Twenty Years of Xbox...and where gaming goes next
We join with McCann to look back at some of the Microsoft console's most creative campaigns and consider what lies ahead
25 November 2021
This month marked the twentieth anniversary of Microsoft’s Xbox. The big black gaming box has had quite a journey, initially operating at a loss and, for a time, it wasn’t all clear that the console would last five years, let alone twenty.
But survive and flourish it did, and the past two decades of NPD were matched by twenty years of standout advertising; Microsoft was named Cannes Lions' Creative Marketer of the Year this year.
In video game advertising, it can be tricky to convey the immersion felt when playing a product. At best, you can create a lukewarm rendition of the game itself, at worst, dramatise it in ways that are entirely inaccurate to the real-life experience.
Which is why much of the best video game advertising is conceptual in nature, or plays and interacts with gaming culture as a whole on a more human, grounded, yet knowledgeable level.
We spoke to McCann London and McCann Worldgroup about their past seven years working with Microsoft and Xbox, gleaning insights into the gaming industry and what it is that makes a good Xbox ad.
So what makes a good Xbox ad?
Sanjiv Mistry, executive creative director, McCann London
"There’s no one thing. Something we’ve been very conscious of over the years was to ensure that we didn’t inadvertently create a ‘recipe’ for the work. If we ever found ourselves making the next Xbox project feel like the previous one, even if the previous one had been a roaring success, we’d know we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. And that’s because that sort of replication wouldn’t work at all on this account, since our briefs tend to focus on game releases, and each game comes with its own distinct audience, strategy, and tone of voice.
"Instead, if there’s any kind of common DNA, it’s that the best Xbox work has always tried to tinker under the bonnet of the gamer-gaming relationship and looked to unearth truths and tensions that, if directly addressed, would bring the game and the gamer closer together.
"Tackling marketing exclusivity deals, or focusing on elderly loneliness, or encouraging people to travel rather than play – these are all unexpected topics that show gamers the latent power that their pastime holds. There’s only really one rule we’ve stuck to since 2014: gamers are bombarded with so much content that it always pays to go down the non-obvious path."
Robert Doubal, co-president and chief creative officer at McCann UK, wrote for Creative Salon earlier this year that, pre 2014, "the company [Microsoft] was thought to be lacking a human voice." What was key to the turnaround?
"The key factor in changing those long-held perceptions was to help the brand earn a meaningful role in people’s lives. It was about moving away from the coldness of technology for technology’s sake, and towards the warmer, richer, more human territory of talking about technology as a means of empowering every person on the planet to achieve more – whether that’s getting more girls into STEM subjects, or developing innovations to bring more people with disabilities into gaming."
How has the gaming market evolved since McCann/Microsoft tied the knot?
Jonathan Bender, senior digital strategist, McCann London:
"Gaming has come a long, long way since the early 2000s and some might say now in 2021, it’s completely changed...
We’ve gone from frenzied teenagers, obsessing over single player campaigns to mainstream families, logging on to catch up with each other via battle royal sessions.
"The advancements in technology is the most obvious change, whether it’s the FPS (frames per second) skyrocketing after every new generation upgrade, the pixel count multiplying with every new title launch, or even the recent game-changing cloud gaming advancements that will soon make consoles kind of void. Gaming’s influence in society is beginning to mirror what Formula One’s is within the car market, and that’s led the way with unprecedented tech advancements that are then adopted by other brands and products, into many other parts of mainstream day to day life.
"However, there’s also a cultural change happening in gaming. Gaming has finally grown up, it’s outgrown its infant role as the ‘nice to have’ entertainment option in the home, favoured by the kids, and is now one of the adult options. This has been happening for the past 10 years or so, and it’s nothing new, but was rapidly accelerated by the pandemic, with people turning to new ways to keep themselves busy, as we stayed at home.
"This now means Hollywood actresses and actors choose roles within games just as much as they choose roles in new blockbuster movies (just look at Giancarlo Esposito in Far Cry 6). Gaming streamers on Youtube and Twitch can now have bigger followings than athletes, and the next generation look up to people within gaming just as much as the old generation looked up to their parents.
