Microsoft XBox Assembles Agency Dream Team to Launch the 360

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Even months before Microsoft officially unveiled the latest evolution of its Xbox console in May at the E3 Gaming Conference and in a super-hyped 30-minute MTV special, gamers' thumbs had been twitching wildly with anticipation. And for good reason. The Xbox 360, set to land on store shelves on November 22, aspires not just to lead the next generation of gaming devices, but it purports to revolutionize home entertainment on a broader, all-encompassing scale. While it will ramp up the gaming experience to HD, it will also act as a command center that hooks up with every other techno-pleasure provider in a consumer's living room. Oddly enough, the same thing seems to be happening with Xbox's entire communications strategy behind the launch of the new product. Don Hall, the Redmond, Wash.-based Xbox global brand marketing director, has done quite a 360 himself, assembling creative talent from multiple shops and syncing them together to produce what promises to be a massive global launch, set to break later this month.

Nearly two years ago, Hall started to draft his dream team, having been given virtually free reign by Peter Moore, Xbox corporate VP/worldwide marketing and publishing, and J Allard, corporate VP and chief XNA architect and the key driver behind Xbox's revolution-minded strategy. Early on, Hall brought on Vermont-based JDK Design, best known for building the Burton snowboard brand. Led by co-founder Michael Jager, the JDK team started out on package design, but ended up staying on for overall branding and identity strategy, working in concert with Xbox's in-house industrial and package designers as well as a boutique Hall had enlisted to work on global brand strategy, El Segundo, Calif.-based 72andSunny, founded by John Boiler and Glenn Cole, former creatives at W+K/Amsterdam, celebrated designer Robert Nakata and former Microsoft colleague Greg Perlot. Meanwhile, they were joined by interactive shop AKQA, itself home to a crew of interactive talents whose CVs include work for Nike and the massive web launch of Halo II. In addition, there's Xbox's agency of record McCann-Erickson, which last spring shifted its Xbox account from New York to its San Francisco office, now designated as a global creative center and home to newly arrived SVPs/group creative directors Scott Duchon and Geoff Edwards, the talents behind much of the recent award-winning adidas basketball work out of TBWA/Chiat/Day/S.F., as well as former Chiat stategy director Mike Harris, who became SVP/group strategy director.

While a major marketer having multiple agencies at its disposal is not unusual, it is when that marketer makes it a mandate for all of them to truly work in concert. "I think pitting one partner against each other to win a project is not the right way to go," says Hall. "One of the expectations I set is that the partners are going to have a checkpoint with each other and then bring me in." That kind of interplay is necessary, he believes, given the nature of the campaign. Hall and company won't disclose specific details about the effort except that it will involve intertwining and interacting components of TV, web, print and packaging, directed toward both a broad audience and diehard gamers. Production insiders also say that the creative bar has been set high, involving directorial talents like Frank Budgen and Rupert Sanders. "If I go to any one of the parties," continues Hall, "they've contributed to the idea, they've had a chance to think about how might this extend to what we're doing on the web or in retail and packaging. It's a lot easier to achieve integration when you have a team that has a shared vision. It's not as if I'm the air traffic controller bringing it all together. It's a multipoint collaborative model as opposed to one that's centrally directed."

Such creative collaborations aren't new to 360 and have proven successful, says Hall. For example, when it came time to design the console, the company approached both Astro Design in San Francisco and Hers Design from Osaka, Japan. "We sort of threw them into the room together and said, 'Both of you have done really interesting things from a design perspective, and we want you to collaborate and come up with an integrated proposal,'" Hall explains. "If you have a really clear brand idea and strategic platform, I think it's really healthy to bring experts together. It's a little bit more chaotic, and it has to be managed somewhat diplomatically at times, but so far I really buy in deeply to this collaborative roundtable approach. It's really about getting the right people who have extraordinary talent in their areas but who also have to believe that the collaborative approach is really the right way to do it." McCann's Duchon explains, "If we needed to be 'managed' this would never work. We knew from the beginning that we had to manage all the different relationships ourselves. Otherwise Don and Xbox would never get a single point of view on how to do a big global launch and begin to transform Xbox from a video game machine into a cultural icon. "

Another reason Hall has set up his dream team is because he recognizes the risks of brand dilution in the quagmire of a big-agency network. "It's very difficult for publicly traded communications conglomerates who have different arms that do different parts of the media and communications mix to deliver an integrated solution," he says. "They each have their own profit and loss responsibilities; they're large global organizations which can be sometimes unwieldy. We have our own challenges as a company on that as well, so we know that first hand. On some level, we've taken sort of the roll your own approach to an integrated model, as opposed to saying to any big multinational agency holding company, bring this all together for us, because I think that's really, really hard to do. On some level, I think the client is better suited to doing that than they are."

This might sound like he's pointing a finger at the only multinational on his roster, but Hall says, not really. "What McCann has done is remove the obstacles to have the kind of room to maneuver and have a very dedicated Xbox team, with the support network and the infrastructure and resources of a big agency. I don't want to characterize it as the prototypical big agency, because in this case they've recruited the resources we needed-Scott, Geoff and Mike-and created an environment in which they can exist fairly autonomously. So far, it's a case study for success. I think it's unusual at many other agencies to be able to do that."

Having several all-stars playing on the same turf might sound like heavy-duty fertilizer for ego-clashes, and industry insiders privy to some of the early interactions between the partnering agencies believe that this multishop formula is a recipe for disaster. But the teammates say that over time, Hall has nurtured the dynamic in a more fruitful direction. "We had experience with the partnership between TBWA and 180, so we have first hand knowledge of how things can work if everyone's on the same page with the same agenda," explains Duchon about his previous work on adidas. "Don was very curious about our experience and asked us a lot about what works and doesn't work in a creative partnership." It helps that the talents Hall has assembled all have enviable credentials. "Being with people whose work you respect is great because everybody's ideas need to rise," notes 72's Boiler. "It's like sitting around a table getting drunk and there are a couple funny guys-you don't want to be the lame guy. The opportunity here is for us to do this together. Don's tried to do this so that it never gets to questions of ownership." Adds AKQA CD Mauro Alencar, "We're all the brain cells, but we're acting as one brain that's creating the entire campaign; I really believe it's a great example of how different agencies will work together to deliver a concise and compelling communications story."

And it doesn't hurt that the forces at the senior level have proven to be just as inspiring as Hall. "It's one thing to set up collaborative networks and have all these really sharp people and a level of respect," notes JDK's Michael Jager. "But it's really magical when you also have a sense of a cause. Building a brand, having sales objectives-yes, that's part of it-but when it kicks over that the cultures internally and externally are blurring together with this energy that's more cause-related, it's amazing what happens. I truly feel we've crossed into that place. I was lucky to experience that with Burton, where it was cool to be building a brand, but there was also the cause of the snowboard culture. I really feel that's one of the big differences here. J Allard and Peter Moore are really inspiring. They have got a vision of the future of technology, entertainment and the convergence of people's lives with it. It wasn't just launching the next version of Xbox, it was about helping to deliver an important thing that would change how people relate with technology in their homes and in a social context. It's dramatic and incredibly exciting. I truly feel that that made a difference."

Hall admits his marketing approach has been unconventional, but baby steps are not an option, given the task at hand. "We're the up-and-comer brand in the category," he says. "If we're going to make serious inroads on PlayStation, we have to take risks. We have to push the limits on breaking through with consumers. It's not an option to play it safe because that's not going to create the shift in the market that we need."
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