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Ubisoft’s ambitious campaign for Watch Dogs

An important new videogame franchise links mobile audiences to real-world chaos

Last fall, just as the all-important holiday shopping season was about to begin, Ubisoft posted a blog about Watch Dogs, a hotly anticipated videogame the company was giving the blockbuster treatment.

The news wasn’t good. Less than five weeks before it was scheduled to hit shelves, Ubisoft was pulling the game from its holiday lineup, pushing its release back to spring 2014.

The decision hit the company hard. Paired with the delay of another game, The Crew, Ubisoft’s failure to release Watch Dogs forced it to pull back its revenue expectations for 2013 by $560 million. It also presented a significant new challenge to one of the company’s more ambitious made-in-Canada marketing efforts.

The videogame industry has gone the way of Hollywood, focusing most of its marketing efforts on a few big titles each year.In 2013, the global games market was worth $81 billion, and like franchise-happy Hollywood, much of that money is made in streaks. Call Of Duty’s 10th installment, Call of Duty: Ghosts sold 19 million units worldwide last fall. During the same period, Grand Theft Auto V (actually the fifteenth title in the series) sold 11.21 million units in its first 24 hours, going on to gross $1 billion, making it the most financially successful entertainment product­ (not just game) ever.

Ubisoft hopes to add Watch Dogs to that Best Sellers list of mega-franchises. On Ubisoft Montreal’s home turf, the game maker spent much of the last year rolling out a landmark Canadian marketing campaign for Watch Dogs, which Ubisoft Canada marketing director Lucile Bousquet says is its biggest ever in terms of time spent, budget and campaign resources.

For big titles like Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Canada usually takes global creative from its French headquarters, tasking its local AOR, Publicis Montreal, with adapting it for the Canadian market. This time around, the two developed a massive campaign that brought the videogame’s storylines to life in the physical world and inserted the consumer right in the middle.

“We wanted to have an impact in real life. That’s why we wanted to create stunts—to get people to engage and participate,” she says. The idea, she says, was to create a game, Watch Dogs Live, that would make the game’s main theme—hacking—accessible to Canadians and impress Ubisoft’s fickle demo of digital natives. “Doing something digital-only, they’re used to it. They see a lot of things, different apps and other things are available. What we really wanted to do was surprise them. What could engage them more than adding a real life experience?”

Watch Dogs Live launched June 3 at E3, one of the industry’s most important trade shows, It was designed to build buzz in the months leading up to its initial release date in November. In the months that followed Ubisoft and Publicis went on a marketing rampage, blowing up a car, spraying $5,000 in cash into a suburban mall, “hacking” a live TV broadcast and dropping a shipping container full of prizes in downtown Toronto. And aside from the car, it dealt with another fiery mess: a six-month delay that left it scrambling to stretch its marketing campaign through an entire year.

This is the brand’s playbook.

Code Name: ATM Hack

Challenge: After the initial buzz from the E3 launch, Ubisoft used Facebook’s Mobile Install ad unit to promote the game. By the time it launched its first stunt, 27,000 Canadians had downloaded the app, making it one of the top 30 free apps in the Canadian Apple App Store. To keep the momentum going, Ubsioft needed a big first stunt to attract more organic downloads. In gaming, where origin stories reign supreme, first impressions matter. The first stunt had to set the tone for the campaign and convince its demo of young, tech-savvy males that Watch Dogs will bring them experiences unlike any they’d had before.

Mission: On July 4, Ubisoft sent a mission video through the app: Greetings hackers. Today marks a special occasion for us: your first mission. A crudely animated skull told the story of Michael G. Aronson, a shady media mogul whose bank account was hacked by Dedsec, the game’s hacker collective. The task: enter the daily hack codes sent to every player. When the fourth level of security was hacked, it triggered an ATM to spit out “Aronson’s” cash. It was a kind of Robin Hood and the Merry Hackers for the digital age.

