The Canuck behind Halo 2

Ryan Mugford loves his gig. A lot.

Ryan Mugford loves his gig. A lot.

Over the course of our conversation he

mentions it four times. The adjectives vary but stick to a theme: ‘great,’ ‘coolest, ‘phenomenal.’ Mugford, 34, is head of brand strategy and communications for Xbox, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Not a bad title, and maybe even a bit fated for a guy who at 17, while working at retailer Eddie Bauer, wrote a letter to company execs explaining consumers’ dislike of the shift in brand strategy and weeks later found himself on a plane to HQ. But more on that later.

It’s early November, the day after the launch of Halo 2, that little sequel that has surpassed all previous one-day videogame sales to the tune of US$125 million. What has Mugford, and the folks at Microsoft, surely tickled pink is that it’s also throttled opening day records of monster movies like Shrek, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Star Wars. But everyone should have seen it coming. For years now the videogame industry has out-grossed movies, with global sales topping $20 billion last year. So Halo 2′s success, buoyed by the incredibly extensive global marketing push behind it, was simply a matter of time.

Somewhat like Mugford’s rise to where he is now. From his office in London, U.K. he works with a core team of 14 people, six main ad agencies and dozens of PR agencies dotted in each of the 16 countries his jurisdiction covers, mainly in Europe, but with an eye to future ‘broadband-friendly’ markets in Africa and the Middle East, too.

His job is to ensure that the brand’s messages executed by the global team (responsible for ads) and the local teams (mostly through PR) are consistent across the entire marketing mix and speak to a mixed bag of cultures.

So for the launch of Halo 2, imagine a take on Orson Welles’ 1938 radio classic War of the Worlds. The result? In Stockholm and Copenhagen, the covers of transit paper, Metro, warned of the coming of the game’s protagonist Master Chief. In Milan and Rome, inflatable spaceships and characters hovered over the cities.

In London, MTV Europe partnered to produce the show The Making of Halo 2. All told, dozens of creative executions were dreamed up for the launch. ‘We wanted to make Halo 2 as a launch more than just an ad,’ he says. ‘We wanted to make sure that it was a cultural experience.’

So how does a kid from Toronto end up in such an enviable

position? Well, by being Canadian, for one. Mugford credits that muddled notion of a Canadian identity with instilling a

moderate embrace-all-cultures

sensibility. ‘I wasn’t European and I wasn’t from the U.S. but I had a really good understanding of both sides,’ he says. That helped, but so did a pretty impressive marketing background that started, oddly enough, as a part-time sales rep at Eddie Bauer.

Once known for tents and snowshoes, Eddie Bauer moved to a more casual clothing brand and it didn’t sit well with customers at first. ‘I saw their disappointment over how the brand that they had known changed so dramatically,’ says Mugford. So he wrote a letter about what he was hearing and possible solutions, which eventually wound up in the hands of execs in Washington state.

‘I was in high school. I had my first business trip. They had no idea how old I was. I went down and they had rented me a car at the

airport. I didn’t even have my driver’s licence,’ he recalls laughing. But he credits the

experience with setting him down the marketing path. ‘From that point on listening to

consumers, understanding consumers’ needs and wants and translating that into something that could be more beneficial really has been a passion in my life.’

After graduating from Kingston Ont.’s Queen’s University with a mix of marketing, film and finance courses, Mugford spent two years at Procter & Gamble learning marketing

fundamentals while working on the Mr. Clean brand. Then it was on to Nabisco where he

re-launched Bits & Bites and Crispers.

‘My whole gig in the past was looking at under-appreciated brands and thinking about how to remarket, repackage and reposition them in a way that respected the audience and found a unique niche or reason to be.’ During that time he says his biggest

achievement was developing the portfolio brand ‘Planet Snak,’ which combined such offerings as Chips Ahoy and Oreo that kids aged five to 10 loved, into one package.

Then came Xbox. In 2001, Mugford, as director of marketing for Xbox in Canada, launched the video game console and its online counterpart, Xbox Live. Unveiling the new TV campaign during the MuchMusic broadcast of the 2001 MTV Music Awards and sponsoring the iDance Toronto electronic music festival to reach the young target market helped Microsoft Canada muscle out one of the biggest market shares in the world in its category; Sony, its key competitor, had the

lowest. This showing sparked the interest of the key folks at Microsoft, earned Mugford the Chairman’s Award for Marketing (an internal Microsoft award) and a meeting with Bill Gates, no less.

‘I didn’t even know I was nominated,’ he says. ‘I happened to be at a Microsoft global gathering in New Orleans. Of all things I was doing an interview when the award was announced. So I got the nod and people started calling me on my mobile phone and I was told that I had lunch with Bill Gates in 20 minutes. So literally, I got that call and ran out the door. It was a surreal experience and I got the chance to meet both Bill and [Microsoft CEO] Steve [Ballmer].’

Now in London a year-and-a-half, his recent projects, besides that little Halo thing, include September’s launch of Sabre, Xbox’s latest role-playing game, and a coveted partnership with international football association FIFA, which has spawned the FIFA Interactive World Cup, a tournament that pits Xbox users across six countries against each other in a battle for virtual World Cup glory.

So with the perfect job and the rest of Europe an hour’s fly away, is there anything Mugford misses about Canada? ‘I miss my parents and friends,’ he admits. ‘And snow.’