Marketing, APAC 

Visa has elevated Danielle Jin, chief marketing officer of Visa Greater China, to head of marketing for the Asia Pacific region.

Prior to Visa, Jin worked at PepsiCo for over five years as senior marketing director, then vice president of marketing and category for Greater China beverages.

Jin’s appointment comes after Frederique Covington Corbett, Visa SVP, head of marketing and cross border, APAC, relocated to California and took on the role of SVP of global brand strategy and planning.

McDonald’s Canada Names Alyssa Buetikofer Chief Marketing Officer

McDonald’s Canada has appointed longtime marketing executive Alyssa Buetikofer as CMO.

Buetikofer has spent the last 15 years at McDonald’s in various leadership roles, the most recent being senior director, brand content and engagement.

Buetikofer succeeds Antoinette Benoit, who departed in February after six years as McDonald’s Canada CMO.

Confluent Appoints Stephanie Buscemi Chief Marketing Officer

Confluent has hired Stephanie Buscemi as its new CMO.

Previously, Buscemi worked at Salesforce for nearly seven years, most recently as EVP and CMO.

IBM’s NewCo Taps Maria Bartolome Winans As Chief Marketing Officer

NewCo, an independent company that was created following the separation of IBM’s Managed Infrastructure Services business, has named Maria Bartolome Winans CMO.

Winans’ career at IBM spans 30 years, with her most recent role as CMO for IMB Americas.

Voss Hires Rachel Chambers As Senior Vice President, Marketing

Voss has announced the appointment of Rachel Chambers to SVP, marketing.

Chambers joins Voss from Perfetti Van Melle, where she was VP of marketing, US and Canada, leading the Airheads, Mentos and Fruit-tella brands.

Republic Records Hires Ben Facey As Executive Vice President, Global Marketing And Digital Strategy

Republic Records has appointed Ben Facey as EVP of global marketing and digital strategy.

Previously, Facey was the head of international marketing and media for Universal Music Australia.

Overstock Names Elizabeth Solomon Chief Marketing Officer

Overstock has named Elizabeth Solomon as CMO.

Solomon joins Overstock from Amazon, where she served as the head of marketing for its global private brands portfolios.

Steven Monterastelli Unpacks Xbox’s Holiday Social Media Takeaways

With players spending more time and money on games during lockdowns, Microsoft was poised for success when launching its latest Xbox console. The November debut of Xbox Series X and S helped the tech giant top $5 billion during the December quarter, a 51 percent increase year-over-year. It also saw an 86 percent rise in hardware revenue for the quarter.

During a Socialbakers webinar, Socialbakers head of enterprise solutions Bob Gearing spoke with Ayzenberg associate director, data and insights, Steven Monterastelli, who manages all aspects of social measurement for Xbox, to unpack his team’s learnings from the holiday season.

Microsoft and Sony went head to head for their holiday launches, with the former launching Xbox Series X/S on November 10, and the latter dropping Playstation 5 two days later. Still, Monterastelli says Xbox took a collaborative approach to the launch on social rather than a competitive one, retweeting its post from 2013 that congratulated Sony on launching the Playstation 4.

“We have fans that have both consoles and we need to respect that. We’re not here to say ‘Xbox is better than the competitor.’ Twitter has always been a high paced, real time platform driven by culture and community. Leaning into this and creating content based on shared insights has been key to sustaining mass interest for Xbox,” said Monterastelli.

The Xbox Series X/S launch turned out to be the most successful debut in the brand’s history. In the first 24 hours of launch, more new consoles were sold than any prior generation, with Xbox Series S adding the highest percentage of new players for any Xbox console at launch. During that same period, 70 percent of Series X/S consoles ended up tied to new and existing Xbox Game Pass members.

Part of this success can be attributed to the brand’s strong social presence. With users flocking to games to play, socialize, and connect with others during lockdown, Monterastelli says the pandemic has underscored the importance of understanding the Xbox community.

“People are coming to social because they want to engage with the brands they love. They’re looking for brands to amplify their shared values. Because of the pandemic, there are new feelings and emotions that haven’t been present in prior years. Being aware of that is key to staying credible and authentic. That’s been the insight we’ve gained. We need to be the fans. We need to show the fans that we understand them,” said Monterastelli.

To engage fans accordingly, Monterastelli says customizing content for each social channel has been critical, namely creating a presence on channels that service the community instead of your own brand priority. He and his team applied this thinking to Xbox’s foray into TikTok in September. Its first video, which teased the new Xbox Series S, amassed 1.3 million likes and 33,000 comments. Today, it boasts 1.5 million followers and 11.6 million likes.

“Take time to understand who your target audience is on the platform, but also how the platform itself behaves and why people use it the way that they do.”

For Xbox, engaging with its fans doesn’t start and stop with a picture, video or meme. Monterastelli notes that a consistent dialogue and voice carried out throughout every piece of content helps build meaningful connections with fans. To do so, the Xbox React team is constantly in the trenches looking for opportunities to engage fans and connect with them one to one.

As for content that helps the brand reach its marketing goals, social giveaways are top of mind for Monterastelli, but he cautions against the passive nature of such contests as entrants tend to quickly satisfy the entry requirements, then never think about the giveaway again. At Xbox, getting around this means creating lasting experiences for fans. 

To promote the Series X launch, Xbox partnered with Taco Bell on a giveaway. Fans who purchased any medium or large drink via the Taco Bell app or in-person received a code on the cup for a chance to win a new Xbox Series X bundle. 

Instead of promoting the giveaway with a post that simply asked fans to like or comment, Xbox created a Reels that encouraged its followers to debate on which came first: the cup or the console. The result: 1.3 million views, 113,000 likes and nearly 2,700 comments.

The brand is also famous for its viral memes, which offer players moments of levity.

“The great thing about memes is that you often don’t need to know the origin of the content to understand the insight. When we posted this meme around the K/D ratio, which is regarded as a prestige stat within first-person shooters, we were trying to convey that some fans may not be good at the games, but that we still value them.”