From eSports to movies, Covid-19 has thrust branded entertainment into a state of predictable unpredictability. McCann’s new EVP, Global ECD and director of entertainment talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about a musically-inspired philosophy that he reckons will help brands turn disruption into spontaneity
“I call it creating jazz,” says Perry Fair as he sets out his vision for the way that marketers and brands need to navigate the unpredictable Covid landscape. In the world of entertainment, where Perry plays, the pandemic has turned the pleasingly predictable rhythm of release schedules and annual events into a freeform, syncopated drum solo, where time signatures switch on a dime.
But, like jazz, the entertainment landscape of 2021 doesn’t have to be bewildering. Many of the changes we’re seeing have been super-charged by the global pandemic, but the bones were already there.
“Jazz feels like it's this random experience, unplanned, but it is planned. Jazz is based on a blues scale, which is a structure. And that allows for you to have a level of improvisation within the structure,” explains Perry, outlining a mindset that allows him to embrace the changes that are happening in the world, make plans for clients while being open to unexpected disruptions or changes of direction. Any marketer that’s been trying to celebrate a brand tie in with a Hollywood movie or major music festival this year will probably have found themselves embracing their inner scat singer as release dates have been pushed, and studios swither between different platforms and strategies.
“I think when it comes to us, it's time for us to go from our classical training as advertisers and marketers and start to play jazz, which allows for us to create a new scale of how we measure, of how we engage, how we build affinity, and then also how we connect and reconnect with our consumer in a way that keeps them interested in what comes next. But it's done within a frame, which we can go back and say, ‘here's how you make it repeatable. Here's how you keep people excited.’”
Perry is one week into his new – and newly created – role of EVP, global ECD, director of entertainment and it seems like the perfect time to make metaphorical marketing music. (He’s the former VP of global brand creative at Beats by Dre, ex head of partnerships of Red Bull Media House so that musical imagery is understandable). He’s come to the job at a time when the world of entertainment has been entirely up-ended due to both technology and Covid, and he will be primarily working on a client (Verizon) that’s at the forefront of the hyper-connected new world.
Considering the opportunities that lie ahead for marketers in 2021, Perry’s thoughts switch from jazz to gaming. It’s a space that he’s well-acquainted with, having worked on Activision Blizzard and being a keen gamer himself (a passion that he shares with his daughter). That gaming – and within gaming, eSports – has been growing and overtaking Hollywood is old news and precedes the pandemic; what 2020 did was push people towards games as a virtual space to socialise with friends during lockdown, and ramp up connectivity with the roll out of 5G.
“eSports is playing a much bigger role in the culture of gaming. And then the console and the cloud are kind of converging – you no longer need a physical disk to play a game,” says Perry of the two key drivers that influence how people interact with the gaming world.
Athletes and celebrities are starting their own teams. Gamers are streaming their own huge parties – while working as the head of partnerships at the Red Bull Media House, Perry oversaw a massive New Year live stream event with Ninja, a gamer with 16.6m followers on Twitch. Perry notes that eSports are taking on the social role of IRL sports beyond simply being forms of competitive entertainment. There are a growing number of eSport college scholarships – in the summer of 2020, he points out, Twitch even launched a partnership with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to help them start a league
, which is particularly huge considering that for pro gamers, tournament prize funds can reach six or seven figures.
Pre-Covid, eSports straddled the world of physical and virtual events – Activision Blizzard even launched a purpose-built arena in Los Angeles. Events were tethered to the real world due to the surprisingly mundane issue of connection speeds – LAN lines have been the best way to facilitate the responsiveness and connectivity that pro-gaming demands. Now that Perry is immersing himself in the world of Verizon, he sees all sorts of new possibilities arising as mobile connectivity improves.
“I think you're going to see eSport teams going virtual and you're going to see a lot of platforms and franchises leaping into mobile,” he says.
