Wednesday interview: Maryam Bazargan of New Street Media talks in-game advertising

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MaryamB.jpgWhen you play Pro Evolution 6, you’re probably thinking about working the ball out to your nippy winger, trying to organise your flat-footed back four, or wondering how much your friendship will be damaged if you slap the joypad out of your mate’s hands just as he’s lining up that 91st-minute penalty. Actually, that’s probably just me and Jose Mourinho…

Anyway, chances are you aren’t thinking about advertising. Yet Pro Evolution 6 is one of the increasing number of console games to feature proper, paid-for ads – in this case from Reebok, which is featured throughout the game, and Canon, which has pitch-side ads and sponsors the replays.

The ads are the work of New Street Media, a London-based game advertising agency, which has also placed ads within games like The Getaway, as well as interactive TV and mobile games. The company was set up four and a half years ago, and was one of the first firms to focus on in-game ads. MD Maryam Bazargan says it’s going to become more and more common.

3178on_foot_frank_02.jpgNew Street’s role is basically working with games publishers to see what games are coming out where brands could fit in, and then finding brands to place within those games. The latter have been getting more numerous, as the advertising industry realises that young people are consuming less traditional media like TV and newspapers/magazines.

“The core audience of young men probably spend more time playing games than they do watching TV,” says Bazargan. “There’s also more awareness within media agencies, partly because of very high-profile games like Grand Theft Auto, but also because you’ve had games being turned into films. Marketeers realise this is an area they have to look at, as it’s not just about a niche audience of kids any more.”

Bazargan says the easiest games to place adverts in are sports titles, like Pro Evolution 6, which have advertising hoardings as part of the game’s realism. Skiing and snowboarding games are also a good fit for advertisers, as are urban titles like The Getaway with their billboards and street advertising. The latter group can be violent, which puts off some advertisers, but doesn’t faze others.

proevo6.jpgThe deal with Pro Evolution 6 has been portrayed as one of the most lucrative in-game advertising deals yet. What makes that game so suitable, beyond the ability to brand pitch-side hoardings?

“It’s one of the few games that people buy, then play it for the whole year,” says Bazargan. “A lot of games, you’d only play a few times, although that’s still more than you’d watch a film. But in terms of hours of consumer eyeballs, it’s probably one of the top games out there.”

You’d think there’d be scope for strife when advertisers sit down with games developers and publishers, expecially when it comes to tricky issues like creative control. Bazargan says that New Street always has to think about the gamers, and rule out advertising that interferes with the gameplay, no matter how much the advertiser wants to pay.

However, there are big benefits for games publishers too in having brands pay for space in their games, not least because the costs of developing games for next-generation consoles like Xbox 360 and PS3 can be huge.

“Developers are much more pro-active now that we’re talking real money than a few thousand pounds,” says Bazargan. “It’s not something they can ignore really, as it can be significant enough to help them forward with their game releases and the marketing. Still, in the grand scheme of things, the amount a brand pays to be in a game is nowhere near the money a publisher would make from sales, so it’s still the gameplay that has to come first. And advertisers know that. If it’s not a good game, it won’t have an audience.”

Many current in-game advertising deals are worked out on a sponsorship basis, like Pro Evolution 6, as although you can guess that the average Pro Evo user will play it for 100 hours or so, there’s no way of tracking the exact usage to charge advertisers for that. However, that’s changing as more gamers take their consoles online, which besides allowing them to swear while getting beaten by 11-year-old kids, also means adverts within games can be dynamically updated – and tracked.

So who’s advertising in games? “It’s traditionally been a young male audience, so we’re still getting the same category of brands that have been active for a while,” says Bazargan. “Soft drinks, fashion brands and so on. But the number of companies in those areas looking to do it is growing. And we’re getting more and more other kinds of brands interested not in using console games, but interactive TV or Web games instead to target kids and women respectively.”

Bazargan thinks mobile is an underexploited area for game advertising, partly because the small screens make it hard to place adverts within games as New Street would for a console game. Instead, it’s more likely to take the form of placing advertising messages in the loading screens between levels, or companies commissioning advergames based entirely on their brand, which can then be given away free.

Meanwhile, advertising on interactive TV games channels like Sky’s PlayJam channel is also growing. “You can’t compare it to Xbox or PlayStation, but it’s a different type of engagement in gameplay,” says Bazargan.

“You might flick onto PlayJam and play a game for 10-15 minutes, in between watching other programmes. And so that game might be brought to you by a brand for free, rather than you paying to play. It’s great for targeting kids, we’ve seen amazing results for brands targeting younger demographics.”

But for the future, Bazargan is enthusiastic about the potential of more connectivity, allowing advertisers to have more direct interaction with gamers to get their views and feedback, rather than just showing them an ad.

“I’m excited about brands really embracing this environment and getting even more involved with the gameplay,” she says. “Rather than just sticking some ads in, the brand gives something back to the consumer of the game. Brands are taking it more seriously too, so we have longer projects to make this kind of stuff work.”

Stuart Dredge