Eric Hirshberg is a CEO. But he didn’t arrive at that role via a typical route. "I went to art school, not business school. I came up through my career and through the business world as a creative, managing other creative people and creative deadlines," said Hirshberg.
He launched the L.A. branch of ad agency Deutsch and was with the company for 13 years, serving as chief creative officer and co-CEO. His credits include the "Kevin Butler" campaign, one of the factors in the revitalization of PlayStation 3. And then he met Bobby Kotick, the CEO of holding company Activision Blizzard, at a friend’s dinner party. Two years later in September of 2010, Kotick hired him as CEO of Activision Publishing, managing all of the developers, marketing, and distribution of its games.
As Hirshberg tells it, Kotick said that Activision needed a new perspective for the changing times in the game industry. "When Bobby Kotick hired me he said something that really stuck with me, 'What you don’t know you can learn and we can surround you with; and what you do know will be differentiating for us.'"
We talked to Hirschberg about how his background on the creative side of marketing affected his approach to his role as CEO and culled 10 lessons for the creative leader of any provenance.
Hirshberg’s years in advertising, working with other marketers, had exposed him to many strategies, including those he is now avoiding. "In the entertainment business the instinct is generally to spread the chips around the table and hope one of them is Lady Gaga or hope one of them is Avatar," says Hirshberg. But that creates a lot of the generic work he sees from other companies. "I think people take a false security in a wide slate. That doesn’t mean that you have something special in every category," says Hirshberg. "Our strategy has been to wait until we have something that we feel is differentiating, where we can bring our special contribution to it. And when we go, we go big."
As a former creative, Hirshberg says the lines sometimes get blurred in meetings. "Part of the creative process is making sure it’s an environment where people are free to throw out all kinds of ideas, even if they’re not great. Freedom to fail and that there are no bad ideas are an essential part of the creative process," says Hirshberg. "When the CEO is in the room, a lot of people lose that very quickly. And so I’ve really had to go out of my way to let people know when I am acting as just a member of the creative team in a brain storm, versus when I am doing my job as the CEO."
That balancing act stretches beyond meetings to the actual work, as his time at an ad agency taught him. He says, "In the ad business it seems like there is a false choice that clients often have to make, between creative excellence and stuff that has real pop cultural value versus disciplined, strategic, market-moving work. We always strove to strike the perfect balance of those two."
The dreaded online leak hit Activision last May when details about Modern Warfare 3, the latest game in its hit series Call of Duty, were released online ahead of launch. "It was massive," says Hirshberg. "There were plotlines revealed, destinies of characters revealed, level designs revealed." When Activision’s team was assembled to discuss how to react, Hirshberg told them, "Our launch just started. We didn’t deal this hand, we didn’t control the timing of this, but there are a whole bunch of people out there on the Internet thinking about and talking about our game today—and they weren’t yesterday. On any other day we would be high-fiving if that was happening."
Luckily, the company had assets prepped for the official reveal a few weeks later—everyone moved quickly to get those up and the PR machine rolling. The result? He says, "48 hours later we had 3 million YouTube views; a week later we had 10 million YouTube views. The assets we released in an accelerated fashion because of the leak, performed 10 times that of the equivalent assets that we released for Black Ops a year earlier."
Even before Hirshberg officially started as CEO, he was brought in to look at the marketing materials for Call of Duty: Black Ops. And he wasn’t seeing anything that would capture the gaming public’s imagination. Hirshberg says, "I remember a moment in that meeting when someone said, 'Well, if we don’t come up with anything, we’ll just launch it with a game trailer.'" How did he respond? "I actually said as my first act as CEO, 'No. We’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to think better than that.'" The problem as he saw it? "People don’t think of video games as brands. They think of them as products. And that’s why they advertise them like products, where you just focus on the product features," says Hirshberg. "The product is the thing you buy, the brand is the thing you buy into."
Hirshberg’s time at an agency shaped other perspectives on product. He says, "The best thing that I learned in advertising, and at Deutsch specifically, is really looking at things from the consumer perspective first." Companies can’t go for the easy win and the easy gain for themselves, he says. "You have to always ask the question, 'What’s in it for the consumer? What’s in it for our gamer? What’s in it for our fans?' Because if there’s not something in it for them, it doesn’t matter that it would be good for us," says Hirshberg. "Having that consumer-first point of view I think is the best thing you can have as a CEO."
