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“Disruptors at Heart”: How DDB FTW’s Creativity Is in the Game, around the Game, and of the Game



Gavin Cheng, CEO of FTW Worldwide, on the opening salvos fired by DDB’s specialised esports and gaming network, how gaming culture influences the way it works and what the coming “metaverse wars” could mean for brands

“Disruptors at Heart”: How DDB FTW’s Creativity Is in the Game, around the Game, and of the Game
DDB FTW (For the Win), DDB’s specialised esports and gaming network, only launched in November 2020 and has already expanded to 17 markets. Maybe that’s no surprise, considering the rapid growth of the gaming industry, which is the world’s most profitable in the entertainment sector.

DDB FTW was launched in November last year, immediately securing a global partnership with ESL, the largest esports company in the world. Based in Prague, the new division is already present across major world regions including LATAM, EMEA and APAC.

LBB’s Alex Reeves talks gamer-to-gamer with Gavin Cheng, CEO of FTW Worldwide, to hear about his vision for the network and the beliefs that inform it.

LBB> What was the germ of an idea that led to DDB setting up FTW in the first place?

Gavin> This all got kicked off of Glen's [DDB EMEA president Glen Lomas] initiative called Hunters - a conference that brings leadership together to identify massive opportunities or territories that DDB could move into. And Darko [Silajdžić], CEO of DDB Prague, who is a massive gamer (I like to tease that he failed going pro) immediately identified gaming. 

This should not have been out of the blue for anyone. The difference is that, if you've been to conferences or workshops or brainstorming sessions, you usually have great ideas and you walk out and you go watch Netflix and then everyone sort of evaporates. But this is not Darko's style and this is not Glen's style, so they took this and ran with it and we landed ESL as an anchor partner very soon afterwards with the help of DDB Dusseldorf and DDB Paris. Within a week, FTW  launched a public announcement, established ourselves and planted a flag. 

The feedback and the response was phenomenal, both in terms of public, new business, inbound and so forth. It's very rare to get people connecting to you on LinkedIn and saying, "we want to meet and do business." It's usually the other way around. But most important I think was the electrification within the network. All the way up to Marty [O'Halloran, DDB Worldwide CEO], the leadership were supportive and enthused and completely behind this initiative. 

LBB> So the reason FTW is centred on Prague to begin with is because of Darko, essentially? What else shaped the network?

Gavin> Yes, it started with Darko. But one really interesting thing which has tendrils into other areas is that this organisation was born in the heart of the pandemic. With all the good and bad that came from it, our work had to be remote, to begin with. It was decentralised, it had the cooperation of multiple agencies from around the network and it was birthed out of Prague. We're still here in the prime office and supported by the mothership, as you will. But it was also a completely new model of business - where agencies really are working together to achieve common goals. And this is something that's actually amplified over the last six months. It's part of the incredible story of how different this particular initiative is.

LBB> You’ve got 17 offices and soon that number seems like it will grow. How are you making sure you build teams of people with the right expertise from within the DDB network?

Gavin> We've seen the stats on the amount of gamers that are out there. So, there's two areas of depth. One is understanding gaming culture and being a gamer. And this is one of the fundamental things we look for. But there's also that experience of working with gaming clients. We have Paris, Korea and adam&eveDDB as probably the most high profile yet we have agencies all over - a lot in Germany and South America - who have been doing gaming stuff. The inbound requests within one week were overwhelming. 

For the clients we are a fluid network and that's a term that Pipo [Calazans], the CEO of SunsetDDB in Brazil coined because of the way we started working. When clients work with us we pool resources from all over. We actually have an MD from one agency helping out a creative team across the world and vice versa. And frankly it's staggering. If you've been in the agency world for a while, the "let's do this together" initiative and attitude is pretty cool and the clients get advantage from that.

LBB> There must be something about gaming culture that had that attitude of remote collaboration even before the pandemic.

Gavin> There is. When you look at gaming it's huge and it's hard to make sense of it, but you can break it down initially in three areas:

Gaming is an industry - the titles and the money that flows through and so on. 

You could look at it as a channel in all its various means from streaming to playing in game and so on. 

And it's also a culture with its own language, fashion codes and behaviours. If you remember the great Gamestop stuff that was going on [when amateur traders took on Wall Street with dramatic consequences]: there was a great tweet from someone who said: "Wall Street clearly underestimated a generation raised on highly coordinated Friday night World of Warcraft raids." There's a certain kind of team effort - helping each other and banding together quickly. So I think the culture of gaming and the behavioural traits lean into and help amplify this fluid network. This feeling of helping each other, going in together as a squad is prevalent and it's pretty cool.

