After speaking to founders and former employees last issue, Richie Shoemaker sits down with three of Bastion’s johnny-come-latelies, for a view of the veteran PR agency’s more recent and soon-to-be history.
How do you know if a games journalist will end up working in PR? They buy a first round. Ok, so it’s not the freshest industry joke, but it underscores what was once a given – that most people in games PR used to work in games media.
While it’s still the case that many games journalists, influencers and other content creators will gravitate towards a career in PR, things have changed since the days when the way to fill a PR vacancy was via a games mag’s flannel panel. Where Bastion’s first generation PR team – its founders among them – had a long background in 16-bit era games media, a cursory check of the current Bastion rank-and-file on LinkedIn shows them to be just as likely to be entirely new to the games industry as not.
Take account director Becky Mullen and influencer lead Sam Jones, who joined Bastion on the same day over five years ago; from esports and tech PR respectively. Admittedly they have some games editorial experience, but not enough to ever ferment into a mid-life career crisis. The same cannot be said of senior account manager Ben Skipper, but the point is that he’s the exception rather than the rule.
“I was a little bit nervous about it,” he says about coming to the end of ten years studying and working in journalism. “It was kind of ‘I don’t really want to do the journalism thing anymore. What should I do? PR, that’s what everyone else does, right? That makes sense. Give that a go!’ But it’s ended up being more of a natural fit for me than journalism. Much more satisfying and fun, and much less stressful.”
Skipper’s damascene transformation from journo to PR was eased considerably by assurances from friends and colleagues, as well as quiet encouragement from Ravi Vijh, Bastion’s client services director, who has been the hidden hand behind many of Bastion’s key appointments in recent years.
“My chat with Ravi that turned out to be a job interview was actually through Twitter.” Says Jones, who first joined Bastion in 2017 in a large part due to his interest and passion for esports. “I was following Ravi on Twitter and I put a post out saying I’m looking for work and he was like ‘Yeah, we should have a talk.’” Jones was soon introduced to Bastion co-founder Dean Barrett and a first job in the games industry was quickly secured. “I’ve never seen a hiring process quite like it. They saw my enthusiasm for esports and passion for games and saw that potential. PR was front of mind for me at the time and I wanted to nurture that as well.” Starting on the very same day was Mullen, who joined the agency as something of a veteran. “I’ve always done PR,” she says. “Straight out of uni I went to Weber Shandwick, doing tech PR for B2B clients, but then decided I wanted to focus on games.” Inevitably Bastion came up foremost in her searches and she reached out to see if there were any suitable roles.
“You learn more about the company as you start speaking to Ravi and Dean,” says Jones. “You get the line that they helped launch the original PlayStation – it would always pop up in every interview – and you’d go ‘Okay, I want to work there.’”
It’s easy to talk about how much PR and the games industry is in many ways unrecognisable from the days when Bastion started out in 1992, but when it comes to the most notable industry changes since she joined Bastion, Mullen doesn’t hesitate to say what the biggest of them has been: “Covid, obviously. It has made quite a big shift in the past couple of years in terms of how we just do a lot of our work.” We may be seeing the return of large scale in-person events, such as gamescom, but she’s not convinced that things will get back to the way they were. Whatever the virus intends to do in the months and years ahead, streamed online events look likely to be with us for a while yet. “It will be interesting.” she adds cautiously.
“I think that the legacy of Covid is flexibility in terms of what we can offer to press and to consumers,” says Skipper. Yes, Bastion is finding that clients are wanting to be a part of more in-person events, but also that the virtual option is a necessary part of the mix. “That flexible virtual option is crucial and I think that goes for a lot of aspects of life.”
“There’s more accessibility with some of these events than there used to be,” agrees Mullen. “You can open it up to more journalists from different places, on a level playing field, and open some opportunities up for smaller outlets as well.”
“Covid definitely gave us a lot of opportunity to try and test and adopt different ways of doing our jobs,” adds Jones, giving the example of holding press briefings in Discord, “Doing things in different ways that we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in the past.” The team at Bastion has been able to move forward with ideas that have worked and bring others along with them. “Journalists are completely aligned with that as well, because everyone kind of had to change their approach.”
FACING THE FUTURE
With Covid looming at the edge of our collective consciousness and some lingering trepidation about future events, the priority for Bastion and for games PR more widely is to remain flexible. After all, while 2022 has seen the successful return of gamescom and other expos and conferences, virtual events have not receded into the background. Organisers and publishers are still feeling their way forward about what the right strategy is at a time when digital showcases seem to arrive like London buses. It might not be until E3 next year that things feel more settled. “There’s also how consumers factor into all this as well,” adds Skipper, alluding to viewerships not reducing the appetite of gamers to attend physical events.
“There are still a lot of TBCs,” says Mullen, who also sees a greater need for flexibility in messaging and the content that Bastion produces: “I think we’re gonna see more asks for direct to consumer communication,” such as social media and content creation, with game developers and publishers “wanting to make their own thing and ship it directly to the consumer.”
For Sam Jones, who heads up Bastion’s in-house influencer agency, Pinpoint, the plan over the next few months is to expand. “The team will grow,” he says. “We’ll bring in more account managers, more account executives, that will sit on their own projects, but at the same time work as consultancy for the rest of the clients across the business as well. It’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, but things are definitely coming together.”
Whatever the future has lined up, it’s evident that Bastion is well equipped to face it. 30 years of thriving in the game business is ample evidence of that. Less obvious is the strong sense of togetherness among the team, which is not something that the media often gets to see or appreciate.
“Before I joined I wasn’t expecting a company where I liked everyone,” says Skipper to a round of laughter, “and it’s nice to have a boss who I respect and is good fun.” Part of the reason, suggests Mullen, is the simple fact of working in the games industry. “Other people who I know who work at other agencies – not in games – they always seem to be worked absolutely to the bone. They don’t seem to like any of their clients, or any of the work that they’re doing.”
A lot of the credit, according to Skipper, must go to Dean Barrett and Ravi Vijh, who perhaps through their unconventional interviewing methods, have over the last five years grown the team to four times its size while managing to make everyone feel like they are part of a small close-knit group, working as much for each other as much as their clients and contacts.
“They’re just very good at selecting people that are good communicators, a good laugh and good at what they do,” says Jones. “And that in turn just means we’re all … friends.”
“I don’t really know how they do it,” adds Mullen. “They must have a Spidey sense for people.”