"Most importantly though, there’s a behavioural change happening in gaming. Tech or cultural changes are one thing, but at McCann and Microsoft we’ve always been particularly interested with how someone uses gaming, and the role it plays in their lives. It’s safe to say this is the most interesting change (in our minds) that we’ve seen over the past 20-plus years.
"Gaming was a single player experience, an isolated couple of hours after school/work where you could escape to a place that helped you cope with stuff in the real world, and to this day that is still a huge part of why people game.
"However, recently (and supercharged by the pandemic) more and more people are picking up a controller to socially connect with one another. In the past talking on MSN or chatting over Facetime has been enough to keep in touch, but as more people give gaming a ‘try’, the penny is suddenly dropping - gaming provides someone with something that traditional communication cannot: it allows you to create new memories and new meaningful shared experiences with the people you care about.
"Think about it, if you were to pick up your phone right now and video call your school friend from 5 years ago it would be pretty awkward, right? But now think about inviting them to help you explore the new Forza map whilst playing the game together, a lot less awkward, a lot more meaningful, and some might say, a lot more fun?
"This, for us, is the biggest change in gaming right now, and a trend we can only see helping grow the category, and provide more non-traditional gamers with better, more meaningful human connections."
What are the benefits of having such a longstanding relationship?
Sailesh Jani, global business lead, McCann Worldgroup
"In a word, trust. The aspiration for any global client/agency relationship is to create work that truly impacts business and culture. In many cases, particularly with the biggest and best brands in the world, it’s a journey, and one that can take time - something not always afforded in today’s constantly evolving and challenging industry.
"In our seven-year collaboration there has been a growing confidence, rooted in dedication and delivery, that has led to growing ambition and braver work that genuinely cuts through and engages Xbox’s immense fanbase. Ultimately, time afforded through a growing trust has allowed us to behave as valued partners not just vendors, something we are incredibly proud of.
"Seeing our amazing client partners Winning Creative Marketer of the Year 2021 is certainly a testament to this, we remain honoured to have played our small part in that."
What's next for McCann and Microsoft?
"The gaming industry continues to evolve, breaching mainstream culture and entertainment at all levels. This means we need to continuously up our game and pivot to opportunities to keep Xbox at the fore.
"Boundaries continue to blur as technologies progress so the future remains as exciting for us now as it was seven years ago, our long standing relationship across Microsoft as a masterbrand stands us in good stead to take on these challenges and partner Xbox as they embark on the next 20 years of their incredible journey.
"Xbox remains at the vanguard of technology and culture, and with an exciting pipeline of work coming through we remain incredibly positive about the future.
Our favourite Xbox campaigns:
Champagne, 2001, BBH London
An example of a viral video before the days of YouTube, this bizarre campaign to launch the Xbox would eventually be banned.
It wasn't so much its thrillingly weird depiction of a baby hurtling - and ageing - from the womb all the way to the grave that prompted the ban. The complaints reportedly came from recently bereaved people who found the theme of death upsetting.
Football Decoded, McCann London, 2019
How do you advertise a product without being able to show it? That was the problem for Xbox when its rival Sony bought up all the advertising rights for Fifa 18 — an important game release in the gaming calendar.
The result is a subversive, on-point creative campaign by McCann London.
The Fanchise Model, McCann London, 2018
Brands have always sought to create ecosystems of interaction with their consumers. One of the best examples to date was McCann London's 'The Fanchise Model', wherein the agency gave gamers ownership of their customised controller designs and incidentally turned them from customers into entrepreneurs.
Stand Off, McCann Erickson and 72andSunny, 2006
An ad the internet thought was banned but actually wasn't. This spot barely saw the light of day, which is all the more reason to champion its bonkers creativity here.
Beyond Generations, McCann London, 2020
A poignant campaign connecting the lonely with their loved ones, 'Beyond Generations' shows the human side of technology while also showcasing the changing nature of gaming and our relationship with it.
The Birth of Gaming Tourism, McCann London, 2019
A campaign which approached the entire video game category, The Birth of Gaming Tourism made a case for gaming to be more than just violence and excitement. At the centre of the campaign lay The Rough Guide to Xbox, which showed the joys of exploration across different video game titles.
Survival of the Grittiest, McCann London, 2015
People, standing on a billboard, braving the elements — what's not to like. The campaign was created for the run-up to the launch of the (then) latest Tomb Raider game, and cleaned up across award shows that year.