Monday, November 14, 2011

My Time Working With Wizards of the Coast (Part 4)

This entry will finish my four-part saga about my time working on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast back in the early 2000s.  To get the full effect, you can read the past entries here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So, continuing...

At this point, after working on the account for about two years, things started to go South very quickly. 

According to my client at WotC at the time, Hasbro was a little annoyed that they had put a lot of money into WotC, ostensibly to obtain the Pokémon license, which by this time was on a severe downslide from its former peak of sales and popularity.  D&D and Magic: The Gathering, while much smaller properties, were also but a shadow of their glory in terms of sales.  Many of WotC's other properties were pretty much a bust right out of the gate: card games based on Major League Baseball, World Class Wrestling, and (get ready) Looney Tunes (?!?!) had not done well at all and were discontinued. 

Then, things started to look up.  WotC picked up the exclusive license to produce a trading card game based on the very popular Harry Potter books.  The first movie had just come out in November of 2001 and the series was really starting to take off.  Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, both trading card games, had been huge successes for WotC.  A trading card game based on the extremely popular Harry Potter series seemed like a sure win. 

And that's when corporate America got involved, in all its glory. 

You see, at this time, since Warner Brothers had paid for the rights to develop the movies based on the Harry Potter series, they somehow had it written into their contract that they got a say in any Harry Potter merchandising that was developed.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, also had very tight control over her property, so she had a sort of final approval capability on anything that was done with her characters, which would include the advertising for any products based on her characters.  WotC signed the deal to obtain the license for the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, but since Hasbro owned WotC, they took a very keen interest in what happened with the game.  They were betting that they had another Pokémon phenomenon on their hands. 

Anyone who knows anything about how things work knows that having four"decision-makers" (WotC, Hasbro, Rowling, Warner Brothers) involved in something is just going to make it a complete mess.  And that's exactly what happened. 

From the get-go, the designers at WotC were severely limited in the types of cards they could create.  My team at the ad agency designed a promotion for young budding authors through the Scholastic program at junior high schools where they would write stories in the Harry Potter universe (a form of fan-fic, I guess) which would be judged by a panel of people from WotC and perhaps J.K. Rowling herself, and the winners would get their likeness on a custom card designed for an expansion to the game.  In essence, they would get to be part of the Harry Potter universe.  This idea was killed because according to the terms of the license, WotC wasn't allowed to create new characters.  That's just one example.

Then the Hasbro Corporate woman from the East Coast called an "all partners" meeting in Los Angeles and I went to the meeting as the most senior agency person working on the WotC business.  Except, as it turns out, I wasn't the most senior person there.  The Hasbro Corporate woman, who knew nothing of the types of games WotC made, nor had ever met or even talked to me, decided that I must not know what I was doing, and corralled a bunch of senior people from our New York Office who worked on other Hasbro brands.  They were all women in their mid-40s or older who had a kind of disdain for the types of "boy games" that WotC made.  It reminded me very much of the stories I'd heard about Lorraine Williams. 

To give you a quick idea of what the Corporate person was like, I was told by one of my counterparts in the New York office that she (the Corporate person) was never in the office, so one time they needed her to approve something very urgently and they had to track her down at her nail salon and present a plan to her while she sat there and got her nails done.  This is how corporate America works.  

So, these people, who have no idea what I've done working on the WotC brand, and who don't play or understand the games or even the Harry Potter property, come to the meeting and start telling the WotC client how she should be marketing the game.  The Corporate person backed them up.  This was all very surprising to the WotC client (Kathryn) and me because, I had already developed an advertising plan for the Harry Potter Trading Card Game that had been approved by the client and her sales team. 

The Corporate person said that my plan was not "edgy enough" (I have no idea what that means).  The WotC client was noticeably upset and tried to defend what we had done.  The Corporate person started to berate her in front of the entire group at the meeting, so I stepped up to defend my client and mentioned several times how she had solicited input from the sales team at WotC (the people responsible for getting the retailers to carry the product).  The Corporate person told me that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Later on, unbeknownst to me, the Corporate person from Hasbro told one of the people at my agency in New York to call my boss in Los Angeles and have me taken off the business.  My boss was super cool and really liked me a lot, and she actually never had the heart to tell me.  She stood up for me and I didn't find out until much later that this had all happened. 

As it turns out, the majority of my advertising plan was eventually executed, and the Harry Potter Trading Card Game actually performed much better than expected during the launch period in terms of sales and retail support.  Unfortunately, the expectations were super low at this point, so that's not saying a lot.  The designers felt too constrained by the terms of the licensing deal to create anything that was going to be fun whatsoever.  They weren't allowed to develop game mechanics that would create possibilities that didn't happen in the books, which means that the game is not going to be all that fun. 