Field Notes: Publicis contacted more than 10 shopping malls before it found one that agreed to host the stunt: the Sheridan Centre in Mississauga, Ont. On Saturday, July 6, Carl Robichaud, vice-president of creative at Publicis Canada, and his team descended on the mall, handing out coupons for fast food meals to teenage mallrats, ensuring the food court near the ATM was full.

Concealed in a closed store nearby, Robichaud and his team watched the feeds from their hidden cameras. At 3:30 p.m., they turned on a livestream video for the 27,000 consumers who had downloaded Watch Dogs Live, giving them a potentially sizeable audience.

With security guards in place nearby, and three plain-clothed agency staffers set to intervene if anything dangerous occurred, the ATM started blowing out $3,000 worth of bills at 4:00 p.m. Within seconds, people were on their knees grabbing fistfuls of cash. When all the cash is cleared, people sat counting their fives on benches and holding the bills up in the air with both hands, unknowingly celebrating Dedsec’s fictive victory.

“There was a couple rough moments, but in the end, nothing really damaging. It was a really great stunt for us,” says Robichaud, admitting he’d had his apprehensions. “We were quite stressed, I have to say. You never know what will happen when you’re using real money.”

Code Name: Car Boom

Challenge: With one stunt in the books, Ubisoft tasked Publicis with keeping the momentum going, creating a visual spectacle to rival the ATM Hack; one big enough to get its target talking and to keep them engaged in the app. By this point, Watch Dogs Live had hit #5 in the games category of the App Store. They had a captive audience and it was time to deliver. The solution? Blow up a car.

Mission: The next mission video was sent out through the app on Aug. 29. Again, Dedsec set its sights on the same media villain who had bribed a politician to relax privacy laws. Dedsec stole his car—and a briefcase full of the bribe money—and set it on a gas main. By tweeting through the app, users could “turn up the pressure,” and blow up the car.

Field Notes: On Sept. 2, Publicis and production company Codmorse set up camp in a field on the outskirts of Montreal, along with a used black Mercedes purchased online. Four days ahead of the big bang, they switched on the livestream, offering fans an interior shot and an exterior one. Inside, the team strapped an underwater GoPro camera encased in plastic tough enough to withstand the first second of the blast, giving the audience a view inside the explosion. To prove the stunt was real, Ubisoft pointed the GoPro at an iPad strapped to the steering wheel that showed a real-time feed of the #WDLive hashtag. When consumers tweeted, they could watch it appear on the iPad.

Like the other stunts, Car Boom also offered gamers the rare chance of seeing their actions in a game have an effect in the real world. “We wanted to give the people the ability to do a digital action that will have an impact on real life. It was bridging the gap between virtual and real,” says Sebastien Viau, vice-president of integrated services at Publicis Canada. “It gives them a thrill. [They’re thinking:] ‘Oh my god, I can do this for real? Are they really going to do this? Are they that crazy that they’re going to blow up a car? Come on!’”

Code Name: Communication Takeover

Challenge: By this point, anyone playing along with Watch Dogs Live expected to have the real game in their hands. For Ubisoft, it was essential to win back goodwill. Given the timing, any stunt would be a tough sell. Big new games with holiday releases from competing studios were courting attention. Ubisoft had to do something to break through.

Mission: Return of the Dedsec skull: Greetings hackers. It’s time to take our message to every living room in the country. Help us hack a live broadcast of sports talk show. Again, Ubisoft asked fans to share the mission on Facebook and Twitter. On Nov. 27, they sent out another message. Tune in to On The Record and Le 5 a 7 tonight.

Field Notes: With a media mogul villain more notorious than Conrad Black, Ubisoft wanted to bring the hacker storyline into the world of traditional broadcast media. With much of the outreach to the influential hardcore gamers who would assist in word-of-mouth done, it was also time to reach a broader, more mainstream audience.

But first, they had to find a TV channel willing to be hacked.

“There are very few media outlets ready to innovate and do something different,” says Bousquet. “The mission for my team was to find the media—and RDS and TSN agreed—but it took a long time to convince them, and to explain the objective.”

