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"If you've bought into the brief, you have the foundation to take risks" | #GettingToKnow

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For someone with an interest in gaming, Wayne Leonard's career can only sound incredibly inspirational.

Wayne, now VP & Account Director at George P. Johnson, has been in the industry for decades, going as far as the production team for the first PlayStation. Getting the general public to take gaming seriously has been a challenge for years, and if Wayne's passion for the industry hasn't faltered once since then, we seriously doubt it will ever happen.

It goes without saying that his story is full of inspirational moments, advice and ideas for any creative professional out there. Today we are Getting to Know Wayne Leonard, VP & Account Director at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing (GPJ).

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Tell us a bit about your role! What is one typical day like?

I’m an Account Director at GPJ focusing primarily on gaming & esports accounts and running that vertical at the agency. I also lead a couple of key non-gaming accounts. As a result, there really isn’t a typical day. 

My main priority is running my accounts and helping to guide our clients and internal teams on projects or campaigns we are working on. After that, I’m working on relationships and marketing - from connecting with clients and analysing potential collaborations to creating marketing & thought-leadership content that our social and PR teams can share out. 

From an internal perspective, I’m also educating and consulting with account teams on non-gaming brands and how they can either bring their brand to a gaming audience or how we can bring some of the excitement & relevance of gaming culture to their audiences.

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

My involvement in gaming goes as far back as the US launch of the first PlayStation where I was on the production team. The challenge in the early days was getting people to take gaming (& later esports) seriously as a separate category from tech or entertainment. You can’t treat it like any other consumer audience - and where I’ve seen big failures is when a creative concept doesn’t come across as authentic. I must say that over the last few years that has definitely flipped as the realities of the gaming market - from an audience growth perspective - especially one that is recession and COVID-proof - has more than proven its staying and spending power. You also look at the cultural impact of gaming in our world. It was brilliant that the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics featured processions to video game music. I’m happy to be at a place where gaming as its own vertical is not just supported but celebrated.

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

As a kid I was fascinated with movies (thank you Steven Spielberg). So, I’ve always wanted to tell stories. My first serious professional aspiration was to become an editor and my college internship was with a post-production/special effects shop. But even today having produced hundreds of projects over the years, it all comes down to the story and what journey we are having our audience experience. It is no surprise that for the past two decades I’ve found myself working mostly with gaming brands to get their mode of interactive storytelling out to the masses. 

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

I think all of us have a story about the “big ticket” win or loss from a financial perspective. For me what sticks comes from an emotional level. I love that we have produced the Final Fantasy XIV Fan Festivals for Square Enix since 2014. The game constantly evolves and expands over the years, and we put these festivals on to celebrate the game and show much appreciation to the fans. The audience is so wonderful and passionate, and the in-person Fan Festivals have tripled in size over the years as the game itself continues to rack up players with no end in sight. Being able to bring elements of the game to life and just see the sheer joy and excitement in the fans is so rewarding and exciting. 

In terms of our biggest loss, again from an emotional level for me, it’s about the projects we never realized. We had Fan Fest 2020 designed and ready to start producing when COVID shuttled those plans. It was to be the biggest one yet. Another disappointment was around a AAA game we were planning a huge launch in San Francisco. I can’t reveal what the game was, but it would have been a coordinated city-wide celebration and takeover with multiple touch points and global livestream. Sadly, the game got delayed and ended up launching during 2020 so all physical experiences tied to launch were never realized. 

What’s your secret to remain inspired and motivated?

Video games are an interactive product. The audience is used to being engaged. Our challenge is to create a marketing experience that is as engaging as the product itself - not to compete with, but to compliment. To give fans a new way to experience a brand that they may know nothing about, or they could be a hard-core fan. The secret here is to always be authentic. It helps that for many of us, gaming is already a part of our entertainment diet. Many of our team members are gamers and fans themselves.

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

I don’t know if I have any consistent sources of inspiration, but certainly I have some favourites from the past few years that give me “creative envy.” If you haven’t checked out the Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championship - definitely do. What they do with their Opening Ceremony each time is pretty amazing stuff. It’s gotten to the point where the audience expects them to keep upping the experience and it’s a true display of technology & entertainment coming together. 

One of my favourite outings during COVID was the “drive through” Stranger Things experience in Los Angeles that was put on by Netflix and Secret Cinema. It was just a terrific night as you stayed in your vehicle and drove through several zones. The simple genius of it all was a soundtrack that you played through your car radio that was in sync with all the activities surrounding you. It was radio theatre at its heart and the experience would have been nowhere as effective and far cheesier without it.

On a completely different scale, I still think about what Devolver Digital did last summer when the video game industry show, E3, was cancelled. The team at Devolver put out a “marketing simulator” game - Devolverland Expo - that you could play on Steam. In the game they recreated an abandoned Los Angeles Convention Center (where E3 would have taken place) and you had to make your way through to unlock trailers, demos, and other surprises. It was an interactive and fun way to market an interactive product.

How has COVID-19 affected you?

You’ve already heard about a few of the disappointments that I’m sure will sound familiar to many readers. But there have been some bright spots. Certainly, from a personal level, it’s allowed me to pause and take stock of what’s important to me and worth protecting. 

Professionally, for me the past 18-months was one of discovery within our own network. As physical events cancelled and plans were thrown into turmoil, it allowed us to mix up some teams like never before. The benefit was two-fold as teams found “new” talent to collaborate with and individuals gained some variety in their portfolio. As we doubled down on digital events, showcases & interactions, silos were broken down and teams functioned with extraordinary efficiency. We actually ended up collaborating with our global offices and sister agencies more than before COVID. 

What is your biggest hope for 2021?

Given that we’re closer to the end of 2021 than the start, I thought I would project into 2022. I know for many clients; the digital experience has proven effective in expanding that audience base even if the engagement has not exactly been realized. My hope for 2022 when we see a more committed return to in-person events, is that we do not lose sight of the home audience and create more interesting hybrid events where the online experience is just as vital and impactful as the in-room experience. That the two groups will have moments of true personalization and can come together for some moments of shared interaction with each other. 

What is your one piece of advice to aspiring creative professionals?

Get out of your comfort zone and question everything. If you’ve bought into the creative brief and understand what your audience needs, then you have the foundation to take risks. It’s like what Paul Arden said: Whatever you think, think the opposite. 

Additionally, check out what other industries and brands are doing. You never know where inspiration can hit you. It’s a reason I like to be on at least one or two non-gaming accounts at any given time. You’re learning about something new and understanding a new audience and what makes them tick.

How do you recharge away from the office?

Sleep is the best recharge. But I do find it good to get out and commune with nature. I live in the city, so I’m drawn to the mountains and the oceans

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

I never really had a plan “B”, but I daydream about running a Scuba dive shop on some laid-back island in the Caribbean. Of course, in my daydreams there are no hurricanes and no COVID. 

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

It’s been a topic that we’ve heard a lot of in the last year - Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Belonging. I think there needs to be more consistent representation amongst the industry on the agency side so that we can finally get there on the customer/audience experience. And I’ll also throw Accessibility into the mix. What I’ve seen done well has been spotty and is often an afterthought or shuttled into its own zone vs true “belonging.”

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

For gaming news, I comb through gamesindustry.biz. It gives a great digest on the who and what in the industry. For gossip and snark, Kotaku never fails to disappoint. For a book recommendation, Jason Schreier has a couple of compelling books on the gaming industry that are worth checking out (as is his blog.) For a broader book suggestion, I would urge anyone who leads or works in a team to read Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” I first read it over 15 years ago and I still find myself turning to it. 

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