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Ubisoft's Murray Pannell

The publisher's new UK head of marketing on the platform mix, the media landscape, and why he left Xbox for third party action

Back in March Ubisoft announced that long-time Xbox marketing man, Murray Pannell, had taken the role with the publisher as head of marketing for the UK.

Shortly before E3, sat down with the man himself to find out why he left Microsoft, what his thoughts are on the platform mix and how the changing media landscape is bringing new challenges - and opportunities.

Q: Why did you decide to make the move to Ubisoft?

Murray Pannell: Well, I spent six and a half years at Microsoft on Xbox, so I was very platform-focused, loved the brand, loved the product. But I think after that time I was becoming blinkered to industry counterparts - so I came to the conclusion that if I was going to stay in the industry, and develop within it, I probably needed at some point to get broader platform experience.

So rather than the competition always being Sony and Nintendo, I thought it was probably better to go join in the fight and enjoy some of the products that those platforms also deliver.

Microsoft has done a great deal in the last few years to broaden out its portfolio, but I was conscious of not really being involved in some of the great things that Nintendo is doing, for example - not just on Wii, but also on handhelds, because Microsoft has got relatively little experience in that area.

For me, professionally, it's probably important to dabble in that area, and get some more experience.

Q: Were those first conversations about PlayStation 3 or Wii titles a little bit odd?

Murray Pannell: It was fine - where I've become unstuck recently is getting to grips with some of the really broad appeal titles that Ubisoft is delivering. The Imagine range, for example, is targeting 6-12 year old girls - now I'm lucky enough that I've got two daughters in that age bracket, so I kind of understand them as a target audience, but I've certainly never actively marketed to that audience.

These are great learning opportunities for me, and I don't profess to be an expert in that area, but that's certainly one of the reasons why Ubisoft was appealing.

Q: Are you excited by the slate of upcoming titles?

Murray Pannell: There are some great titles coming - something like Assassin's Creed 2 is undoubtedly going to be a massive seller for us. By all accounts, in terms of the community buzz that's around that title, every time we do something around it everyone jumps on it.

So we have high expectations for that, certainly, but likewise, there's a bunch of our Games for Everyone titles that are going to be exciting too - we've got a new Rabbids game coming, we're trying to develop that franchise and really develop some unique property around the Rabbids themselves this time. Plus we'll be continuing the great work done on the Imagine range, and puzzle games, which are fundamentally a great revenue source for us.

Q: You mention Assassin's Creed 2 - that was a game that had a huge level of anticipation for a very long time, and there was a bit of a backlash when it was actually released. Is that something you'll be bearing in mind this time around? Will you be prioritising expectation management?

Murray Pannell: Well, I've worked on the Halo franchise for three iterations, so I know there's always a balance to be struck between creating a demand from a marketing point of view - and also the consumers themselves creating that demand. Consumers wanted Halo 2, and Halo 3 even more, and maybe the games didn't quite deliver to the expectations, but I think there are instances where you have to be a little bit careful about managing expectations.

I think what's important for Assassin's Creed 2 is to allay the fears of whether or not it will be repetitive, a la the first version. I'm sure that will be resolved, and when people get to see some of the innovations, the changes to the gameplay, the way that the development studio has listened to the feedback - there's no doubt about it, Ubisoft has some incredible development talent, and the best talent is on this game.

I have little doubt that it will perform to high expectations.

Q: You'll have seen a lot change during your time at Xbox with respect to the media landscape in the UK. How do you view the mix now between print and online, and between news sites, blogs and so on - and how does it change your marketing strategies?

Murray Pannel: It makes life more difficult, more challenging, but there are certainly benefits to be had. If I think back to when I started at Microsoft in 2002, blogging wasn't even a word on people's radars. I remember Bill Gates talking about blogging in a keynote speech in some tech forum in those early days, and asking my friends: "Have you got a blog yet?" when I didn't even really know what it meant...

Now of course everyone knows, and lots of people have their own blog, so it's fascinating how quickly that has changed - individuals can suddenly make a big difference to how you approach a marketing campaign.

The way that information is distributed - and the speed - is slightly now out of the control of sales people, marketers and developers to some extent. That's great when you've got something that everybody wants, and it's all positive - that feeds enormous demand. But equally, when it goes horribly wrong - and I'm not saying any of our products here have done that - but there have been some industry experiences when one person's gripe becomes a massive problem.

For example, if your gamertag became corrupted, a personal blow can become an industry concern.

But from a marketing point of view, how does that change? Online is hugely important to the way we approach our marketing and PR. In the old days, when it was print, you had a set schedule of monthly release assets and information, and that's now just accelerated. You have to have constant information to feed the hungry wolves in the online community, because they'll just eat it up - online news just moves on so quickly, that you've got to fill the internet pages with something.

Trying to keep them full of positive, interesting stories on new product is sometimes a bit of a challenge.

Q: From a company point of view, regionality must also be a problem? Traditionally it's easy to have a US exclusive in a magazine, and also one in the UK, France, etc - but the internet is global, which renders that approach useless unless you're looking at different language sites.

Murray Pannel: It's tough - and because we're in the industry, we read all the stuff that goes online, and it's very easy for the senior management to read the stuff that comes out of the US.

