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Five years after Atari Jaguar stopped sales, the original Xbox console was introduced in the United States. Sixteen years later, Xbox consists of applications, streaming services, consoles, the Xbox network, and a development arm, Xbox Game Studios. What does it take to plan, execute and successfully run effective global campaigns? What do client-agency relationships look like at this level? THE GOODS had breakfast with former Xbox Integrated Marketing Lead and MD of Boo Agency, Jack White, to find out.
LONDON - Have you visited Little Venice recently? Left of Vagabond and amidst the backdrop of sky-high corporations, sitting opposite bold houseboats steadying themselves on the leisurely waterways of London, you'll find an incredible coffee spot called Beany Green Café. Here, we meet Jack White and to start his day, he's ordering a green tea.
Often when you think of an American company like Microsoft, thoughts of competition, wolfing down lunches at your desk, and the heavy workloads spring to mind. An article by Bill Biggs in Forbes back in 2019 asked, Is America's Corporate Culture in the Dark Ages? However, White offers us a rather cosy feel of life inside the American multinational technology corporation.
Rose Buahin, Northern Europe Xbox Marketing Lead (as of June 2023), says of White, "Jack brings such positive energy and is meticulous in planning. He works across multi-regions with colleagues from diverse backgrounds who reach varied audiences, so the fact that he is gregarious and empathetic makes our comms meetings a great forum of creativity." She continues, "Jack is an exemplary marketeer. I have been fortunate to have worked with him on many activities over the last few years, the most recent being the Xbox Series S/LEGO Star Wars: The Luke Skywalker Saga campaign."
We're laughing at the fact that we're dressed as millennial triplets: all in white tees. And as White carefully pours out his green tea, it becomes immediately apparent why his colleagues treasure him. Instead of talking about himself, he begins conversing about his heartfelt appreciation for his manager, Michael Flatt, or as Jack and the team affectionately call him, Flatty. Sipping on his green tea, White explains, "I have been very fortunate in my career in that respect because he [Flatty] was one of my managers when I was an intern [at Xbox] whilst at uni." He says, "He is a great mentor in and out of work for me. People call us Flatt White, which is our little name internally."
We ask White to explain more about Flatt's managerial style. "From the day I met him, he was like, I have got trust in what you can do. I have got trust in your ethics, and trust how you come to work and what you want to do." He continues, "Flatty said to me, Jack, I trust you to have the autonomy to go and create what you think is right for the business and check in with me when you need to." White shares how this impacted his work ethic, "It gave me an environment to be entrepreneurial within my role to help to steer what we should be doing as a team, what our focus is."
It's hard to believe that Xbox can almost be categorised as a legacy brand, and Kelcie is curious about what White wishes agencies understood about his role. She shares, "A family member works at one of the world's most iconic global brands. And the other day she was sharing how she's languishing over the pressure of managing 30 internal stakeholders, convincing them to say yes to a piece of creative from an agency. She questioned whether agencies truly understand the pressure she's under internally." White responds, "What many agencies do not understand is that when we create a global campaign [at Xbox], we are not just selling it to the Head of Social, our product marketing equivalents, or our senior leadership team. We are selling into every single individual region."
We ask what it's like managing this, and White transparently states, "Each of those regions sits with their own unique list of priorities, which we then have to work to support." He says, "But [colleagues] in each region are like my region is most important, my market is most important, and they fight tooth and nail to make sure they get the best they can." Driving home the point, White shares his biggest frustrations, saying, "Sometimes, with our partners, it is so hard when we are trying to build a great story for every market. Much of my frustration comes when we see a great creative idea, but we don't see how that can translate to varying cultures. For example, if I am sitting in Poland, Korea, or Mexico - how does that translate to the local audience?"
