In all my years writing for and about games, I can only recall visiting a single PR agency once, when I was invited to one of Bastion’s infamous Christmas parties at the tail end of last century. Naturally my memory of that evening is a little fuzzy. Perhaps what happened is why so much time has passed before being invited back. It would explain a few things.
Thankfully on this occasion my visit is far less about wanton revelry and more concerned with sober reflection, as the veteran agency celebrates 30 years of sending out press kits, orchestrating campaigns, and having to deal with truculent young games journos. By way of reintroduction, on arrival at Bastion’s Spitalfields residence I mention my previous visit to Dean Barrett, co-founder and managing director, who shakes his head, either unable or unwilling to recall. “It was a different time,” he says, eyes briefly fixed on the past.
The foundations for Bastion’s success were laid over the course of five formative years during which Barrett worked first at magazine publisher VNU, before joining hardware giant Commodore’s marketing agency as it prepared to launch the Amiga 500 in 1987.
“I got to know Steve Franklin (Commodore UK’s MD) very closely and he invited me to become marketing manager. I worked on the Amiga, and while doing that, met a load of games companies while putting together game bundles.” This was when four or five hit games were compiled onto cassette or disk and given grand titles like They Sold A Million, which put Barrett in close contact with the likes of Ocean and US Gold, the UK’s triple-A publishers at the time.
“That got me interested in the games industry because that seemed to be where the fun was.” In 1989 Barrett briefly returned to magazines, joining EMAP as its head of marketing as the publisher was preparing to pitch for an official Nintendo magazine. It was there that Barrett was invited to join Ocean, “So I went up to Manchester and spent two years there. But I always remembered the agency days and just thought I’d start my own.” Barrett called on Ciaran Brennan, one of his editor contacts at EMAP who had moved into PR, and in the same month that the seminal Championship Manager arrived, so too did Bastion.
SHADOW OF THE BEASTS
In 1992 games PR was as different to today as the tech and media landscape it served. Nothing was data driven, with focus groups, favour and gut instinct powering most videogame decision making. Magazines were the only influencers of the day, and, of course, there were far less of them than the content channels we endure now. Mobile phones had no utility beyond making expensive calls, and the internet, such as it was, was equally unevolved. As for the games, they were far from becoming the aspirational playthings Sony would help make mainstream.
The big PR beasts of the early 1990s were the in-house teams – Sega, Nintendo, and on PC, Virgin Interactive. Brennan, who left Bastion in 2005 (and is currently the communications director at Sports Interactive) recalls only a handful of independent agencies specialising in games at the time, “People like Simon Harvey at Barrington Harvey had been around for quite some time, but generally the landscape was very small. But then the games business was as well. There were loads of independent publishers and hardware manufacturers. We’d leave work on a Friday having ten clients then come in on Monday morning and four of them would have merged.”
Without any investors Bastion experienced a slow start that was hand-to-mouth in some respects. Brennan remembers having to rely on freelance writing to supplement his PR income.
“It was a slow start,” admits Barrett “‘92 to 93 was a bit painful, then things started to take off.” Bastion was soon contracted to Virgin, which at the time published two of the biggest games on PC, Command & Conquer and Doom. Joining the team initially to work on the account was another EMAP veteran, whose first week was spent trying to come up with creative ways to get the press to write about Doom 2.
“It was decided – I think it was Ciaran’s idea – to bike jiffy bags of offal to news editors on national newspapers,” recalls Simon Byron (now publishing director at Yogscast). “As well as to celebrate the goriness of the game, we were trying to get wider coverage.” It worked. By way of recognition, Bastion’s Doom 2 campaign was later voted second-worst PR stunt of the year. “My first week on the job ended with me picking the phone up to the police. I passed them onto someone else very quickly.”
