Video games as medium: Starcom's Play targets gamers

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Starcom MediaVest Group is launching a new unit called Play dedicated to finding marketing opportunities for clients in the $10 billion video-game business.

The industry, with revenue larger than the motion picture business, is fast becoming a feeding ground for marketers to get their message across to the 12-to-34-year-old males that the Interactive Digital Software Association said comprise 60% of American game players. There were 221 million computer and video games sold in the country last year, about two per household.

Play will mine opportunities for clients of the Publicis Groupe agency both by creating online games (such as Nike's online soccer tournament created by Wildtangent) as well as by placing products within games (similar to Ford Motor Co.'s vehicles being featured in Electronic Arts' "James Bond 007: NightFire.")

young leaders

The unit will be based in Chicago and Los Angeles, staffed by ten employees from Starcom MediaVest's research and events departments, and led by a pair of top staffers from the interactive unit Starcom IP: Tim Harris and P.J. MacGregor. They are both avid gaming enthusiasts, both 29 years old-according to Mr. Harris, "one year older than the average gamer." They share the same title, VP-director of Play.

"We believe we are the first marketing services agency to be leveraging the gaming space as a marketing medium," said Mr. Harris. "There are product-placement agencies, talent agencies, and brand agencies working in this area but we are the first to have the full-service tools to realize the potential of gaming."

adding value

"The messaging opportunities are all there," added Mr. MacGregor. "Not just in terms of product placement-that's just one of the tools. We're focused on doing things that are authentic. Instead of putting a can of something in a game, we are going to concentrate on how can we have clients' brands add value to a game and vice-versa."

Messrs. Harris and MacGregor report to Rishad Tobaccowala, exec VP, Starcom MediaVest Group. "Nerds are not the only people using games," said Mr. Tobaccowala. "Women use them, everybody does. ... People are launching new musical acts in games and they are becoming more movie-like. Hollywood is getting involved. So our philosophy is gaming is a very important contact point, like television, radio, the Internet."

Play hopes to partner with Activision, a MediaVest client, and Yahoo! Activision is the video-game maker that incorporated Yum Brands' Taco Bell signs and stores in its "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2" for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox. Yahoo's "games-on-demand" program, offered through its partnership with SBC Communications for broadband Internet service, allows consumers to rent and play PC games.

"One of our main focuses will be to integrate Starcom advertisers' products into the gaming experience," said David Mandelbrot, VP media & entertainment at Yahoo!, which has a game-development unit and is a platform for downloading games from other gamemakers. "We're very impressed with the Starcom people. ... They're the first agency doing this, but I expect others will follow."

"Everybody wants to do gaming deals now," said Mr. Tobaccowala, "But we say, `Screw deals. How do we actually build brands?' This is not about writing checks, this is about leveraging a very powerful contact point."

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