He explains, "There are some markets with different amounts of investment that they can use. [And agency partners are saying] We're going to create a great campaign, it's going to drive top of the funnel, we're going to have it all anchored around this global star." "And then we look at them. And maybe they're a big American movie star and we need to move away from that." The challenge of creating an effective global campaign is evident on White's face as he contemplates how much work an agency puts in before the pitch. He comments, "It's tough for an agency to get ahead of that because, how much work do they do before they have pitched to us?" He explains, "Sometimes I'm almost [wanting to] 'reverse engineer' from the problems that we have in markets and do a better job of giving agencies that insight upfront. It is not just here are our priorities for the year, which is a one-way conversation."
Having spent over a year agency-side in between his roles at Xbox, White knows the struggle. But, what has been his most enjoyable campaign over the years - ones that his agency partners have genuinely delivered on? One would have to be the Visit Xbox campaign. A campaign by Xbox and McCann London celebrating virtual travel and a new kind of tourism, exploring the beauty of gaming beyond traditional gameplay. It would showcase Xbox One X Enhanced games that were updated or built specifically to take advantage of the console's immense capabilities. The campaign encouraged gamers to wander off-piste and take in the spectacular scenery. White recalls, "[The campaign] evolved from our agency teams at McCann London. It was about looking at where we were in the world, and the authentic place gaming had in tackling everyday problems. The natural next step of the campaign was to move away from the product truths and into the more emotive drivers behind why we jump into games to connect with others and stay in touch with loved ones. To still get that feeling of discovery even within our four walls."
The campaign produced a great partnership supported by the MiAi Brand Partnerships team with Rough Guides. White says, "We built the Rough Guide to Xbox to eight of our gaming worlds. We also created an E-book, andproceeds went to the charity SpecialEffect, Xbox's charity partner." This campaign was the start of Flatt and White’s team looking into the powers of connections.
It spurred the team at McCann London to the next stage of the story, as it were. White says it was another "proactive piece" from McCann. He explains, "What I loved most about what McCann did was that they were reading the state of the world when we went into that first Christmas of the pandemic." "There was an increasing endemic in the UK around loneliness, especially among older generations. We were all disappointed not to be around our loved ones. Some didn't have family members, and those who did felt more isolated and disconnected than ever."
What McCann came up with really impresses White to this day. It was a piece planned remotely via video conferencing, and footage would be shot entirely by the two families appearing in the campaign. The viewer would follow the story of Dhillon, his Grandfather Howard, Jason, and his Great Aunt Mary. The aunt and grandfather had never 'gamed', and it was a completely new experience for them. "For us, it was all around the fact that these two families had once had closer connections. Dhillon and his grandfather used to be very close. For Jason, it was a case of forming a new bond with Mary, separated by long distances. We captured Dhillon and Jason bringing their grandfather and aunt into the world of gaming. It was all around how gaming can be that bridge to rekindle or build new connections."
But what impressed White about McCann's approach? He says, "They were proactive. They brought the idea to us. It wasn't necessarily tied to a specific product or launch; it was more around exploring the authentic place gaming had in people's lives. That's what we loved about it." Both campaigns picked up a bunch of creative awards: Cannes Lions, D&AD Pencils, and The One Show, and were well acclaimed within the industry. And it's no surprise as McCann helped develop authentic storytelling at a time everyone needed it.
White was impressed by McCann being brave and coming to Xbox with an idea that wasn't totally commercially driven but instead drove that authentic storytelling with Xbox's audiences. White reinforces the need to be challenged by an agency partner. He says, "Sometimes...you get an agency idea. Then the creative director hands it over to the account team. The account team hands it on afterwards, and the creative director closes his eyes and hopes the client is not going in and changing it for different reasons, taking the purity of the idea away." White explains, "If the idea comes back to you, and we've moulded it differently, we'll give you the context and say why. And then make your case. Let's have that conversation." White says he loves longevity in a client-agency relationship; he's not about going to pitch unnecessarily. He wants his chosen agencies to be a partner, not a vendor. He wants his partners to be willing to challenge ideas and not be 'yes' people.