“At the beginning, we thought it was a little bit crazy,” adds Benoit Lemay, the RDS account manager who handled the buy. Lemay’s team had handled plenty of integrations in the past, but most were far simpler, like outfitting a set in furniture from Leon’s. After hearing the pitch, he was intrigued and brought in colleagues from TSN to discuss a national buy. “At the end of the day it was an opportunity for Bell Media to show we can push the limit and go outside the box,” Lemay says.

Bell Media sold Ubisoft a branded minute on both On The Record and Le 5 a 7 tonight.

On the night of the show, Off The Record’s host Michael Landsberg closed a segment. The feed then cut to a previously recorded segment with Landsberg—wearing the same clothes and appearing exactly the same—talking about the Eastern Conference (topical enough to be believable, but unspecific enough that the day’s headlines wouldn’t matter) when the lights behind him flickered. Cue eerie music and a blast of smoke from above.

The Dedsec skull appeared again as the screen skipped between white noise, colour test patterns, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Watch Dogs Live logos.
The script read exactly like the hyperbole favoured by Dedsec’s real-world inspiration, the hacktivist collective Anonymous.

“Join us and together we will prove the real power sits with the people,” the skull said before a call to action to download the app. Jeff Carter, integrated content manager at TSN, says the integration was the deepest the network has done to date. After the broadcast, it had its master control team prepped to take calls from any upset, concerned and bewildered viewers.

“We didn’t receive any,” he says. “It’s good and bad. You kind of want to receive some phone calls when you do a stunt like that.”

Code Name: Cargo Drop

Challenge: By spring, fans were growing tired of the Watch Dogs Live app. Engagement in the app—normally strong, with 1,500 people logging in a day—had dropped off after 11 months. In the words of Viau, fans were starting to say: “Enough about that mobile stuff, give me the real game.” Ubisoft had to win them back, and quick. Pre-orders are essential in the gaming business. They help stores decide how many copies to order and determine the immediate impact of the gaming, branding it a success or a failure. Ubisoft Canada’s entire campaign was designed to increase pre-orders and in the two months leading up to the game’s release, they became all the more critical.

Mission: In early March an unbranded video of a military plane dropping a cargo shipping container through the ice of the St. Lawrence River was uploaded to a YouTube account that had no stated link to Ubisoft. Then on March 18 the company issued its final mission. The story: Aronson stole two shipments of cargo. Dedsec failed to retrieve the first and it landed in the river. By returning to the app, users could free the second.

Field Notes: Ubisoft issued a final call to action, telling fans that the city whose players had the highest number of hacks would be awarded with a round of prizes. The stolen cargo shipment would “drop” in their city.

On March 27, it landed in Toronto. A small crowd gathered around a shipment container with “WATCH DOGS” spray painted on it that had mysteriously appeared on Ryerson University’s downtown campus.

As 4,000 watched on via the livestream, consumers who had been playing along and were tipped off about where to go walked up to container, opened the app and held their smartphone up to a screen that scanned it.

A window container then opened, revealing their prize. One man got a pair of headphones, another got a Samsung 39” TV. One person held up a Sony PlayStation 4.

“It was the end of the campaign. We wanted to make sure it ended with a big smile from the consumer,” says Bousquet.

For the people on site that day, holding their free merch, there were smiles all around.

After almost a year, there were surely smiles at the Ubisoft Montreal office too when the app portion of the campaign closed on April 8.

Though Bousquet declined to comment on overall sales figures, she spoke about a Watch Dogs Live promotion Ubisoft ran with EB Games. With every in-store pre-order, the retailer gave out a card with a code that offered fans extras in the mobile game. Over 5,000 consumers redeemed the code, accounting for 20% of pre-orders made at EB Games, meaning by mid-April, at least 25,000 Canadians had bought the game at just one retailer.

Post-script

With a month to go before launch, Ubisoft is already convinced it has a hit on its hands. There’s a live-action movie planned penned by Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and serious talk about follow-up games—plural.

With its year-long campaign, Ubisoft didn’t just brand a new game. It branded a franchise.

Lucile Bousquet, communication and marketing director, Ubisoft Entertainment

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