Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Time Working with Wizards of the Coast

WotC's HQ.  I got to visit here once while working wiht them.
As I’ve mentioned a few times before, one of the main things that got me actively back into the role-playing game hobby was back in 2001 when I ended up in a situation to work on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast. 

My time working on their advertising was fun, and very interesting, and I thought that you all might like to hear some of the specifics.  This is basically just going to be a “off the top of my head” type of blog post, so it might not be organized all that well.  This first part is also a little long (obligatory "That's what she said" joke goes here), but I was looking for a natural breaking point in the narrative.

And, I do want to say that my point here isn’t to make fun of anybody at WotC, but rather to point out what the culture was like during the time that I worked with them and to show you all how and why sometimes stupid decisions get made in the corporate world.

How It Started and What I Do
I was working at an ad agency in Los Angeles in charge of the media planning and buying for a few different clients (a bank, a bread company, an electrical utility, and an automobile association).  Media planning is basically the function of figuring out who the best target market is for a product or service (who is most likely to buy it, based on their demographics, lifestyle, psychographics, etc.), and then determining what their media habits are (how much media they consume, and whether they are more likely to be influenced by a TV commercial or a magazine ad or an Internet banner ad, for example).  They we figure out the exact “mix” of media types to use, and recommend how much money to spend on each one to make sure that you’re not spending too little that you’re not being effective, and that you’re not spending too much so it’s overkill and a waste of money.  There are lots of statistics we use in this, like Nielsen rating points and audited circulations and all that.  Once the client approved the particular mix of media we’ve recommended, then you get to Media Buying, which is negotiating with sales representatives at different tv networks, publications, websites, radio stations, etc. to agree on the proper pricing, the time of day your ad will run, the page in the magazine your ad will run on, etc.  It’s a lot more detailed and complicated than that, and involves things like research, billing oversight, checking your buys to make sure they ran as ordered, negotiating “make-goods” with the vendors screw up and run your ad incorrectly, etc.  But, those are the basics.

So, I’m sitting in my office one day and my boss says that there’s a lead on a new client that was recently acquired by Hasbro.  My agency at the time was the main agency for Hasbro, but out of our New York office.  She said, “This new company was just purchased by Hasbro, but they’re located in Washington, so they’re looking for an agency on the West Coast.”  I perked up, because I had been reading about what was happening with Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro ever since my Dragon magazines stopped coming in the mail.  “It’s called the Coast Wizards or something like that.”

“Wizards of the Coast,” I said. 

“You’ve heard of them?”

“Yep.  I actually play their games.  They have a bunch of stuff, like Dungeons and Dragons, if you’ve ever heard of that.  But right now I’ve been into a game called Magic the Gathering.” 

“They also make a card game that’s related to that Pokémon phenomenon.”

“Yes,” I said.  “I knew that, too.  I’d love to work on this, if you haven’t assigned anybody, because I can guarantee you that you’re not going to find anybody else in the office that does what I do and also plays these geek games.  We can impress them right out the gate by showing them that I already know their product line.  It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around if you’re not really involved with it.”

She agreed, and a few days later I was meeting WotC’s director of Marketing, a guy named Paul, and his number two, a Marketing Manager named Kathryn.  A few people flew in from my agency’s New York office just to make sure that I wasn’t some kind of mutant, since they felt like they controlled everything that had to do with Hasbro and they didn’t know me already.  My boss and her boss were both at the meeting, as well as my “number two”, a friend and co-worker named Malinda. 

To show the WotC people how serious we were, I brought a bunch of my old products, including a full set of Magic the Gathering Unlimiteds, and also a scattering of my Arabian Knights and Antiquities cards, all of which we fanned out on the table.  I also brought my old 1st Edition and 2nd Edition AD&D books and a stack of Dragon magazines with the plastic mailing wrappers with my address on them so they could see that I actually subscribed and that I hadn’t just run out to the store to buy them. 

Paul was sufficiently impressed.  “These are really old,” he said.  “You’ve been playing for a while, I see.”

“Yes, I have.  I’ve been subscribing to Dragon since issue #90 back in the early 80’s, and my friend and I get together to play Magic about once a week.” 

I think Kathryn was scared.  The meeting was basically just a meet-and-greet where they told us about their product lines, tried to explain their games to the Muggles in the room, and also mentioned that while they were happy to be working with Hasbro, they had their own company culture and wanted to make sure that they still called the shots.  They felt that they had a certain amount of autonomy, and that ultimately, I (being the head of their account) would answer to them, not to Hasbro or to New York.  That all seemed reasonable to me, especially since everybody who worked on the Hasbro team at our New York agency was a woman over the age of 35 at the time who had never played, or even heard of, Dungeons & Dragons or Magic, and thought the whole thing was for kids.  They just didn’t get it. 

That’s where the problems started happening.  But that will come in a later post. 