There's this behavioural bias towards working together. You have the casual gaming, but the really hot part is the multi-user gaming and typically they are team games. So there ends up being this getting together, taking on roles and accomplishing objectives. I think that is a key piece. But that just gets amplified by the excitement of people in agencies to begin to work on this as a category. When you have been spending the last five or six years going "oh my god, another effing hashtag campaign, another banner ad, my head's gonna explode," to be talking about how a game could be modded, how to tell a brand story by building an experience or an interactive multi-stream campaign over Twitch - this is really fun. A lot of energy comes out. 

LBB> What's your personal gaming history? 

Gavin> Like most people I grew up gaming, I had the Atari, went on to the Commodore and played lots of games. For me, I had a revelation moment the first time I played Quake multiplayer. It was the first true three-dimensional multiplayer. So, it was the absolutely shocking sense that I was in a place with other people that was just as real as the place I was in physically. As a result, I've always been into multi-user games. 

My background is more in tech, startups and as an entrepreneur than in the agency world, I actually built a demo using the Quake II engine to try to sell in the metaverse. I took it to Sand Hill Road, went to Silicon Valley to build the metaverse. This was a long time ago. 

I've been a gamer ever since and I enjoy multi-user games more than anything. I love the human cooperation and competitiveness. 

LBB> You’re obviously one of many gamers in the FTW network. Is everyone a gamer?

Gavin> I wouldn't say everybody. We definitely have a lot of depth. I also think it's important  we avoid making a monoculture when the agencies are set up, where everyone is just thinking the same way. So I think it's very valuable to have people who see the potential of games but aren't necessarily deep gamers. 

The other thing to realise is gaming is such a huge category. I've got my story, my background, my depth, I understand the development side of it. I like certain genres, I like Overwatch, I like Counter-Strike. Different people have different depths in different games and this is part of what you need to be able to execute and ideate, because it's not just one thing. It's a fractal tribe around the world and you need depth in each one of those areas.

One of the key strengths is that [DDB] have been trusted for 70 years with our clients' brands. We have a deep brand culture and we understand storytelling values, emotional experiences and narratives. When you combine that with a culture of gaming, you can navigate into the space in effective and authentic ways. It sounds like a lot of buzzwords, but too often brands may think about it but not know how to get in, or do it in an inauthentic, ‘game-washing’ way which won't fly. The audience will call BS in a millisecond and roast you.

LBB> Do you have any guiding principles about ways to connect brands and gaming?

Gavin> When we look at gaming as a channel and a way to reach people, there's three categories:
The first is things that are in the game - things that happen actually in the game world. 
The next are things that happen around the game - so streaming, tournaments and stuff like that. 
And then we have of the game, which is cultural - things that leverage gaming culture and memes and language and stuff like that. 

We want to do all three of these things - in the game, of the game and around the game. Creative and strategic storytelling are the foundation of the core services that creative agencies give. But the future is in technologies. It's in new channels. It's in new products. It's actually bringing clients pathways to gain real estate in this third space. And so this is a major thrust of what we're doing right now. 

LBB> What are some DDB projects that exemplify what you want to follow as FTW?

Gavin> Of course, one of the most recent ones was The Uncensored Library project out of DDB Berlin, which is part of DDB FTW Germany. Fantastic use of in the game, which was immensely effective for that cause. That's a great example. 

Then at the other end of the spectrum we have adam&eveDDB doing things like the new Virgin Media ad

One of the things I loved was the Watch Dogs: Legion video that DDB Paris did. 

They also did a great thing for Assassin's Creed called My Life as an NPC. If you know gaming, it's so funny! But if you don't know gaming you don't get it at all. This is an example of understanding the culture and this is an endemic brand.

LBB> One of the things that jumped out at me from the FTW launch release was around getting brands involved in mods, which I thought are interesting, because with the resources that a brand can bring to create a mod for a game, you can just imagine the things they'd be able to achieve.

Gavin> Absolutely. Mods are actually one of the secret weapons that most brands and I think many agencies don't even realise. You have to be a gamer to get it. You look at Minecraft and what happened with The Uncensored Library. 