Discussing independent agencies, White states, "It's my responsibility as a stakeholder to give them that equal chance like we should be giving every single agency an equal chance. Different teams have different pre-established relationships. It could be that they have always worked well together with that team, and why would you want to change that?" Scratching his forehead White expands on his point, "And it takes time to go through procurement and onboarding new agencies. If someone comes to me with an idea, I will sit down, and I want to hear it." He says, "Maybe we've already got some agencies that would do that role, but goodness me, I will introduce you to these four or five people who would love to see the idea too and maybe build a relationship there as well."
Getting that balance right is probably the biggest challenge for any new business professional. Keeping on the radar of a prospect without sounding pushy or just getting back in touch because your superior measures a job well done on the number of prospects you've reached out to in any given month; it's a trap so many still fall into. But, considering this, White says, "I have very regular touch points with a lot of agencies." If the time isn't right to hear an idea, he says, "tell me next month; please, let's catch up then. And it's more of a, let's start an ongoing dialogue of what we're doing and what you're doing. Rather than go cold and wait for me to reach out and be like now pitch, they've lost six months of understanding my business, what we're doing, and our pain points."
Important to White is not just going in for a cold sale, "I want to understand what you're about; I don't want you to send me a pitch deck the first time we speak. I want us to go and have a coffee. I want to find out what you've
done in the past, why it worked, why it didn't work, what you've learned, and what you're looking to do in the future. It's like dating. You don't go and meet someone and say, date me now or not. You probably get to know each other better before deciding next steps."
What is to blame for this frigid approach to new business? Likely the number of pitches taking place in an agency at any one time. Without realising, they're pushing their stressonto a potential client, forcing them to decide too soon in the 'dating' process. "It's like three or four conversations down the line until I'd expect to see a deck or a creative idea. I think that's maybe why agencies get it wrong. Sometimes they just hit me up straight away with a pitch deck. And I'm like, I know already - this is not going to answer my priorities. The only room for a generic slide deck is to say "what the agency is about, and that should accompany a conversation," expresses White. He says, "Thinking I care about them, having never met them, to spend 20-minutes of my day looking at a deck, having no conversation with them at all. I think that's just a bit...I like having a conversation or something to get to know what they're about and then go from there." Explaining his issue with pitching cold, White says, "They don't understand our business problems. They don't understand what we look for in a good idea. So why would I ever expect their first pitch to blow me away?" He explains, "Because they're just getting to know me. I think that's the tough thing for agencies. They believe an idea is going to wow you immediately, and I'm like, no, it's not. How could it? You don't know about my problems; you don't know about what I'm looking for." He clarifies, "If you'd instead been like, Hey, can I tell you more about what we're doing? And then, maybe in the future, let's start talking about things you might want more support or are focused on? And then that's the time to come in with an idea."
During the pandemic, White took up cycling, making it his aim to "go as far as I can in an hour, soak up loads of greenery every single day." And it's something he has kept going, "I aim to get out in the morning, have a bike ride, get a good breakfast and delve into two podcasts or read a book before I start my day." White expresses it as a way to warm himself up for the day, which acts as a catalyst to starting the day motivated. "I've started doing reminders on my phone, too. Everybody knows I switch off my phone at 8pm.
In July last year, White stepped outside the doors of what he's called home for the past seven years to embark on his next chapter. For how long? No one knows. But with a mentor like Flatty and exceptional colleagues like Buahin, the door for the next chapter is being kept open. "He will be missed, big time," comments Buahin.
White embarked on taking time to explore, travel, push himself in new areas, spending time with family and friends and most crucially – detach from screens! And started Boo Agency on his return. He says, "I have to thank Flatty for his openness, understanding and willingness to support me in finding a balance that works best for my personal and professional goals. I'm pumped with this new balance that will enable me to explore new opportunities and passions. Onwards!"
This article was updated in October 2023.