CMO of the Week: 2K’s Melissa Bell

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Melissa Bell has built a career as a global marketing executive in the automotive industry, living in different countries around Asia. Four years ago, she joined global gaming brand 2K as SVP, head of global marketing. Last June, she was promoted to global chief marketing officer.

Melissa Bell has built a career as a global marketing executive in the automotive industry, living in different countries around Asia. Four years ago, she joined global gaming brand 2K as SVP, head of global marketing. Last June, she was promoted to global chief marketing officer.

 “I reached a point where I really wanted to change industries to expand myself and my career,” says Bell. “I think because I had local and regional marketing roles and global marketing roles, I was at that point that I really knew what I wanted. I had a checklist. I wanted an industry that was highly creative, highly technical, fast moving with a passionate consumer base and a company with a culture that could really challenge the status quo and drive change.”

Bell wasn't targeting the gaming industry per se, but when she got a call from a headhunter about the CMO role at 2K, it ticked every single of her boxes. “And after I met the team, I was so fired up and wanted to be part of the team because of the products, it's consumers, and the people,” she explains. “Many companies say that they want to do innovative things, and then you try to do things, and it's really hard to get them done. At 2K we actually provide great player experiences to people who are passionate about the game quality.”

In her role, she is credited with creating a global marketing organization to build global game strategies with local executions, as well as building an in-house creative team. 

“We've really been focused on building this global community of gamers,” says Bell. “The global reach is really important.To do that, we obviously need player-centric games that’s not just a one-way experience. It really allows them to create or express or engage. In order for us to deliver upon that promise, from a marketing point of view, we are very insight driven.That means putting the player front and center, understanding their needs, their desires, their friction, what's making them mad, all those sorts of things, so that we can then craft our marketing strategies to be authentic, relevant and as personalized as possible.”

Bell has recently lead the revamp of 2K’s official creator partner program NextMakers; developed a marketing strategy for the launch of WWE2K22, driving the biggest launch week in the history of the franchise; as well as created a marketing strategy for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, a spin off to 2K’s most successful AAA title Borderlands

Brand Innovators caught up with Bell from her home office in the San Francisco Bay area to talk about these new efforts, growth in gaming and her approach to leadership. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about 2K’s official creator partner program, NextMakers and how you have been overhauling the publisher and creator relationship?

It's a really exciting program for us because it supports us as a company, but it also really gives back to these content creators. We've handpicked a group players. It's a curated program. The first part of it is about supporting them through education to enhance their content creation skill. So whether that is supporting them on how they increase their subscriber base, their P2P contact, turning their passion into a hobby. We provide education and tools and support to the community. At the same time, we look to them to provide insight in our games. We have brought them in to evaluate their games, we provide information early to them, so they get access. And so we obtain from them their experience and what they like and what they don't like. The teams are very passionate about it, because they get to actually grow this content, these content creators, but at the same time, get first hand information about the game. We want our community to obviously dream big. And I think Next Makers, by giving them the tools, but also then giving them the access to our games, then we can bring both of those things together.

Gaming has grown due to the pandemic. Can you talk about how the brand has navigated this growth in consumer behavior and what it means for the company?

When you look at all of the entertainment sector, everybody shut down at some point or another except gaming. And we've had our most successful launches to date, whilst working remotely. What it comes down to is two of our brand values, which is being nimble and able to pivot quickly. I love our brand values, they're very human. I'm really proud of how we went from this in-office company to suddenly being at home and having all these games to launch. The team was so passionate and delivered. Yes, the pandemic definitely meant more gamers came in, but we didn't just rest on our laurels. We actually did a lot of things during the pandemic all focused on making amazing content for our community. 

For example, we did the NBA 2K player tournament, which was leveraging some of the NBA players playing the 2K21 at the time. It was aired on ESPN. And then we launched 2K21 when the next generation hardware came out. Part of that we launched what is the city within NBA2k. And that's a play in metaverse and within that metaverse, it's a city, so there's streets and plazas, and it's story driven, and there's lots of other activities. It's a place for our community to go. And it's not just about playing basketball, there's fashion and music and training and all that sort of thing. 

And we launched other lots of other products: PGA Tour 2K21, XCOM: Chimera Squad and most recently, WWE 2K22, Tiny Tina's Wonderlands. Through all these efforts of providing content for our community, we were not only able to satisfy our very passionate existing players, but also bring in new players. 

Can you talk about the relaunch of WWE2K22 and how you managed the biggest launch week in the history of the franchise?

