Former Rockstars Head Up New PR & Marketing Firm

Three video game industry veterans with a wealth of experience in promoting blockbuster titles revealed exclusively to GameDAILY BIZ today that they are joining forces to form a new PR and marketing agency, Sandbox Strategies, LLC.

Co-founders Bill Linn, Corey Wade and Rob Fleischer, who have more than 30 years of combined experience in the industry, will lead the company. Linn and Fleischer were exclusive contractors for Rockstar Games for the last three years. Both focused on the always controversial Grand Theft Auto franchise. Linn, in particular, handled "crisis communications" for the series. For the past 16 years, Linn has also worked for THQ, Monster Cable, Sony, and his own Linn PR, which he founded in 1997 and ran for 5 years. Wade was a senior product manager at Rockstar, and he will handle marketing efforts for Sandbox's clients. He recently led the marketing efforts for the top selling Midnight Club and Max Payne franchises, as well as State of Emergency and Red Dead Revolver.

Increasing sell-thru and sell-in

Sandbox plans to offer clients comprehensive public relations and marketing services including product launch campaigns, event management, research, consumer promotions and retail marketing strategies. By combining PR and marketing efforts, the firm aims to separate itself from other agencies that use a more traditional approach. One area that Sandbox plans to target is retail. Because retail buyers control which games get placed on store shelves, it's important that these folks understand why a client's game is worth it. As such, Sandbox will give retail a similar experience on product presentations as to what members of the media receive.

"From a marketing perspective, most PR agencies are often isolated from the overall sales and promotional efforts," said Corey Wade, co-founder and head of marketing for Sandbox. "Considering the stakes in today's marketplace, this approach is obsolete. Planning from the outset for a coordinated effort and integrating key messages in the media, marketing materials, and at retail is the core of our strategy."

"The interactive entertainment industry has changed dramatically over the last five years, so we've created an agency from the ground up that reflects the new landscape," added Bill Linn, co-founder of Sandbox Strategies. "It's increasingly difficult to generate a strong buzz or stand out at retail. It's even harder to communicate with a widening age demographic and confused consumers facing a myriad of choices and imminent technology transitions. Sandbox approaches its clients from a perspective of 'how can we affect the sell thru as well as sell-in' for your product?' With our unique blend of marketing and PR services, we are more relevant to our clients' bottom line than a traditional communications agency."

Q&A with Bill Linn

GameDAILY BIZ sat down with Linn to discuss what makes Sandbox different and what its founders have learned about the industry that can be applied to today's market.

BIZ: What is Sandbox's primary goal? What methods will you utilize to reach that goal?

Linn: We are a PR and marketing agency focused on helping our clients increase "sell-in" and "sell-thru" of their products using proven methods and strategies. We are offering our time-tested, professional PR and marketing services in a way that is more relevant to a publisher or manufacturers' bottom line.

Imagine applying PR to the entire process of marketing a game or product. A publisher or manufacturer does press PR, something we have extensive experience doing. Now, what if they use those same techniques towards the other elements of marketing, such as applying PR to a buyer? Or a district manager of a retail chain? OR even reach the consumer in ways that go beyond the major media and traditional advertising? Or, better yet, what if they designed a program that could apply a consistent, coordinated message across all marketing and promotional efforts to all of these audiences? That would make a huge difference to the bottom line. So, while our core offering is PR, we have developed the agency from the ground up to affect many elements of marketing and we have the resources to address that. Everyone knows that traditional advertising and marketing techniques are declining in effectiveness, and that PR is now the key generator of positive word of mouth -- but we want to ask the game publishers, "What are you doing about it, and have you defined exactly who you want to gain positive word of mouth from?"

BIZ: What can you tell me about your experience working with Rockstar Games?

Linn: We all come to the table with experience at many companies, although, prior to founding Sandbox, our most recent experience is working at Rockstar and with its great franchises. The last six products we collectively worked on sold more than 45 million units. There are very few, if any, people at PR agencies that could add up their games to half of that.

BIZ: According to the press release, you say that Sandbox is a "new kind of agency." Can you explain that please?

Linn: We looked closely at the existing offerings out there and realized that many of these agencies are working as though it were 1997. They have too many clients in the same market space, essentially cannibalizing their efforts among too many products. Additionally, most agencies are on islands, often very distant from the rest of the marketing process. And, as I said when I ran Linn PR, often times the account executives are so junior that they do more harm than good for a product. Every publisher should ask their account rep how many products they worked on that sold more than a million units. If they don't have experience taking games to that level, how can you expect them to get you there?

Even worse, where most PR agencies fail is their ability to understand the bigger picture. They don't recognize what's really important to a publisher or manufacturer -- increasing sell-in and sell-thru for a product. Their stack of press clippings is their measure of success. By having a strong marketing component built into our agency, we look for ways to exploit a product's publicity into the rest of the marketing process. We are not an ad agency, but we don't just stop at the publicity element; we look at a client's sell-in process and think, 'what is the best way to communicate with a key retail buyer?' -- either thru a better product presentation or a promotion to help the product break out of the clutter at that retailer.

Of course, it is crucial to work as productively as possible with the media -- that is PR 101. Sandbox's relationships with members of the media who cover games and technology is unmatched. For example, I encourage you to ask any journalist in the videogame business what their opinion is of Rob Fleischer. No one has more experience than Sandbox working with the press on features, creating effective print and online PR plans, and handling controversy. But agencies that are focused only on publicity become myopic to the rest of the process. We have a much broader, more effective offering.

BIZ: Although you guys obviously have strong roots in the video game business, your press release indicates that you will work with consumer electronics companies as well. Why not focus exclusively on games?

Linn: I practically invented the "videogame-only" PR agency. The one thing I took away is this model doesn't work anymore. Other PR agencies seem to be on autopilot, applying the same approach since the PSOne era. The staff at Sandbox has had experience working for many of the leading publishers in different capacities, so we have taken what we've seen that works and formulated this into what we think is going to yield positive results during this console transition and beyond.

Our focus is on the broader $65 billion consumer entertainment market. Games make up only 17% of that annual spending. So we will have 2 or 3 of the top clients in the videogame space, but we are looking to consumer electronics, tech, toys and other consumer items. We have learned so much in the videogame space that I think similar industries could benefit from our experience.

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