Hide-And-Go-Seek An Ad

The ad world is filled with slick, ultrastylish characters. Kevin Slavin is not one of them. Today, Slavin, the managing director of a company called area/code, is wearing a rumpled button-down shirt and battered brown sneaker-shoes. His glasses are strictly functional. His hair is not artfully mussed. He sits in a featureless conference room in Manhattan, straining to be heard over truly violent-sounding construction on the street below. When the 36-year-old self-described "game freak" says he disconnected his DirectTV (DTV ) because "it was cutting into my Xbox (MSFT ) time," you believe him.

Slavin's endless enthusiasm for games encompasses even chestnuts such as capture-the-flag, and somehow he has managed to extrapolate a business from this obsession. Area/code, which Slavin co-founded with veteran game designer Frank Lantz, creates complex, ad-sponsored, multiplayer games that use a city's physical landscape as a playing board -- "urban games" or "big games" in gamer parlance. Lance and Slavin thus outline scenarios in which advertising is not just tolerated but welcomed.

TODAY'S BIG GAMES go beyond Civil War reenactments. Players can be joined through the connective tissue of cell phones and Wi-Fi, which provide instant communication among players dispersed across large geographic areas and allow a game to be tracked in real time on the Web. This was the technological fairy dust sprinkled over Lantz' Pac Manhattan, in which a re-enactment of the '80s video game classic was played out over several square city blocks in 2004. Popular games cast long shadows, and Pac Man remains a prominent cultural touchstone, which is one reason why Pac Manhattan won so much notice. The attention caused a light bulb to go on for Slavin, then working at an ad agency. "I was thinking," he recalls, "this is media. This is a form of media we don't yet know how to articulate." The new form can crank up the kilowattage of marketing efforts, he says, by providing "actual experiences for people instead of telling them about something" and making those experiences public and visible to others. (This inverts the standard ad model, that aims at individuals and often celebrates private sensations: Our product will make you feel this way.)

Lantz and Slavin later collaborated on ConQwest for Qwest Communications (Q ) cell phones, which in 2004 and 2005 unleashed teams across 10 cities in search of a coded image to be photographed with camera phones. That image appeared randomly in those cityscapes and when photographed yielded clues and riddles. It also appeared in weekly papers and fake ads in public spaces. (The mock ads were top-drawer, deadpan parodies with taglines such as "it smells so good you'll fall in love with yourself.") ConQwest cost only $3.2 million, yet the novel campaign by a second-tier cellular player had a wide effect similar to Pac Manhattan's. Press mentions were many and glowing, and industry awards followed.

Area/code's vision borrows from others. It partly echoes dodgeball.com, a real-time mobile social networking system in which users trade their whereabouts while out and about. It also recalls the short-lived "flash mob" trendlet in which groups of strangers quickly gathered, performed a predetermined activity, and dispersed from random urban meeting grounds. Like a skateboarder, area/code sees unusual possibilities for play in a city's street-level architecture.

It helps that area/code is more game-centric than marketing-centric. "They invest in an experience in its own right, which happens to communicate" a marketing message, says Matt Jones, senior design manager for user experience at client Nokia. That experience is both next-generation and traditional, by tapping into half-forgotten moments of childhood spent wholly caught up in the flow of a game. If advertising seeks to make us all hungry children, at least area/code gives us a playground and throws the doors open for recess.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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