I think sometimes we do forget that we are a small, vocal industry - interactive entertainment is still quite small and close-knit, so to us it feels amplified, but if you go and ask somebody on the street if they hear something's been announced in the US - or even at E3 - they probably won't have, so sometimes we have to manage the expectation on that.

The community will know it and love it, and that hardcore 500,000 - or however many there are in the UK - will probably read the forums and blog about it. My mum doesn't get to hear about it, nor does my sister, so you can still keep things - if you've got a marketing or PR strategy to that broader audience - relatively quiet. I think we forget that sometimes.

Q: What about social networking - how can you leverage things like Facebook and Twitter?

Murray Pannel: There are a couple of ways of looking at it. The simplest, and most tried and tested, is using it as a media forum - using a Facebook page and creating a community where people are directed to a particular game that's coming out. I think that's what most people would expect us to be doing in the marketing community.

The other area, with Twitter, is how you create evangelists and communities around them - whether that's working with celebrities who might be fans of Assassin's Creed, for example, giving them information and insider stuff so that they talk about it and it then gets picked up in the wider press.

Using the power of celebrity and the power of endorsement to create hype around a game is something people have used before - but wife spends more time online now than watching telly. The telly's on, but she's online, doing eBay, Facebook, Hotmail and so on. And there are the communities she inhabits, things like Popbitch for example - they're all entertainment things that aren't gaming-related, but occasionally there's something big that goes into that community and she'll stumble across it.

So there's no doubt about it, it's coming from all angles, and in a world where marketing budgets are tight and profit margins are being squeezed as we head into the economic slowdown, it's a matter of picking and choosing the right vehicles to invest in, to try and get that word out there.

I think sometimes it's investing in smaller areas, so you're bigger in that channel, rather than doing a big telly ad, or a big print ad, and maybe less somewhere else.

Q: You mention budgets are being squeezed - are you expecting Ubisoft to spend less on marketing this year than last year?

Murray Pannel: I think everybody in the industry, if they're sensible, should be looking at costs and how much they're spending. While the industry seems to be weathering the storm, compared to other industries, I think the last couple of months if you look at Chart Track - and it's difficult to do year-on-year comparisons because you have to look at what games are coming out - but I think we're just being cautiously optimistic, rather than throwing everything at it.

There are some great products, and they'll get the investment that they need, but I'm not sure if we're spending more or less. Certainly what we are spending, for me, it's about being really clear on what our objectives are for success, and it's measuring wherever possible that success.

For Assassin's Creed 2 we recently spent some money doing promotion during a Da Vinci Code programme on Channel 5. We bought a TV ad there, promoted it and all the rest of it, and spent a few thousand doing that - when the game is six months away from launch. We'd never normally do that, and successful or not it's hard to tell - the indications are in terms of visits to the website and pre-orders, that they shot up, so it's looks like it. Will it affect sales? Who knows, until launch comes.

But I'd rather do that and learn from it, than just chuck all our money at TV at launch and hope that it works. It's about learning, measuring, and being responsible with our money.

Q: So what are your impressions, in your new role, of the hardware landscape at the moment?

Murray Pannel: It's quite interesting - the future, who knows? But it's important to look at it on a regional basis. So the UK is slightly different to Europe, and slightly different to the global and Japanese position.

So if I'm just looking at the UK specifically, we all know that Nintendo has done an amazing job, the 360 has solidified its position and is still doing well, and PlayStation I think would say themselves that they would have liked to have sold more hardware units.

You're in the industry, and most of the analysts are expecting some sort of price or value proposition from Sony to reignite their hardware sales. Coming at it from a platform perspective, when I was at Xbox we never underestimated the power of the brand for PlayStation - despite the hiccups they had at launch, and the price particularly, there's still a latent demand for that product. And if they can get their value proposition right in terms of pricing and online, and a software line-up that's unbeatable, they're still a force to be reckoned with.

But they will take a long time to even get their installed base up to that of the Xbox, let alone Nintendo's level, so they've got an uphill struggle in the UK.

Q: Is it better to have three strong platforms, or mix between major and minor?

Murray Pannel: Obviously we support all platforms, and frankly, the more installed base you've got, the more games you can sell. So we'd rather have all the platform holders growing the IP as much as they can, so there are more people playing games that we can sell to.

That's very much our hope, and we support all the platform holders where we can to push that, if that's exclusive games, or specific games for specific platforms to help drive those to new audiences.

Q: Just finally, the UK market - broadly-speaking, are you expecting another year of strong growth this year?

Murray Pannel: It's certainly not going to decline. The question is, how long can it continue to grow at the rate of the last two years? I think the jury's out on that, but we're expecting a good year this year. Ubisoft has got some great titles, and if you look at the broader line-up there are some great titles as well - Square Enix coming in with Final Fantasy should be great, no doubt about it, and Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty... there's a lot of competition out there, and we'll all be looking eagerly to see what's coming when, but I enjoy the challenge - and there's plenty of consumers out there to appeal to, so we'll make sure we're getting our marketing, PR and product right to make sure they have a good time.

Murral Pannell is UK head of marketing at Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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