In his first interview since leaving Electronic Arts, John Riccitiello sat down with the [a]list daily for this exclusive article. Riccitiello’s background was in product marketing, working as brand manager for Clorox, then group marketing director for PepsiCo, before executive roles at Haagen Dasz, Wilson Sporting Goods and Sara Lee. Riccitiello joined EA in 1997 as president and COO, leaving in 2004 to join venture firm Elevation Partners, then returning to EA in 2007 as CEO.

Riccitiello left EA in March of this year after a series of disappointing quarters. EA’s executive chairman Larry Probst is serving as interim CEO while the company searches for a new person for that role. Meanwhile, Riccitiello has been engaged in the industry, advising and investing, and now offering his thoughts on where marketing has been in the game industry and where it needs to go.

“I think marketing has been through all sorts of stages relative to gaming,” Riccitiello said. “I would say that when I joined EA in 1997 for the most part we only put games on television, and the first PC game that ever went on television was The Sims. It was just like we don’t put PC games on television because there’s not a big enough audience for them. Console was getting the TV, but only relatively rarely, the top five properties.”

“What we started to do in the mid-nineties was to bring more and richer consumer insight into the way we brought our products to market. We embedded more deeply product marketing inside the products so there was a feedback loop between the research we were doing, the games we were developing and the marketing that supported their launch. It stopped being so much kind of throw it over the wall and give it to the promotion department and deeply integrated product marketing system that separated EA from the rest, we had 36 per cent compound growth between 1997 and 2003, really the lion’s share of the entire growth of the industry. That was a pretty cool time.”

The game marketing of today is a different situation, Riccitiello believes. “Now fast forward and marketing is very different today,” Riccitiello said. “I think there’s been some tendencies in marketing that I don’t think have been all that good and others which have been pretty much really great.” The difference is in the data. “There was a time in marketing that you could sort of be like Mad Men, you know, the big idea. And it still needs the big idea, but what’s been introduced into marketing in an increasing way has been the science of marketing. How to use the ad marketplaces that are representative of mobile, how to use acquisition marketing around what you pay for an install, understanding the lifetime revenue of your user. It’s sifting through and incorporating massive amounts of data, and so the days of the marketer coming out and just being a big idea guy, those days are largely gone.”

Riccitiello continued, “What we’ve now gotten to as a very, very important part of marketing is the quantitative skills, sitting at your computer monitor and working with sometimes two or three or four dozen different players around the world. Figuring out how you’re going to allocate your resources to drive installs, and then what you’re going to do with the consumers that are playing your product on a day to day, minute to minute basis to optimize lifetime revenue by optimizing a great experience for them.”

The dark side of modern-day game marketing appears when the balance between data and creativity is wrong, Riccitiello believes. “Where I think it gets lost — and I think famously Zynga was sort of in this space and I think hiring Don Mattrick is going to counter this — some people think more about the data than the game. There’s always one of those pendulum swings when you’re in the game business because you think you’re in the data business and the game is sort of secondary. I tend to think that loses heart pretty quick. It certainly loses the allegiance of the people building it but I think it also pretty quickly loses its sense of soul relative to the player. And they see through that.”

Riccitiello believes the creativity of a game’s design, not data, should be central. “While there was a huge need for an injection of quantitative skills, I believe in the craft,” Riccitiello said. “I’m looking for a big idea, that never went away. And now what we’ve got is sort of a left brain, right brain marketing, I think for the longest time we had no-brain marketing, sort of like pitch it over the top and it’s a promotion job, really. Then it became a sort of big idea business, and I’d say that characterizes the mid-nineties and a lot of companies caught up to where EA was. Ubisoft and Activision, Take Two, all got great at those big, gigantic launches but none of them were as informed by as deep an understanding of the customer base as we are today.”

The key to success with games is ultimately the game itself, not the marketing, Riccitiello believes. “Most of the data is not understood well and I think the pendulum for some has swung too far to where they think that what they’re marketing is a commodity,” Riccitiello said. “As far as I’m concerned it’s not a happenstance that products like Candy Crush are doing well or Clash Of Clans are doing well. They’re doing really well executed products. They have integrity in their design and it works. And those are radically different games. They’re very different things but what they share in common is a deep respect for the craft. They respect their user. And their products get better every day.”

Read more of what John Riccitiello had to say on GamesIndustry International