First there were the TV Upfronts. Then there were the NewFronts, digital video’s answer to the TV Upfronts. Now there are the IAB PlayFronts. Gaming and interactive media’s answer to the NewFronts. This article provides a behind-the-scenes look at how PlayFronts came to be, and the ongoing challenge we have of replicating its success without duplicating the event year after year.
The Genesis of PlayFronts
PlayFronts took over nine months to greenlight. There was a business case with financial projections, a market analysis, and verbals from a handful of gaming publishers eager to pitch, but what we couldn’t predict was whether anyone would come. It’s not a show if there is no audience. Then, after kicking the can down the road for nine months, there came a point where we had to bite the bullet and take a chance. Digital video had already charted the course for us, and it was clear that a marketplace connecting buyers and sellers was essential to growing brand awareness and investment in emerging channels. If gaming really is the next advertising frontier and if we really wanted to carve out a place for brands and advertisers on this mass market entertainment channel, we had to bet big on gaming.
PlayFronts launched April 4th, 2022 at 9am EST. At approximately 7.15am when we were waiting for the doors to open, IAB CEO David Cohen turned to me and said ‘I just hope people turn up. It would be really embarrassing if we’re here in this cavernous space alone.’
The Success of PlayFronts 2022
The inaugural PlayFronts surpassed any expectation we had. The energy at the event was buoyant, a mix of gaming enthusiasts excited to have a big stage event dedicated to advertising in games, and people excited to finally be back at in-person events. Not only did people show up, but it was standing-room only for most of the day. When the event wrapped, security had to usher us out. But most importantly, deals got done. Anecdotally, one presenter told me that they had eight meetings set up before the end of day. Another recently shared that 90% of his business came from PlayFronts in 2022. As a result, we had presenters signing on for year two before the day was out.
The Paradox of Success
Planning the first PlayFronts came with a lot of unknowns: How big of a venue should we book? What mix of presenters should we curate? How long of a day can we hold an audience for? But it was exciting and all upside. I felt scrappy, and was able to fly under the radar because it was an experiment. “No budget for a host? I’ll do it.” “No time to do original research on gaming? I’ll do a keynote”. The only requirement for success was that we put the best of the best on stage and then let the chips fall where they may.
As counter-intuitive as it might sound, planning the second PlayFronts felt a lot more daunting. Unlike year one, year two came with expectations, and this time we did have something to lose: The event equity we had built in year one.
We also had a new challenge: How do you evolve an event to feel fresh and additive without changing the formula and making it so different that it loses what made it successful in the first place? How do you replicate the magic without replicating the content or the experience? Herein lies the paradox of success. These were the year two bets we placed:
- Expanded the event from one to two days to accommodate a more diverse array of presenters and broaden our coverage of the gaming ecosystem
- Upgraded the venue
- Commissioned original research on the misconceptions of the buy-side when it came to advertising in games
- Created the Partner Hub – a dedicated meeting space with assigned stations to allow attendees to more easily and comfortably connect with presenters
- Incorporated more of the IAB editorial voice in the programming by introducing two panels to the line-up focused on addressing two of the biggest buy-side concerns head-on: Brand safety and audience relevance.
PlayFronts Year 2 and beyond
Like they say, if you’re not growing you’re going backwards, and PlayFronts year two did not disappoint. We had more registrations and attendees than year one, and the feedback on the broader mix of presenters and content has been overwhelmingly positive. It was also encouraging to see how much the space has matured since last year. We had more brands on stage sharing real results and a roadmap for creating an authentic presence in gaming communities.
Of course a marketplace is just one part of helping brands find their audiences in gaming. There is much work to be done to bring this market to maturity. On our roadmap this year:
- Gaming Leadership Summit: Later this year we’ll be launching the first Gaming Leadership Summit which will seek to bring together a small cross-section of leaders from across the gaming ecosystem both buy and sell-side, to workshop solutions for reducing friction and optimizing spend. If you’re a leader in the gaming space, whether a publisher, ad tech enabler, agency or brand, please reach out to [email protected] to see if you qualify to participate.
- Education: Just as buyers had to adjust our understanding of television to tap into the power of digital video, we also have to educate buyers on how to approach interactive mediums. As such, we’ll be launching a Gaming 360 L&D course this year, our 101 course on how to advertise in gaming.
- Creative Standards: Getting the ad experience right is important in any medium, but is especially important in gaming. Supply relies on gaming publisher buy-in and publishers will be reluctant to integrate ads that create a sub-par experience for their players. The gaming audience is also very protective of their community and intolerant of any brands that appear inauthentic or that break the illusion of gameplay. To this end we’ll be kicking off a project in late April to define creative guidelines for ads in games. If you have expertise in this area and would like to be part of the industry group creating these standards, please reach out to [email protected]
- Research: This Fall we’ll be conducting some quantitative research into the themes that emerged from our qualitative study earlier this year. To download a copy of our latest gaming research report please visit https://www.iab.com/insights/finding-success-with-in-game-advertising/
PlayFronts 2024. Where to next?
And now we find ourselves back at the same question: Where do we go from here? How do we replicate the success of years one and two next year without being repetitive? Some ideas we’re considering include simulcasting from various locations across the country, hosting group watch parties where remote viewers can tune in together, incorporating hands-on workshops during one day, and expanding the Partner Hub into a PlayGround – an expo-like experience where attendees can meet with vendors and publishers and experience interactive demonstrations.
Reach out to [email protected] to let me know where you’d like to see us take PlayFronts in 2024. I’d love to hear from you!