When Hirshberg arrived at Activision in 2010, the company already had the idea for Skylanders—action figures that come to life inside a video game. Hirshberg says, "We thought we had this nuclear idea of toys coming to life—that’s like DNA-level stuff to me: That’s what toys are in a way, things you imagine coming to life." And he halted the coming release of the concept. "The game was originally slated to release in holiday 2010, not 2011. We decided to push it by a year, to give it time to get to great," he says. "At the time, neither the game nor the characters were as great as that core idea. The characters were more generic: There was a Wizard, there was a Troll. They were more like archetypes," Hirshberg says. "One of the things that we did, during the year we took to push it further, was making sure we had characters that had immediate emotional appeal."
Skylanders’ unique combination of toys, the "portal" that scans the toys, and the video games the toy characters run around in, would need hands-on demos to catch on with kids. Hirshberg says, "You can’t scale that up to the level of a television commercial or a movie trailer, except for one place—which is at retail." To make a big splash in stores, they would need to give as much care to retail creativity as they would to trailers. "The toys actually sat at the bottom of the package. And the footprint of the packaging fit neatly on the portal. And these interactive kiosks with LCD screens and the portals were integrated into our shelf space. Any kid could take any toy off the peg, place it on the portal, and see it come to life."
Seeing the magic moment when the plastic toy they held begin running around the game grabbed children in a way nothing else could. Hirshberg says, "If I had to pick one thing, letting kids experience it and not just read about it at the back of the box or letting a sales person explain it led to the game’s success." According to sales-tracking company NPD Group, the Skylanders game, with the sales of the accompanying toys, was the #4 game of December 2011, #8 of the fourth quarter of 2011, and #10 best-selling game of 2011—the only non-sequel or kids game in the top 10.
So what about marketing the hit franchise Call of Duty? Hirshberg thought the hugely successful series of military shooters needed a fresh approach for its TV commercials. He says, "That first ad we did for Black Ops had the line, 'There’s a soldier in all of us.' In hindsight, it probably seems like a no-brainer, but it was very controversial because we were showing all different walks of life playing our game; we were showing bald guys and old guys and women." Why make such a choice, neglecting the tried-and-true approach of actually showing gameplay? "By the time we were launching this on television, we had something like 60 million collective YouTube views on various game trailers," Hirshberg said. "There were lots of other venues by which people who would be motivated by the gameplay alone could see that material. I felt like the job to do on television was not that, but to actually deliver the emotional promise of the game."
Marketing Call of Duty games presents a unique challenge, says Hirshberg, "We need to make work that delights the core audience, while also inviting in people from outside the core audience." The success of the Black Ops TV commercial was a good indicator of how the series was reaching beyond it fanatical fanbase. "The franchise had gained the pop culture critical mass," Hirshberg said. "That’s what the Black Ops campaign was and that’s what the "Vet and Noob" campaign for Modern Warfare 3 was as well, expressions of the thrill of being an expert and also the fun of sucking at it and gaining mastery over it."
The Call of Duty franchise has reached beyond its genre, like other fiction. Hirshberg says, "A lot of non-sci-fi fans saw Avatar; it managed to reach that stature where no matter what you’re a fan of, you had to see it to be a part of it." Black Ops was the largest entertainment launch of all time when it was released in November 2010, earning $360 million in revenue in 24 hours. That record held until Modern Warfare 3's launch day in November 2011, with $400 million.
When Hirshberg came to Activision, he had to do more than bring creative thinking to products—he had to bring it to the company’s culture. He says, "If you are a company built around creative excellence, then creative people want to be a part of that. Activision definitely had a bunch of guiding principles and you would get a consistent picture from people about how Activision does things, but they weren’t codified." So he put together a book of values, half of them the unwritten values he inherited, and the other half being what he wanted to inject into the company.
Did he think the little book was successful? "It’s amazing at how at a global company, how such a simple little idea, approaching it creatively and involving a lot of people, has been very galvanizing to the way we do business," Hirshberg says. It was very important to him to get culture right, "We’re always putting a fine point on exactly what a product stands for, exactly what a brand stands for, exactly what our ethos is. We do that outwardly to consumers, but your internal audience is almost the most important audience, because if they live it every day, it will start expressing itself in the product organically."