Balancing Badassery and Fun

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Spend some time talking to Tim Ellis, the newly minted CMO at gaming giant Activision, and you'll discover he has an affinity for the word "badass."

It's his descriptor of choice in talking about "Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3," the newest iteration of the blockbuster franchise, which just hit shelves this week. And it's also how he describes Sam Worthington, one of the stars of the 90-second spot created by West Coast shop 72andSunny to promote the game, as well as the scores of fans of the game, now numbering several million.

Mr. Ellis has spent time on both the agency and client side during his career. He worked at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco in the '90s, and later at Volvo in Europe and Volkswagen stateside. He was brought on board at Activision a few months ago by its CEO Eric Hirshberg. The two got to know each other at Deutsch, Los Angeles, where Mr. Hirshberg formerly served as chief creative officer, after the shop was hired as VW's lead creative agency in North America. "I hired him, and he hired me. ... He returned the favor," Mr. Ellis said. "He and I worked extremely well together at Volkswagen, created a lot of work we're proud of together, and see eye-to-eye on the fundamentals, we are great partners and we have a lot of fun together." In the CMO post, he replaces Brad Jakeman, who moved to Pepsi.

This week, Ad Age chatted with Mr. Ellis about the importance of catering to both the superfans and the masses who may not know your brand, and why we shouldn't be surprised if we see a "Call of Duty" spot in Super Bowl XLVI. Oh, and attention CRM agencies: Mr. Ellis is looking for you.

Ad Age: You went from marketing cars to marketing video games. What are the differences you are finding in working in a marketing role in the gaming world?

Mr. Ellis: From a cultural standpoint, it was a real change. Part of that comes out of working out here in California [vs. Herndon, Va., where VW is based] and part of it is who we are and who our core target is. Both VW and Activision are highly professional and sophisticated, but drawing on the raw emotion and passion from your base drives a lot of what we do here at Activision. Volkswagen, compared to most of the auto companies, has a very passionate loyal customer base, but it's still a very different relationship with the product than say, with "Call of Duty," our core franchise here.

If you think about how you use your loyal base and make them brand ambassadors, certainly it's an important tenet at an auto company, but it has to be at the very core of your approach at a gaming company like Activision. Just on Facebook, we have 26 million people in our community. ... We just put out a trailer for this launch, and that first trailer got tens of millions of views within no time. We have an internal marketing mantra here that is "delight the core, bring in the more."

Ad Age: Are you a gamer yourself?

Mr. Ellis: I started gaming with my kids when I first moved to Europe 15 years ago. Because I learned through sitting on the couch with my kids playing, my experience is long and based in fun. That's one of the great things about this game, is that it's all about badass fun, and everything we do from a marketing perspective has to deliver on that. We're very careful not to take ourselves too seriously, so we carefully balance the badassery and the fun. We are always looking carefully at how we are speaking to our core, and whether or not [the marketing messages] are going to delight them and strengthen their bond with the brand. And we want to make sure we aren't intimidating all those who want to come into the brand.

Ad Age: The past two live action spots for the "Call of Duty" franchise feature some pretty impressive talent appearances, from the Kobe and Kimmel cameos for Black Ops, to the latest spot in which both Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill have prominent roles. Does the increasing use of big name talent have anything to do with expanding your gamer base -- moving from hardcore gamers to a more mainstream audience?

Mr. Ellis: I would say -- and this is not just a nice-sounding soundbite -- you have to do both to be successful. "Call of Duty" is the leader, and in order to stay the leader, we always go big or go home. Expanding the cultural currency of "Call of Duty" is paramount. We carefully choose the celebrities who are featured in our advertising and in all of our events. They have to work on both levels -- they have to be the kind of personality that really excites the core, and also brings in the broader audience. Sam Worthington, the guy is total badass, but he's also likeable. And coming from Avatar, of course, he is appealing to the masses. Jonah Hill as well is an extremely likeable guy who resonates with our base and the core target we are trying to reach out to. Our goal is not to just sustain being the biggest entertainment franchise of all time, it's to top that significantly.

Ad Age: If you're all about 'going big or going home,' does that mean we'll see Activision in the Big Game come February?

Mr. Ellis: I can see "Call of Duty" in the Super Bowl. I think "Call of Duty" belongs on that platform, and it has absolutely earned its place to be amongst those cachet brands that you see in the Super Bowl. We haven't made the decision to do that, but it's a brand that can and should be there. It feels like it should be there. "The Force," as you know, was carefully developed in order to get the masses excited on the internet and then to carry on that story in the Super Bowl and even after the Super Bowl, and that's absolutely one of the things I'm trying to bring to Activision in our marketing, that we just don't push our messages out, we have a dialogue with our audience. It's about more storytelling and more sharing and not just pushing out more messages. Something like CRM, it's not just about sales, it's about enhancing while they are playing the game, not just trying to.

Ad Age: You've inherited an agency model of working with a roster of agencies. Is that something you're committed to? And can you tell us more about your agency relationships?

Mr. Ellis: With every agency we have, we have a very clear contract outlining their roles and responsibilities, but we also want partnerships amongst all of our agencies. I'm very pleased to see they work with each other so well. The one thing that unites them all is world-class creative excellence and a passion for gaming. The other thing we're looking for now -- and why we are so excited about 72andSunny -- is a strategic understanding of the market itself. ...

In briefing our agencies [for the "Call of Duty" spot] we clearly told them that this had to be the ad of the year, and this had to be the most talked about advertising in the industry, not just a great gaming ad or better than our core competitors. ...

It's a hotly competitive area. We need really sound strategy that guides the creative, and 72andSunny are one of the few agencies that are really able to do that on a consistent basis. Then we have some other agencies who are specialists in other areas who we absolutely depend on, and those agencies have to work closely with 72andSunny. We certainly would not be willing to compromise anything simply to consolidate all of our business under one roof. We are currently looking for our new CRM agency, and that is an area that is incredibly important in this industry.