Activision Suits Up for Media 'Warfare'

Company Plans 'Biggest Media Launch in History' With the Latest 'Call of Duty'

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Eric Hirshberg oversees one of the biggest media franchises in entertainment: Activision. And now, the CEO is teeing up what he calls "the biggest media launch in history."

At first glance, this might seem like a grandiose boast but the former Deutsch L.A. chief creative is talking about "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3." Its predecessor, "Call of Duty: Black Ops," shattered entertainment sales records last November, clearing $360 million on launch day. "Black Ops" took in $650 million in its first five days of sales and $1 billion in less than a month.

Eric Hirshberg, CEO, Activision
Eric Hirshberg, CEO, Activision
The challenge will be topping that impressive tally for the eighth launch in a mega-franchise. Not only has game fatigue set in among consumers -- one title has been launched every November since 2005 -- but this time around "Call of Duty" has a serious competitor. "Battlefield 3" launches two weeks earlier on Oct. 25, and its publisher, Electronic Arts, has already declared war on "Call of Duty." Verbal shots have been fired by EA executives in the media and at gaming conferences. Even its marketing tagline is a direct challenge. Trailers and press releases claim Battlefield 3 is "Above and Beyond the Call."

"EA is trying to latch onto the "Call of Duty' terminology or anything that will make that comparison or connection for consumers. It's a valid strategy," said Jeremy Miller, analyst at DFC Intelligence. "The effect is that both games are going to be big."

Still, with a preexisting audience of some 30 million "Call of Duty" consumers, analysts generally agree that "MW3" will sell more than "Battlefield 3," with core gamers likely to buy both. Mr. Miller added, "These two games are going to dominate the fall, but that means table scraps for the rest of the [competing] games."

"Black Ops" not only added more than $1 billion to Activision's bottom line, it also generated millions more in online sales with digital add-ons such as map packs. Activision, which also owns the online mega-hit game "World of Warcraft," makes about 30% of its revenue via digital channels. "Black Ops" alone has more than 10 million Facebook fans, and "MW3" already has more than 1 million.

"MW3" adds even more social networking with the co-debut of "Call of Duty Elite,' an online network of players with a free version as well as a premium subscription at $50 per year. Initial skepticism of a subscription model by fans and players has given way to support, Mr. Hirshberg said.

"'Call of Duty Elite' is a huge new way to port the game to phone, tablet, Facebook or laptop," said Mr. Miller said. "It will make viral marketing of the game an even easier play with people sharing and posting and basically fans marketing the game for them."

While final ad plans leading up to launch haven't yet been revealed, the aggressive marketing plan includes broad, mainstream partnerships with brands such as Jeep and Doritos, traditional media advertising, and doubling down on public relations, social media and events. Lead creative for "Modern Warfare 3" is handled by TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles. SapientNitro is the digital agency and Omnicom's OMD is the media shop. Tim Ellis, chief marketing officer at Activision since June, and before that , former head of marketing at Volkswagen (where he hired Deutsch), will helm the effort along with Mr. Hirshberg.

Even without the big ad push, Mr. Hirshberg said pre-orders for "MW3" are "off the charts" and better than last year's presales. One reason is Activision's first-ever experiential marketing campaign, with a two-day live event in September called "Call of Duty XP" that gathered fans, players and celebrities inside Howard Hughes' old airplane hangar. The event was simulcast on the web and through digital media, and put people inside real-life simulated experiences from the game.

"It was an experiment to see if we could take experiential marketing and turn it into a mass media. Can we take an 8,500-person event and turn it into a global event? I think we accomplished that beyond our most optimistic expectations," Mr. Hirshberg said. Three million streams were viewed via Livestream, making the keynote from "Call of Duty XP" the second-most watched live-streaming event after the recent royal wedding, according to Activision. Home-page views spiked more than 6,000%, Mr. Hirshberg said, and visits to the preorder page jumped 675%.

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