Creative Advertising in the Gaming World: Lessons from MAD//FEST and Beyond

Creativity is the lifeblood of the advertising industry, and I’m always reminded of this when I attend advertising events like this year’s MAD//FEST. The festival, held over three days, was a showcase of innovative ideas and inspiring sessions. Standout moments included reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones, gaining insights from English legends Rachel Daly and Beth England on the power of perseverance, hearing comedian Eddie Izzard speak about the importance of knowing what you stand for and daring to go against the grain, and realizing that our industry is far larger and more interconnected than we often think.

The festival’s location in the heart of Brick Lane, one of London’s most vibrant and culturally diverse districts, was fitting. The area is filled with colorful street art from renowned artists like Banksy and Eine, alongside hip vintage shops, quirky boutiques, international cuisine, and independent bars and cafes. Everywhere you looked, creativity was in full bloom as artists and entrepreneurs alike strived to make their mark.

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Stepping out of the festival for a quick break, I was struck by how challenging it has become for advertisers to stand out in a world that’s so full of creativity and constantly fighting for our attention. Yet, this is a great challenge and one that’s forced many advertisers to be more creative and think differently about how they make meaningful connections with their audiences.

After spending most of my career at agencies helping brands tackle this challenge, I decided just over a year ago to leave the agency world and join Anzu. As Creative Director, my mission has been to improve advertising in games, and find a delicate balance between grabbing attention and complementing the gaming experience.

I’ve worked with global brands and organizations from every vertical imaginable from Sony to the UN, helping them design and tweak creatives for the gaming world based on their campaign goals. This experience, coupled with extensive research and insights from Anzu’s database, led to the creation of our creative best practices for in-game ads, which I presented on the Creative Stage at this year’s MAD//FEST.

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This project continues the work I helped the IAB carry out earlier this year. As in-game ads become the preferred method for many brands to reach gamers, thanks to their high attention and non-intrusive nature, the IAB identified the need for universal creative best practices to ensure these ads remain non-intrusive while delivering results for advertisers.

Our latest research builds on the best practices laid out by the IAB. Using data and insights from campaigns we’ve run with many leading brands worldwide, we aimed to understand the impact of following these practices and determine which ones to prioritize based on different campaign goals.

Here is an example of an ad from a fake brand that I used at MAD//FEST to demonstrate why simply taking creatives from other channels and shoehorning them into in-game ad placements often does not work. We found that many brands were retrofitting their adverts from digital, TV, and social channels, hoping they would work in-game. 

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Ads like this drove us to conduct this study and inspired the creation of our best practices. The main issues with this ad are the long headline, small logo, clickable CTA, and body copy, among others. These elements were typical features we saw daily. A golden rule I often tell advertisers is: if you wouldn’t do it OOH (out-of-home), don’t do it in-game.

Delving deeper into the creative best practices, the nine that I outlined during my talk and that I would say are most important for in-game are as follows:

1 - Design for gaming first
2 - Sound off
3 - Non-clickable CTA
4 - 7 words or less
5 - Avoid busy creatives
6 - Don’t be afraid of the logo, make it big
7 - Make the most of the first 3 seconds in video
8 - A minimum of 2 ads should appear concurrently
9 - 3-5 impressions per user per day

Our report highlights which of these best practices to focus on, depending on your campaign goals — whether they are awareness, recall, favorability, recommendation, or purchase intent.

Not all the ads we run break these guidelines. Some brands have clearly embraced in-game advertising, but our research shows that there is still room for improvement. Sony is an example of a brand that has recently seen huge success by following these guidelines.

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To promote their INZONE Buds, a set of noise-canceling earbuds designed for gamers, Sony launched an intrinsic in-game advertising campaign, working with our best practices. They designed ads that naturally fit into the gaming world and resonated with players. The campaign achieved:

- 4 million impressions and 10,000 hours of on-screen time
- A 42-point increase in brand image
- A 39-point increase in interest
- A 35-point increase in consideration for the earbuds

Sony’s success perfectly illustrates the power of following the right best practices in-game. I hope more brands will adopt these creative best practices to design ads that make the most of the gaming environment and the opportunities they offer.

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Simon Sworn

Anzu's Creative Director, Simon Sworn, leads the creative department, working closely with advertisers on their in-game ad creatives and with game developers to ensure their ad placements naturally feel part of the gameplay.

Simon Sworn