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How McCann and Xbox Hacked the Rule Book for FIFA 18

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Creative directors Jamie Mietz and Sanjiv Mistry and Xbox’s Michael Flatt tell LBB’s Laura Swinton how they avoided the red card.

How’s this for a brief. You’ve got a great product to promote on your client’s platform. But… you’re not allowed to mention the product. At all. At. All.

And your client’s biggest rival? They’ve got the exclusive marketing rights for this amazing product sewn up. They’re splashing hashtags and logos and pack shots all over the place.

That’s the situation Xbox and their agency McCann London found themselves in last year. Their client Xbox was gearing up for the launch of the world’s biggest football game, FIFA 18, but they’d lost out on the marketing rights to PlayStation. Sure, Xbox could sell FIFA 18… but they couldn’t tell gamers that they could.

“As a direct result of the marketing exclusivity deal, our competitor had total freedom to advertise the game any way they wanted, while we at Xbox had pretty much the opposite – a 100% restriction on marketing the game across all media,” explains Michael Flatt, Global Integrated Marketing at Xbox. “We couldn’t even show our own game pack. So, the initial brief to the agency was to come up with an online film idea to market a game we were effectively forbidden from marketing.”

And so Jamie Mietz and Sanjiv Mistry, EMEA creative directors at McCann London, found themselves faced with what Jamie describes as ‘one of the hardest briefs we’ve ever had’.

The Xbox team proposed some sort of cheeky online film that might be able to reach fans and skirt around the rules – but the idea that emerged turned out to be so much bigger, broader and sustainable. They associated Xbox not simply with FIFA, but with football itself.

Football Decoded saw Xbox team up with pre-existing partners Real Madrid and a pro gamer to translate the real life moves on the pitch onto the corresponding Xbox controller buttons for FIFA 18. This went out on social media, print ads, during a tie-in with Talk Sport radio and even on the digital sidings surrounding the Real Madrid pitch during the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona ‘El Clásico’ match. What makes it particularly smart is that Xbox’s controller buttons are very different from their big rivals, so gamers would immediately link the combo lists to Xbox. In turn, as FIFA is the dominant soccer video game series, gamers would also make the connection with FIFA 18 despite the absence of any logos or mentions of the game itself.

So how did the team get from the tightest brief ever to Football Decoded? “Like a lot of ideas, it develops organically,” explains Sanjiv. “It’s knowing that if we don’t have certain assets to play with – the pack shot, the footage of FIFA etc. The first port of call is to ask ‘ok, well, what do we have’? So we looked internally and that’s how we hit upon these assets that were ostensibly being under-utilised, the controller symbols on the Xbox controller, the XYAB. We thought you could use that to start talking about football. The convenience for us was that there are other football games for Xbox but FIFA is the prominent one. So, forget about mentioning FIFA… if we’re able to talk about football and infuse it with an Xbox-yness, then people will join the dots.”

It’s the sort of idea that would immediately speak to gamers, though might get non-gamers scratching their heads. From Michael's point of view, the agency had gone above and beyond. “We felt that this was an inspired piece of guerrilla marketing thinking because it instantly linked exceptional football skills to one of our unique brand assets (our Xbox controller symbols), making our audience think of FIFA without ever explicitly mentioning the game or contravening the marketing exclusivity deal. We also loved that the idea empowered our fan base, as it let gamers learn new skills from great footballers, making them better at Xbox’s version of FIFA 18.”

Instead of a one-off social film, the campaign ended up being a project with legs. It launched in Autumn 2017, and was spun-off in so many different directions and is still ongoing. The hook up with Real Madrid meant access to the club’s nearly 300 million social followers, who took to the idea with gusto.

And it wasn’t just fans that were ‘engaging’ in the campaign – rivals PlayStation also tried to do their own version. Well, they do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. “We had a feeling that this idea was simple and replicable enough to get gamers involved. But what we certainly did not expect was for our competitor to suddenly start using exactly the same tactics we were using, despite them having a blank canvas to promote the game any way they wanted,” says Michael. “Soon after we launched the campaign, our competitor began putting out social videos translating moves from an actual football match into their controller buttons. It was frustrating, but at the same time reassuring, because it meant that we were doing something right in order to make them change their approach.”

It was certainly a clever and smartly tactical campaign – but what did the results look like? They reached over 650 million spectators per Real Madrid match – and there were twelve such matches. And, despite losing out on the marketing rights, the team managed to grow the FIFA player base on Xbox by 10% year-on-year through to Q3.

Article first published on Little Black Book.

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