For WWE2K22, I think it's really important that as a company that we took the time to build the product that met our player requirements and also met the quality standards for 2K. And so that was an investment from our side. From a marketing point of view, our tagline was ‘It hits different.’ We wanted anything that we did from an external perspective and internal perspective to hit different. We were so confident in this game and what it delivered and so what that meant is we were able to do some really engaging and fun activations. We did a TikTok walk out challenge. By really applying how does this ‘hit different,’ it made us really sharp on how to connect and engage with the player. Also, when it came to things like our launch spot, we had superstars like Rey Mysterio and The Undertaker as part of that, as well as gamers like Tim the tat man and Machine Gun Kelly. It was fun. We created something that people wanted to be part of and it was true to the game. 

We have an amazing partnership with WWE. We worked hand in hand with them to amplify. We worked with some of their other partners like Snickers to do a lot of fun activations. Having a great product, really understanding our player and really injecting this ‘It hits different’ across everything and making it fun, it has meant that from a commercial point of view and also a political point of view, that game is an amazing success thus far. We’ve had nearly 116 million views on YouTube of content related to WWE 2K22 in the first 30 days of launch, 56 million hours of the game watched on Twitch to date and over 140 million matches played in the game. I am amazingly proud of the team. It's been inspirational to see them all rally together in a remote environment and put this all together. 

Is there a role for emerging technologies like the metaverse and NFTs for 2K, and what might that look like if so?

We're always trying to work out what the next best thing is, and whether that's talking to our players and understanding what new features they're looking for or our development teams exploring new technology. We want it to make sense. For example, the NBA game is already a metaverse in itself. Whilst we're always looking to enhance the player experience, we don't want to overwhelm our community by knee jerk reactions to something that could be a fad. We've been exploring NFTs. We see many different companies trying different things that have entered the space to date. But we don't want to announce an NFT integration, just for the sake of doing it, or because everybody else is doing it, and then later, scrap the project. We want to be where it makes sense. 

What are 2K's commitments to DE&I and how have those manifested in your work as a marketer?

Another one of our brand values is come as you are and we constantly strive for a culture where our people – our most important asset – feel supported to do their best work. Marketing plays a very big internal communication role which is incredibly important. In order to support the come as you are value, we have established seven, we call them ERGs, employee resource groups. They are employee led and sponsored by executive leadership. For example, I'm the sponsor of the Women in Gaming ERG. Those groups get together to share their stories to connect and make sure that they have the necessary support if they need it, share ideas and things like that. They also play a really critical role for us to make sure that we have representation, across our 2K games and our workforce. 

The goal really is to encourage the next generation of diverse talent. From a marketing point of view, we are involved in helping them create their communication strategy and their swag or their assets or how we portray gamers, which is definitely a lot of fun. Also to support the overall DE&I initiatives, we have a very robust graduate program out of our Dublin office. We have intern programs now in the US and London offices. They're really critical for us to bring younger voices into 2K. They're the future. In these programs, interns do rotations, not only across different departments, but also in different countries. They're very much helping us build the company of the future, as well and support all of our DE&I initiatives.

Can you talk about how your experiences in earlier roles at the company have helped shape your approach to leadership?

I've been really lucky to live in many countries and many cities, and some of those countries where I didn't speak the language, and communicating with my peers, my colleagues on my team, then became so incredibly important because I couldn't communicate in the traditional way of language. That has really shaped my focus on how important communication is. Working with so many different cultures has made me very aware of different needs. We're all different. We all have things that we're going through. We all have different backgrounds. I tend to want to create a very empathetic work environment and not a one-size-fits-all workplace. I try to focus on situational leadership, because every situation is different. 

I tend to find that communication and spending time with people to understand the context works best. Often we're just so busy, we don't have the time. But connecting with people is important to me. Work from home has been really hard because you've lost that physical connection. Everyone was trying to find ways to get that connection without having it physically. We tried lots of different things. I am here to support my team to get their best possible work done and that requires time, empathy and understanding.

What are you most excited about for the remainder of 2022?

We've got a lot of titles coming out this year. We have The Quarry, which is our summer horror game, and we have NBA 2K23, an incredibly important product for the company. I really feel confident that 22 can be our best year yet, because of the content that's coming out. It gives us the opportunity to develop closer relationships to our community to understand more about them. I'm most excited about being able to connect with them and just constantly learning. It's fascinating how much we can learn. Sometimes we try things and it fails, but always out of that you get a learning that you can take into kind of the next round of development.

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