Michael Flatt, Director, Global Integrated Marketing at Xbox, will be chairing the Collaboration & Culture category of the 2022 WARC Awards for Effectiveness. Here, he talks about the payback of meaningfully adding to culture, Xbox’s approach to brand partnerships and what he’ll be looking for in this year’s entrants.
Describe your role.
I'm the Director of the Global Integrated Marketing team for Xbox. The unusual thing about my role is that I'm based in the UK, while the vast majority of people in our Global Team are based at our Corporate HQ in Redmond, Washington.
There are three aspects to my role – the first is rolling out global campaigns and making sure that they land in the most effective way that they can. The second is running global marketing for two of our gaming studios based in the UK, Rare – which has been a part of Microsoft for many years now – and Ninja Theory – which was acquired a couple of years ago. Lastly, I lead Xbox’s brand partnerships. We have collaborated with brands like Pringles, LG, Waze and Gucci, and have recently embarked upon Sports Sponsorships, becoming the Official Gaming Partner of the Senior England Men’s & Women’s Football Teams.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced in the past 18 months?
I feel blessed as I don't think I have been impacted as strongly as lots of other people have. From a practical day-to-day point of view, there hasn’t been much change for me as, working with the US, I was heavily reliant upon Microsoft Teams. I feel for the people that have joined our UK Team during the pandemic, who have worked to integrate themselves without being able to meet with us in person.
From a commercial point of view, gaming and home entertainment has really grown through lockdowns. In the early days of the pandemic, we focussed effort and attention to try to give something back. For example, we introduced Rewards mechanics to encourage people to earn Microsoft reward points through their gaming sessions, which could be donated to a host of charitable causes.
Which lessons have you learned that you see yourself applying in the future?
I believe at Microsoft there has been an over-reliance upon email, and it’s a point that has been brought home much more powerfully since people have been forced into a world of email and calls.
This time has made me realise how incredibly productive we can be when we all get in a room together in a good old-fashioned way. That's something that we have to do more of now: we can make so much more progress in a 45-minute session than in hundreds of emails flying around.
There is a difference between brands that understand the culture they're playing in and build their work on culturally-relevant insights, and brands that enter culture, carving out a place for themselves in it. Why do you think it's important for brands to do the latter, what are the benefits?
It's vital for brands, if they truly want to engage with any type of culture, to have a thorough understanding of it. That means knowing the people, the history and where things stand today. If a brand fails to navigate those cultural nuances, the work misses the mark and it quickly disappears.
But then, if you want to really make a positive impact within a culture and be welcomed by the people that occupy it, you have to show them that you're there to add some value to that culture, make positive changes and even help solve certain tensions. We use an expression with our teams around ‘saying’ and ‘doing’, and the crucial part is the ‘doing’ element. We've produced some wonderful work, some powerful storytelling, that I would class as the ‘saying’ piece. That can be relatively straightforward, but it's far more difficult to get the ‘doing’ bit right. It's only when you get that right that you are adding to the culture and making positive changes.
Analysing last year's entrants in this category, we saw how brands tended to take one of two approaches to entering culture: either reflecting it or reshaping it. What do you think of these two approaches? Do you see Xbox's attitude to entering culture fitting into either, or both?
We have produced a body of work that can be seen to either reflect or reshape culture, but we don’t purposely set out to adopt either of those approaches. We'll look at particular activities with a view to produce work that has a positive impact. Fundamentally, Xbox is an entertainment platform, we create games and experiences that do reflect culture. Then, we take every opportunity we get to reshape it with ideas that come from around our business, and the Adaptive Controller is a prime example of that.
What is certain is that reshaping culture is infinitely more difficult: it relies upon astute strategic planning to find those points of friction and figure out an authentic and natural role for a brand in those scenarios. If you do get that right, the rewards can be huge. You could argue that the biggest brand of all that reshaped culture is Nike: the sustained success that it has had over decades is all down to the fact that it has been able to reshape sports culture and continues to do so to this day.
Collaborations and partnerships can be a huge driver of fame, allowing brands to effectively enter culture. How do you approach collaborations at Xbox?
Our mantra is all about earning fans, driving conversation and creating joy – that’s our mission statement. So, with each partner opportunity that comes along, we look at it as a chance to do something completely new. That also means reaching new audiences that we do not get to speak to every day. If you look at our global social channels, our engagement levels are absolutely to die for. We are an entertainment platform and people adore the content that we produce and the way we engage our fans. We're so fortunate and we don't take any of that for granted, but as a partnership team, we want to grow our sphere beyond those fans.
The partnership opportunities that we pick are wonderful ways of driving conversations about Xbox in circles and outlets that we ordinarily would be a very long way from. When we partner with Gucci, for instance, we want people within Elle and GQ sitting up and taking notice of the exciting things that we're doing with the number-one luxury fashion brand in the world.
What will you be looking for in entrants this year?
We need to see brands demonstrate that their work has added to a specific culture. We will want to know whether they have truly understood the culture and, if they have become a part of it, whether they have done so in a respectful and a fresh way that benefits the people that are part of it.
What advice would you give to anyone entering?
Every great campaign that has been successful has an obvious story to tell, so it shouldn’t be a challenge to explain it to someone. Papers don’t have to be scientific: don’t be afraid to keep everything very simple and single-minded.
What is the one thing that you cannot stand when reading an effectiveness paper?
I’m not a fan of papers that forget about why we produce these campaigns in the first place, which is to help a brand or a product grow in the real world and reach new people. Also, it’s important to be realistic: often, case studies can give the impression that a campaign has had unbelievable global impact, when in reality it could have affected just a smaller number of people.
The WARC Awards for Effectiveness are now open for entries. The deadline for submission is 2nd March, 2022.
Entry is free. For more info on how to submit your work, visit the Awards website.