Also around this time the ink was drying on a deal that saw Sony acquire Psygnosis, the Liverpool-based developer founded by the late Ian Hetherington and Jonathan Ellis, who upon finalising the deal in New York, flew back to London and called Barrett to join them for breakfast at the Dorchester hotel, where he was asked to come up with a plan that would help ease Sony’s entry into the console hardware market. It was a moment that in many ways changed Bastion’s fortunes.
“That was an exciting time for the industry, because it was going into a whole new era where things were moving from the bedroom to the living room,” remembers Barrett, who looks back on Bastion’s milestones not so much as events as most would characterise them, like the launch of the Sony PlayStation, but as meetings (such as the aforementioned Dorchester breakfast) that became accounts that then opened up a network of professional relationships. Since his early days at Sony, Phil Harrison has been a close contact for Bastion. Mike Gamble, since his time at Microsoft, is another. “We worked on DirectX when he was tech evangelist there, and that’s been a long-term relationship, right through to the long stint he had at Epic.” Often of course, working relationships with client organisations persisted long after people have moved on, as Bastion’s ongoing work promoting Unreal Engine is testament to.
Equally as important to Bastion’s success, although less obvious, have been the shows it has worked on. An early coup was when Bastion took over the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) account from Barrington Harvey in 1995, when the long-running event moved to the Olympia exhibition centre in Kensington. Despite being an intense amount of work, the great benefit was that Barrett and the team got to work with all of the exhibitors, which is to say all the publishing teams, major and minor, since ECTS was the biggest trade show in Europe at the time.
“That gave us a taste for events,” says Barrett. “It’s a nice way to become embedded into an industry, so we started doing trade shows and B2B” going on to work on Brand Licencing Europe, Toy Fair and The Gadget Show Live. It’s only relatively recently that Bastion has pulled back from trade fairs, partly because dipping in and out of an industry can be disruptive, but mostly because there’s no shortage of games industry work these days. “The one thing we’ve kept is the connection to the toy industry.” Bastion has run the PR for the London Toy Fair for 13 years, “Because we think there’s a synergy there. Increasingly there are lots of crossover opportunities.”
“As we’ve built up the games practise, doing something outside of games really helped us craft stories that resonate with consumer-based audiences,” chips in Ravi Vijh, Bastion’s client services director. “The gaming world has become so much bigger. Anyone with a mobile phone is a gamer. Somebody who plays FIFA is very different from someone who plays Diablo, and so you’ve got to understand the different worlds now and think how you pitch stories differently.”
Another point of crossover in recent years has been Bastion’s work with influencers, which formally started more than five years ago and culminated in April this year with the setting up of Pinpoint, a separate agency within Bastion run by Sam Jones (who we’ll catch up with in Part 2, next issue). The idea behind Pinpoint is a simple one; rather than deal with influencers in a transactional way, the idea is to build up relationships and treat them as collaborations, as an agency might traditionally manage the games press.
“PRs are the best people to manage influencers and websites because they know the language” says Barrett. “Very often you’re creating the language for the clients, so to then farm that to another agency to then tell somebody else doesn’t really make sense. Because we know the language the client uses and wants to use about their brand, we feel we’re in the best position to make that process work.”
It makes sense, according to Vijh, since dealing with press is no longer the be-all-and-end-all that it used to be: “The way we think about content, PR almost becomes the third thing on the agenda,” he says. “First you’re talking about community messaging, and [then] influencers and then, maybe, how does media fit around that.” Ten or twelve years ago, Vijh says, it was about the journalists you knew and nervously picking up the phone to them in the hope it wasn’t slammed down.
“People in our team have never experienced that before in their lives,” he laughs. “It is weird, I guess, how the tactics we use have had to change, but then also how all our clients see the world differently in terms of PR versus the general, rounded comms situation.”