Every sphere of entertainment has been affected by Covid-19, and while in some areas the trajectory is almost entirely positive, other spaces like live music and cinema have suffered huge hits to revenues and they haven’t so much had to pivot as perform wild, skidding handbrake turns. Now that we’re past the initial shock, though, Perry sees that these spaces are starting to address bigger questions and more fundamental issues, which has to be a good thing.
“It’s not like they cancelled Coachella the night before. There's enough lead time now. I think at the very beginning of all of this, it was like, 'oh, my goodness, this just happened'. I think now the bigger question is, once things ‘turn back on’, what do we want to keep? What worked?” he says.
With movies and long form entertainment, giving people an option about whether they want to head out to the cinema or stay at home for a new release is likely to remain. Perry jokes that he and his wife have become adept at turning a two-hour movie into a six hour epic. People may choose to watch a film on their fantastic giant TV screen or their mobile, and they might be keeping an eye on one or two other screens as the movie plays. For brands, that means new opportunities for engagement. For filmmakers, though, it may make for some more challenging conversations. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was one of the few Hollywood movies to get a cinematic release last year and the director was not shy in sharing his views on the primacy of the big screen experience. It’s an impulse Perry empathises with.
“We, as creators, want people to see the thing we’ve created in its highest form. But also, as creators, we also need to start thinking, ‘I need to be able to create content that lives on this’,” he says pulling out his phone.
There’s lots to get excited about too. The proliferation of streaming platforms, hungry for content, has given viewers access to premium series from different cultures and countries from their own. US viewers are tapping into South African, Asian, Latin American and European series and vice versa.
That international inspiration is something that Perry is excited about tapping into in his new role with McCann. He’s buzzing with excitement about what the network is getting up to in Asia Pacific, India, Europe and the Middle East. Though his role is primarily with Verizon, he’s also connecting with offices in other markets to find out where his expertise and experience can help.
“I consider myself a student on two fronts. So one just being a student of the world and then the other is being a student of the brand. In that sense I’m a student from the point of view of just listening to what Verizon’s needs are and then fulfilling against that and then additive not only for Verizon but the McCann network,” he says.
As a former client himself, Perry really understands the importance of taking time to learn and listen. “It always used to vex me – and I include myself in this – when someone, whether from agency or client, walks into a room and just assumes that they automatically understand it. I’m a true fan of onboarding,” he says. Rather than ‘just jumping into a ditch and grabbing a shovel’, it’s important to understand both the nature of the client’s problem and also how your skills can best be deployed to help.
There’s no cookie cutter approach when working with brands and entertainment. If that was true before Covid it’s doubly true today, so cultivating that deep understanding is crucial.
“I truly believe in my core that every brand is unique, they’re like snowflakes to me. It's almost impossible for me to see them as being similar. Beats could never be a Red Bull,” he says. “The part that makes them interesting for me, is being able to go in and fully understand that. For Beats, it wasn’t even just about understanding what makes the brand unique, but that product for that moment in time. Every brand to me has a story to tell, their own culture and their own narrative.”
And oddly enough, coming to this new role at a time of lockdown has given Perry an extra layer of understanding. He of course misses the human interaction of wandering the office hallways, popping his head around the door or seeing work up on a wall. But home working and constant video calls means that he’s never far from touching on his client’s core of connectivity.
“Technology is only technology if you didn't grow up with it, it's lifestyle for everyone else. So how do you move into video and real time engagement as an organisation, as not technology, but as lifestyle? Our audience is growing up with this, they're growing up engaging with each other this way, they're sharing and creating content using their mobile devices as their singular tool. How do we live in this world with them? They're not going to come back to us. So, how do we go out to them? It sounds weird but being able to do business in this way helps us understand the world they live in.”
Ultimately, that deep understanding gives a creative like Perry even greater capacity for improvisation. Just as a musician must master their instrument and knowledge of how scales and rhythm work before leaping into the unknown possibilities of the jam, so too must marketers and creatives arm themselves.