Ubisoft partners with Vice on content marketing program

Documentary series supports a game about New York in the wake of a pandemic

Ubisoft Canada is bringing new meaning to the term “viral marketing” in an initiative for its upcoming title Tom Clancy’s The Division.

The Montreal-based gaming giant has partnered with Vice Media on a content marketing program supporting the title’s March 8 release. The game takes place in New York after a lethal virus has swept through the city.

Ubisoft is the presenting sponsor of Infected, a three-part documentary series housed at Vice.com that examines the likelihood of Canada being hit by a super virus and the protocols that are in place to protect the country should a pandemic break out.

Ubisoft has no overt presence in the series beyond a sponsorship announcement at the beginning of each episode, but the content closely mirrors game elements, said Vice Media’s longtime vice-president of sales, Shawn Phelan.

“This is the type of content we like to do anyway, so to have a brand ready to support this type of high-quality documentary is huge for us,” said Phelan. “Ubisoft really wanted to make the story about the repercussions for Canada, so that was exactly what we wanted to do.”

Lucile Bousquet, senior director of marketing and communications for Ubisoft in Montreal, said Infected was chosen from three ideas presented by Vice after it was tasked with developing content that reflected The Division’s storyline.

Bousquet said Ubisoft’s September 2014 decision to bring its digital media planning and buying in-house – a move undertaken to more closely align its content and media functions – helped facilitate the deal with Vice.

“That type of collaboration between content and media opened the door,” she said. “It’s direct contact without anybody in the middle to interpret what Ubisoft or Vice says, so it’s much easier in terms of process and creativity.”

Phelan said the two companies’ cultural alignment (both are based out of Montreal) and storytelling expertise helped the project come together smoothly. “Sometimes when you’re working with a brand, they won’t instinctively understand the need to tell a great story,” said Phelan. “But Ubisoft is telling stories all the time, to a huge audience. I think we have that in common, which is why it was so easy and so much fun to work together.”

This is the first major content marketing project to come out of Vice Media’s new 25,000 square foot studio in downtown Toronto, though Phelan said the company’s “seriously ramped up” capabilities means it has the ability to explore the space further.

With Vice’s millennial audience increasingly inured to interruptive advertising, Phelan said getting them to share brand-supported stories is a “huge win” for the company. “The storytelling space is how we want to work with brands, and we’re going to be doing a ton of that this year,” he said.

He stressed Vice would be discerning when it comes to the type of projects it agrees to take on, however. “We pass on projects all the time,” he said. “We have to maintain an authentic dialogue with our audience. We want to make sponsored content [the type of] content we want to make already. We don’t necessarily want to make a brand-sell play to air on our channels.”

Phelan didn’t say how many projects of this nature Vice hopes to take on in a typical year, but said it currently had “quite a few” in development, including another undisclosed partnership with Ubisoft for an upcoming title.

While Ubisoft has dabbled in content marketing, Bousquet said Infected represents its most polished and significant effort to date. The company plans to do more of this type of marketing as traditional advertising becomes increasingly ineffective against its target audiences.

Ubisoft is supporting the content marketing program with a new online platform called “Fall of Canada” and is inviting Canadians to submit artistic renderings of what Canada would look like in the midst of a pandemic. The website features a storyboard inspired by The Division and invites users to draw, paint, stencil or sketch a scene in their own style and upload it to the website.

Visitors to the site will vote on the artwork, with the leading vote-getters receiving prizes including a top prize of $5,000 cash and two runner-up prizes of $1,000. Some of the leading submissions will be featured in a video distributed by Ubisoft that depicts the collapse of Canada.

Bousquet said the overall marketing strategy was to blur the lines between reality and fiction. While the documentary series represents the real, the “Fall of Canada” initiative is intended to create a virtual depiction of a country in chaos.

The company will also launch a brand campaign that includes TV, digital and shopper marketing initiatives.

The Division is Ubisoft’s first new franchise since Watchdogs in 2014, and one of several marquee titles launching in 2016 – a group that includes the latest chapter in its Far Cry series, Far Cry Primal.

The company has not stated whether it plans to release a new title in its hugely popular Assassin’s Creed series this year, though production has wrapped on the Assassin’s Creed movie.

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