After this whole thing happened, the account was "transferred" from the L.A. Office to be handled by a media planning team out in New York, which of course made no sense at all since the client was in Seattle, only a 2 1/2 hour plane ride from where I was.  Also, the new team who took over the planning was a bunch of young people right out of college, none of whom had ever played TCGs or RPGs before and didn't consume the type of media that the target would be using.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big believer in the idea that media planning is media planning - I can help someone sell cars just as easily as I can help them sell cold medicine.  But in this case, when you have an extremely niche hobby and you come across someone who is involved in the hobby and does media planning - well, as they say, that's "pure win."  It should be a no-brainer. 

What did I learn from all of this?  

Well, I learned that I'm not good at playing office politics.  I could see the way the wind was blowing.  The Corporate people were coming in to take over and put the team in place that they liked.  But, I didn't suck up to them.  I had this horribly mistaken belief that work was a meritocracy.  Do an outstanding job and you'll move up.  Now that I'm older and more experienced, I know that's not the case. 

I also learned that good ideas are pretty much going to be trumped every time by the slow-turning wheel of Corporate America.  We, and the designers at WotC, had a lot of good ideas for the brand that were much easier to get done right after the brand had just been acquired by Hasbro.  They had a huge influx of cash to spend on marketing and advertising and product development, but the suits at Hasbro were too busy getting things in order that they didn't really pay attention to what we were doing for a good year or 18 months.  After that time, when they got more involved, decisions were never made.  There was always another "higher-up" who needed to see what was proposed and approve it, but they were always too busy or out of town or something.  Decisions that used to be made in a matter or hours were now made in weeks. 

I learned that I'm much better working in an unfettered environment of peers who all collaborate and share ideas and aren't afraid to try something new just because it's never been done before.  Working on WotC was also the first time that I really bonded with a client and got to know their business beyond just my part of media planning, but in terms of sales, distribution, product development, budgeting, and so forth.  I became more of a business consultant to my client instead of just a "media planner." 

So, based on all of the above, I eventually ended up opening my own agency nearly three years ago.  It's extremely stressful and very unstable in terms of being able to plan out my financial livelihood.  But, I wouldn't trade it for anything. 

That concludes my tale of working on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast. I hope you found in entertaining and educational.  I'd love to hear your comments and questions.  

Oh, yeah.  Another thing I learned - "what goes around comes around."  That Corporate person from Hasbro?  She was eventually fired. 


  1. Interesting series! Just one comment - in #3 where you write that you doubt TSR was paying for advertising in the early days of the game; they were. If you read early issues of The Dragon Tim Kask talks about that, and how vice-versa, if The Dragon staff needed game books they had to buy them from TSR with magazine revenues.

    Tim has a thread over at Dragonsfoot if you are curious about how advertising worked there in the early days.

  2. Loving these posts Martin! Thanks, Dharl

  3. Hey @EOTB - thanks so much for that information. That's interesting stuff.

    And @Dharl - thanks for reading!

  4. Nice post. Have you worked any other companies since with such a personal interest?

  5. Hey Dylan! (Or, uh... Crockett. Sorry. :) )

    My first gig out of college was working on Mattel stuff. They split their advertising up between Barbie and the "large dolls", which went to one agency, and then had Hot Wheels / Action Figures / "Small Dolls" / Preschool / Games, which was at the agency I worked at. So, I got to do media plans for Hot Wheels and the action figures for such awesome movies as "Demolition Man" and "The Last Action Hero." But, still, it was cool because we got to advertise in comic books once in a while as well as on TV.

    Other than that... most other business I've worked on has been cool (from a work standpoint), but relatively mundane. I've done advertising for things like banks, utilities, aerospace companies, raisins, bread, cold medicine, a pancake restaurant chain, dog food, ice cream... you name it.

    What's interesting is that I was just telling my wife a few days ago - at this point in my life, I would much rather work on a piece of business that sounds boring but with clients that are super cool, than I would on something that sounds awesome (video games, toys, RPGs, etc.) but with clients that are mean, unappreciative, or don't want to listen to my advice.

    With cool clients, I actually get into their business category and I want to do a good job for them and help them succeed, so at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter what category they're in.

    Does that make any sense?

  6. Just got through the whole series (missed it when you first posted it). As someone who works in communications, marketing, etc. it was a cathartic experience to read!


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