Digital Conference

Activision CMO Tim Ellis: Let Fans Tell the Story

The Right Mix of Traditional, Digital and Experiential Can Overcome Marketing Obstacles

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

Comparing "The Force," Volkswagen's 2011 Super Bowl spot starring an adorable mini Darth Vader, to "Call of Duty," the somewhat-violent shooter-game franchise, may be puzzling but that 's what Activision Chief Marketing Officer Tim Ellis did at Ad Age 's Digital Conference on Wednesday.

Tim Ellis, CMO of Activision, delivers a presentation at the Ad Age Digital Conference Wednesday morning in New York.
Tim Ellis, CMO of Activision, delivers a presentation at the Ad Age Digital Conference Wednesday morning in New York. Credit: Patrick Butler

Speaking about the power of social and experiential marketing, Mr. Ellis said that both efforts let fans participate in the event instead of just viewing passively. Releasing "The Force" days before the big game galvanized fan interest, letting people share the video within their social communities and thus become part of its story. Watching the spot go viral was like "crack to a CMO," said Mr. Ellis, who was VP-marketing at the automaker at the time.

Activision had to do something similar to launch Call of Duty Elite, a subscription-based premium feature that acts as a social network for the franchise's fans and allows them to download fresh content regularly.

Activision initially couldn't announce details about the service, and the gaming community was intensely negative. Combining "Call of Duty" with plans for a paid-subscription service made for what Mr. Ellis described as "the most painful summer of Google Alerts imaginable."

To counteract some of the blowback, the company created the first-ever Call of Duty XP, a two-day immersive event that included life-size versions of certain game maps, paintball ranges, musical performances and gaming tournaments. "We had to ask the question: 'Can experiential media, plus social media, equal mass media?' " said Mr. Ellis.

As part of Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg's keynote speech at Call of Duty XP, the final details of Elite were unveiled, including all the digital features. "We got spontaneous applause," said Mr. Ellis. "Call of Duty XP became a turning point for Call of Duty Elite." Bloggers who previously bashed the idea were now recommending Elite. The service hit $1 billion in sales in 16 days.*

But beyond that , added Mr. Ellis, it was an event that epitomized the game as a cultural phenomenon. "It was a unique combination of social, digital and experiential marketing," he said.

Activision tackled the challenge of how to extend XP's excitement to fans that couldn't be there with an approach that included press, as well as amplifying social media interactions through its own and its partners' channels, and through fans. It also used livestream and narrowcasting. Call of Duty XP was the second-most-watched event on Livestream in history, right after the Royal Wedding. "We leveraged the voice of our fans to a level that is still continuing today," said Mr. Ellis.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated that Call of Duty Elite hit a billion users in 16 days. In fact, it hit $1 billion in sales in that timeframe, faster than Avatar.