Over the next few weeks, Paul and Kathryn basically sent us historical documents of everything that they had done, advertising-wise, for all of their product lines, which at the time included not only D&D, Magic, and Pokémon, but also the MLB trading card game, a Looney Tunes card game, an NFL card game,  their novel lines, the Star Wars d20 game, their conventions, and a game called “WCW Nitro.”  It was a lot of small individual plans, because each card game release or rulebook had its own plan.  For example, there was a “big” plan for Magic: The Gathering, but then each expansion had its own plan as well.  The same was true for Pokémon.  So, we were managing dozens and dozens of plans, many of which only had very limited budgets. 

Shortly thereafter, Paul was pretty unceremoniously dismissed from Wotc, I think partly because he never got along well with his “boss” at Hasbro Corporate, a not-very-nice woman whose name I forget and I won’t mention it here anyway because I’m going to call her out on some things she did later on that won’t put her in a good light.  She no longer works at Hasbro.  Kathryn was promoted to Paul’s old position and became my new main contact at WotC.  

 Unlike Paul, Kathryn was not really a geek at heart, and had a little trouble trying to understand the games, their targets, and the whole gaming culture.  She and I became pretty close because she relied on me to help explain things to her in “layman’s terms” because she didn’t want to ask questions of her peers at WotC and have them find out that she didn’t understand the difference between Magic and D&D, for example.  This was the start of a strong client relationship, but one which would ultimately land me in trouble with “the suits” back in New York. 

More later in Part 2


  1. Very interesting. I think we kind of know that the people behind the scenes are just going to be suits out to make money with little knowledge or regard for what they are selling but a small part of us wishes they were geeks like us. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. What they said. :) Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Wow, not just interesting from a gamer standpoint, but I've gotten into Mad Men recently, so advertising stuff is very cool to me right now. Excellent tale.

  4. Very revealing. I think we have guessed at this type of stuff in the past, but kudos for the article! Engaging material.

  5. So I guess I won't ad my own "looking forward to part two" comment, as the others have pretty much covered it. :P

    As for "how and why sometimes stupid decisions get made in the corporate world," I think it can be distilled down to two main items:

    1) Decision by committee, and
    2) Decision by a single person who really has no business making such decisions

    The culture in my current place of work is such that no single person ever feels empowered to make a decision (due to lack of support from management), so all of them are made by committee. It's frustrating beyond belief to have your professional position repeatedly overruled by others' uninformed opinions. (Your expert opinion only counts here if you've paid a vendor to provide backup. *sigh*) I can't wait to see what sort of business idiocy was involved in your tale.

    (I guess I slid that "looking forward to" comment in there after all. :P)

  6. Glad you all enjoyed it. I'll be working on Part 2, but probably wont' get to it until next week.

    @Brunomac - So, when you're watching Mad Men, you'll see references to an agency called McCann-Erickson. That's where I worked (well, their sister media agency, Universal McCann) prior to leaving the corporate world and starting my own boutique shop.

    @Christopher B - "decision by committee" is what kills nearly every good idea that's ever been had. A great example is the upcoming Conan movie. I've mentioned this several times on the Grognardia site, because James seems intent on blaming the writer for what a piece of crap that movie looks like it's going to be, but I can assure you that it's not his fault. I know the original screenwriter, and he his a huge Conan fan, and he wrote a screenplay that was based on a actual R.E.H. Conan story. All of that went by the wayside when the corporate studio executives got their hands on it and changed it what they seem to think people want to see.

  7. I must have blocked most of these events from my memory. I was there and can barely remember any of it. The only clear memory I have of my WoTC experience is you teaching me how to play Magic and D&D. Guess it's because they were the best things to come out of the experience! Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  8. I was just popping by and bang, your post here managed to grab my attention and not let go. I am waiting patiently for part 2 though if I had to guess at a problem that occurred it would be you put together a plan that marketed to people who actually played the products but the people in power disagreed with you because they thought it was for younger people.

  9. I know this is a very old post but I am new here so forgive me for chiming in late. I agree with Christopher B when he said:

    1) Decision by committee, and
    2) Decision by a single person who really has no business making such decisions

    But I'll add a third "reason" for failure (in two variants):

    3A) Decision made by new owners who are clueless about the business they just bought.

    3B) Decision made by new managers who are clueless about the project they just were put in charge of.

    Example: Hollywood was forever changed when financial corporations bought all the studios and decided that college kids with degrees in theatre were better at creating films than veteran directors with real world experience. To be fair, sometimes these kids were very good but a lot of excellent old talent was thrown away in the quest for "new".

    Example #2: The original Renaissance Faire (in Agoura, CA) was bought by a group of investors who completely failed to understand that the strength of the production was the hundreds of volunteers and the devotion they had for making things as historically accurate as practical and having fun while doing it. When the new owners started insisting on making "shopping" more important than recreating the time period or entertaining the crowds, the crowds started to shrink and many volunteers went away. This actually raised the overhead as they had to start hiring professionals to replace the previous "doing-it-for-love" workers. So many of the later Faires that copied the "new" original didn't even try to make their events historically accurate at all. The original Faire used to be filled with laughter and music on every street corner, much of it by spontaneous groups of volunteer actors just enjoying making the crowds smile. Now the most common sound you hear in the streets is merchants hawking their wares. Very sad.


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