Here’s part three of my series of memories and recollections of my time working on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. As I mentioned in my first post on the topic, I am pretty much just doing this right off the top of my head, so I apologize in advance if it meanders a bit. My only real “point” in all of this is just to describe what I remember about working with them, and also to impart some general knowledge about how sometimes, despite the best efforts of the people involved, things in corporate America get screwed up. But I’m sure you knew that already.
Kathryn (my main WotC marketing client) basically relied on my knowledge of their products and trusted me when it came to figuring out the target markets (who the ad campaigns would be directed towards, in terms of who was most likely to buy the products). The thing I always found funny was all these interesting things that got in the way of how we (my team and I) should be doing our job.
Here’s just a short list.
1) We were forced for each new D&D product to do a full-page ad in both Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Now, back in the 1970s and 1980s when Dragon was an actual publication of games (and not just D&D), I can see that it would have made sense. But by the time we were working on the advertising for them, Dragon was little more than a house organ for D&D. I honestly can’t believe that anybody reading Dragon had not already heard about every single product we advertised in it way before the ad appeared in the magazine. And it’s not like the ads offered more information or anything – they were just cool graphics (usually just the cover art) with some tagline like “Take Your Game to the Next Level!” or something like that. All of the taglines were pretty much interchangeable and didn’t tell you about anything that was actually in the product. I would have thought it would have made more sense to put their effort into having the Dragon writers write a piece about what new cool stuff was in the book, and maybe give a preview. They did end up going that route eventually, but the full-page ads still appeared. You maybe be wondering why I’m so stuck on this point. It’s because we had to pay for the ads out of our measly budgets. It was around this time that both publications were spun-off to Paizo, who became the publishers, and I don’t begrudge those fine folks from trying to make a profit, but it’s just one of those weird concepts in corporate America that drive me crazy. You have a game called Dungeons & Dragons. A couple years later, the guys who created the guy decide to create a magazine, ostensibly devoted to showcasing new ideas, adventures, classes, spells, and other stuff for their game. You also decide to cover the burgeoning RPG category. But, you can’t tell me that back in 1977 that TSR transferred money from their RPG division to their magazine division to run an ad for the new Monster Manual in the latest issue of Dragon. It’s called a “House Ad” and it should be FREE.
2) The game designers and artists at WotC got way too much say into what publications and websites we advertised with, in my opinion. Again, I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers here, because they all seem like really nice people. But, when you hire somebody to do a job – let them do it. Why pay me for my expertise on where you should advertise and how much you should spend, and then insist that I spend X number of dollars on Y magazine or website? That kind of defeats the purpose. Poor Kathryn was in a bit of a bind with this, because she really didn’t know. Since she had set herself up as a non-geek, I think the WotC folks took advantage of her by telling her where they should be spending their ad dollars. And, what happened very quickly was that all of our dollars started going into the same websites and publications, for every plan, and we started talking to ourselves. I think you know what I mean, but, for example, for every new Magic: The Gathering expansion that came out, we advertised on a smaller and smaller group of MTG fan sites, all of which had already covered (editorially) the new expansions months prior to release, and on which the fans were already saying they were going to buy them. It was the same with D&D. We had a little more luck with Star Wars, because I guess WotC felt since they had paid so much for the license, they could draw from the much wider pool of Star Wars fans instead of just talking to RPG fans.
3) As kind of a follow-up to number two, above, some of the sites on which we were mandated to advertise were really janky. Here’s a true story – at one point for a Magic: The Gathering expansion, we had placed some new digital banner ads up on a MTG fan site that the designers told Kathryn we had to be on. My teammate Malinda and I had emailed the site owner a few times and noted the lack of professionalism and poor grammar, but we just moved on and figured it was fine. We uploaded our new ads, and within about 15 minutes we noticed that the wrong ads were running. It was about 7:30pm and we wanted to make sure we fixed the problem before Kathryn found out the next morning. In a panic, we called the site owner, and somebody answered the phone and said “Why are you calling during dinner? He’s eating dinner right now, and then he has to go to bed because he has school tomorrow! He’ll call you tomorrow morning!” No joke – we found out later that the kid was 16 and running the site out of his parents’ garage.
So, you can get the sense of how things started going downhill pretty quickly. When WotC first hired us, they were flying high on the release of the 3rd Edition D&D, which had brought tons of people back into gaming and 3.0 Player’s Handbooks were flying off the shelves. They actually had people taking the ads for the game that ran in Maxim magazine walk into bookstores with the ad in hand and say, “I want this.” Magic: The Gathering was going very strong, and Pokémon was just unstoppable. In fact, Pokémon was the reason that Hasbro bought WotC (at least, according to my sources at WotC). The profits from Pokémon allowed us to do some really awesome advertising things like run TV commercials and sponsor cool, edgy programs for M:TG in order to expose new people to the brand. We had money to advertise D&D outside of just the same old circles, with the intent of bringing in new players.
A mere 18 months later, the wind had left the Pokémon sail, so to speak. The fad was on a sharp downswing, and the bean-counters at Hasbro started to get really stingy with their marketing budgets for WotC, resulting in our media plans just being focused on the same old audiences who were already playing the game versus trying to bring in new players.
Just to give you an example of how drastic the changes were, in 2000, WotC spent (this is all public record information that’s available, so I’m not revealing any secrets) over $5 million to advertise Magic: The Gathering, including TV spots on Fox and UPN (That 70’s Show, Star Trek: Voyager, King of the Hill, etc.), Syndication (WCW, Xena, Battledome, Earth Final Conflict, Beastmaster, etc.), Cable (MTV, USA, WWF, Comedy Central, ESPN2, Major League Soccer), ads in movie theaters in the Top 25 markets, and magazine ads in a bunch of magazines including WWF.
Just one year later, in 2001, they spent only $1 million dollars on M:TG, and that was spread across a total of 10 different plans, including Organized Play, Junior Super Series, “7th Edition Retention”, an “Acquisition” plan (to get new players), Deckmasters, Players Rewards, and three different expansions (Torment, Odyssey, and Apocalypse). Almost all of this money was spent on the same four M:TG fan sites (which appeared on every plan), and for ads in Inquest Gamer, Scrye, Games Quarterly, and Comics Retailer. A couple of ads did run in both Dark Horse and DC Comics, which was good, but for the most part, every plan consisted of just digital banner ads on the four fan sites.
The story for D&D was pretty much the same, where advertising budgets fell from over $600,000 in 2000 with ads in Maxim, computer gaming magazines, and postcard racks at Tower Records and college campuses, to only $140,000 in 2001 with ads only in “endemic” category magazines like Inquest Gamer, Games Quarterly, Dork Tower, Nodwick, Knights of the Dinner Table, Games Unplugged, PVP, the D&D Comic, Dragon, Dungeon, Living Greyhawk, Polyhedron, Star Wars Gamer, and Star Wars Insider.
In Part 4, I’ll talk about how I ended up on the wrong side of the Hasbro marketing person (by basically trying to defend my WotC marketing client), how the Harry Potter Trading Card Game advertising plan became a disaster, and how I was eventually asked off of the account. Stay tuned.