WINED AND DINED
It isn’t just the importance of PR that has changed, but also the nature of it. The stories of press-attended alcohol-fuelled misdeeds during the 1980s and 90s are legion, which Barrett succinctly characterises as ‘swashbuckling’ behaviour: “There wasn’t much process and hardly any science. It was about stunts and making noise. It was a different era.” Aside from the offal Doom 2 stunt, was it more fun? “Yeah,” says Barrett, before hesitating. “In a way it was. It was a lot more social. A lot of PR was about taking people out, there’d be wine on the table and we’d probably be going through the afternoon. We’d get coverage and everybody would be happy. That’s just not how it works now.”
Full disclosure: we are in a restaurant, going through the afternoon. There will be coverage. (Alas, no wine.)
“I think on the whole things are better in that we cover a lot more ground and we get more done. There are so many more opportunities, and therefore clients want you to go through all those opportunities. There’s social, there’s online. There’s print, television, there’s radio, and that means that you’ve got to be working on multiple platforms, different time zones – with different content for all of those. So yeah, it is harder, the plates spin faster. But it’s also rewarding because, if you get that right, it has a big impact and there’s a real sense of pride.”
In line with the nature of the industry, the team at Bastion has also changed a great deal. It’s not just that the likes of Ciaran Brennan, Christina Esrkine, Simon Byron and Mark Ward have all moved on and made way for a much more diverse team that is more technical its methods and less likely to have to work through a midweek hangover, it’s that Barrett himself has had to adapt.
By his own admission he has become more attuned to survival, partly at having to keep the business going through difficult times, specifically when the industry faced recession towards the end of the 1990s, then again in 2001 when the company lost almost half its business in the space of two weeks. With a large team to sustain, the company was quickly burning through its cash reserves. “That was hard,” recalls Barrett. “We we’re trying to find business at a time when no one was spending. I think now we’d do things differently”
Coincidentally 2001 was when Simon Byron decided to move on, although not he says because of any issue Bastion was facing. “I just needed a different challenge.” Even so, “It was awful. I cried when I left.”
In 2005 Bastion’s co-founder Ciaran Brennan also left. “There’s no big scandal,” he says. “I was turning 40 and I think I’d probably had enough of having ten bosses, which is how it can feel when you have a lot of different clients.”
Another period of rebuilding came in the wake of the 2008 recession, during which Ravi Vijh came on board. The ship would appear to be steadier since his arrival and Bastion has grown from a handful of people to close to 20.
It’s a period, let us not forget, during which the games industry has seen the greatest change, not just in terms of success, but in how games are conceived, made, marketed, sold and supported. It’s a new reality that Bastion quickly adapted to, by orchestrating all the tools at its disposal simultaneously and effectively. The word that comes up repeatedly in relation to latter day Bastion – and one you’d never hear in the good old bad old days of games PR – is ‘data’. Barrett sees the future as being about “More data. More feedback on where stuff ’s being consumed. We want to understand – why is that going to work, has it worked and how can you make it work again?”
While PRing games might not be quite as much fun as it used to be, it’s clear that Barrett hasn’t lost any of the passion that drove him to establish Bastion 30 years ago. Not that I’ve crossed paths with him many times during my own 25 years in the industry, but he is as relaxed as I can ever remember. “Apart from halfway through, when it got a bit wobbly, I’ve really enjoyed it.” What about now, 30 years on. Does he still have that same passion today as he did as a younger man? “Yes.” No hesitation this time. ”I really enjoy it. I mean, you’ve seen the crowd that we’ve got. I love working with Ravi. That’s transformed it – having someone working alongside you that’s got the drive and the energy and attention to detail and ambition. It’s all there. But we just got a great crowd of people who just all really like what they do. They like being where they are.
They make me laugh – they drive me nuts – but they are good fun to be around.” It matters that the team is diverse and different, says Barrett, “Because clients aren’t all the same.” The team’s skillset is different, but one gets the impression that, 30 years on, Barrett still looks for the same qualities in people than he always has: “Being curious and being creative. It sounds obvious, but if you’ve got those you should be able to crack PR because you are learning while you’re talking. PR is as much about listening as it is about getting the right words, the right content.”
No belated PR career for me then. Thank the maker for transcription services.