Disney's site gamble

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Skillgames, a new Internet game site created by Walt Disney Co., breaks broadcast and print campaigns this month from DiMassimo Brand Advertising, New York. The tagline: "Where your skills pay off."

The site launches in June, but a sneak preview is available at skillgames.com. A spokesman at DiMassimo refused comment about the campaign, as did a representative at Skillgames. According to executives close to the original review, DiMassimo won the account early this year following a protracted battle between a number of agencies. At the time of the review, the account was estimated at $30 million. Last year, Disney spent $14 million to advertise its portal strategy Go.com, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

When the contest began in October, the project was given the code name "Pureskill." At the time, there were nine agencies invited to pitch. They were Butler, Shine & Stern, Sausalito, Calif.; Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles; Cliff Freeman & Partners; DiMassimo; Publicis Groupe's Fallon Worldwide; Interpublic Group of Cos.' Gotham; Envoy Communications Group's Hampel/Stefanides; Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, and Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, all in New York. The review was then cut to just Cliff Freeman, DiMassimo and Fallon, while Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and Siltanen/Keehn, El Segundo, Calif., were invited.

The Skillgames site will charge players to participate in graphic puzzles, word games, trivia games and sports games. It will offer prizes up to $1 million dollars. Players can also incur losses in the hundreds of dollars, and the site has been likened to online gambling. According to an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week, Disney executives were quick to differentiate Skillgames from conventional gambling. Executives at the company said while gambling is based on chance, Skillgames rewards skilled players.

The company was founded by CEO Norm Merritt, the former chairman of Universal Studios Vacations and exec VP-sales and travel operations for Universal Studios Escape. Prior to Universal, Mr. Merritt was VP-product development and travel industry marketing at Disney. The company's president-CEO is David Zucker, a former exec VP at ESPN, managing director of ESPN International and VP-programming, ESPN and ESPN2.

Although the site expects to make money solely by charging for games, and will not feature advertising, Skillgames will promote other Disney properties. The preview site displays logos for ABC and ESPN. The ad campaign is expected to highlight the simplicity of the games on the site. Unlike some of the other popular gaming sites, such as Gamesville, Pogo.com and Uproar, there will be no complex, graphics intensive games. The campaign also will underscore that players can win through skill, according to executives familiar with the matter.

At the time of the original review, Skillgames was looking for an agency that could handle Internet advertising and was also interested in the "Leo Burnett and Charlie the Tuna and Chiat/Day and Pets.com school of advertising with the funny mascots," said an agency executive. "It was like mixing the Internet with a package-goods approach."

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