Brands will often say "if you want to do this in the game we're gonna have to do a deal with a publisher”. Of course, publisher deals are powerful, but there's a lot you can do with a mod. And we've got an active database that we share with all of our agencies with over 2000 moddable games that are popular right now. So it is super exciting. I agree, that's totally one of the hot areas that you can attack.

The two biggest esports right now were born as mods. DOTA was a Warcraft II mod that just took on life and it basically defined the whole genre of MOBAs. And when you look at the genre of hero shooters like Overwatch, you can trace its lineage to the title Team Fortress 2, which came from Team Fortress, which came from a Quake mod. The mods are kind of the primordial soup where the next platforms get born and I think it's really interesting. 

LBB> What do you think are the huge opportunities right now in esports that maybe haven't been harnessed to the degree that they could be?

Gavin> You can see esports and not get it. But you see these giant stadiums and know there's something going on. What people need to realise is that humans are drawn to the apex of competition. This has been true for thousands of years, right from the Olympics to the colosseum to darts to sumo. The places change and the games change, but the drive is fundamental and it's human. And frankly, esports is where it's going. 

In terms of the massive opportunities that I believe brands aren’t quite so aware of are the teams and the players. When you look at FaZe Clan, they are the new rock stars, and they’re media empires. These are complete and fully realised channels and the ROI to get involved with esports through teams is actually really good. And here's the really interesting thing. It doesn't matter how small the team is or how big the team is. If you're in a region where esports is relatively small, the ROI is even better to get integrated with teams. They don't even have to perform well. They just need to have some sort of reach that you can work with. So in general, if there's one opportunity, it's getting involved with teams and players. I think this is very powerful; great ROI, easy to get into. 

You're also able to deal with restrictions on titles. Say you're a brand and you don't really go in for shooters. But now let's say you have a team like Navi who's a world superpower of CS:GO. If you want to leverage their reach, you can go in and partner with teams and players and do really interesting stuff that doesn't even show the gameplay. It's really interesting! I think that's one area in esports that's probably the hardest working. It's one of the things we're working on. 

And we can't talk about this without talking about UGC and what Roblox is doing - that is fascinating in terms of an entire new economy that's being built. That's really cool.

LBB> Which brings us onto the metaverse. What are you watching, in that space that excites you?

Gavin> We track a lot of things. There are near-term opportunities and there are things that are bubbling that are really interesting. So, I don't think we're going to have a single persistent metaverse, I think we're going to have the metaverse wars. We have two or three platforms that might break the gravity well of gaming and become social spaces. Potentially Oculus might enable that with their Quest 2 headsets and its six degrees of freedom. So we're tracking both where the technology is going, the experience and of course the marketplaces. 

In a nutshell, UGC marketplaces are really interesting because when you create a new economy where both brands and consumers and anybody can begin to create and express and monetise, you begin to build the foundation of a whole new way of looking at things. 

Gamers are disruptors at heart. They don't put up with old crap or things that aren't fair, they're the first to adopt new monetary models, they're really the first to rethink what it means to have an asset. A digital asset is just as important as a physical one, because either you earned it or you paid for it and it's expression. And so this whole transfer of working physical goods into virtual spaces is another area where gamers are leading. Increasingly, people will be spending more money on virtual goods and identity than they do on physical goods and their physical identity. 

We will see gaming and a few other platforms emerge to be the third space for more and more people. The idea is that the more people spend time in a space, the more they shape that space and the more that space shapes them. Then, it becomes as real or as important to the people who live there as the real world. 

For gamers these platforms are spaces. This is where things are really interesting. And this is where brands will definitely need to understand and be a part of this. Now, this is coming in the next few years: the wave is upon us, we just need to be looking at how it's going to evolve over the next few years. It's fascinating and we'll be tracking how that unfolds and what it will take for us to be a part of that fabric. I don't think anybody who wants to control the metaverse has a very good perspective on it, but to be part of the right and proper, true way of these emerging new persistent worlds is something great.

We've had the luxury over the last 70 or more years as agencies to tell stories and to deal with reaching people in this world. But today, there'll be two billion plus people who will be inhabiting a fantastic myriad of diverse, multiuser other-worlds where they will connect. And so what we need now is multi-world brands and multi-world marketing. Going from single-world marketing to multi-world marketing is one of the key ideas that we try to communicate.

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DDB EMEA, Tue, 10 Aug 2021 15:11:59 GMT