Let’s get digital – Xbox’s Jen Walsh

When short codes and m-coupons were still just vague buzzwords starting to emerge in marketing circles, Jen Walsh was already figuring out how to work them into her marketing efforts at EMI Canada, looking to high-tech markets like Japan for inspiration. Now at Xbox Canada since last fall as marketing manager, partnerships, promotions and events, Walsh is leveraging her tech savvy and knack for staying in touch with youth culture through music, entertainment and technology to broaden the brand's appeal.

When short codes and m-coupons were still just vague buzzwords starting to emerge in marketing circles, Jen Walsh was already figuring out how to work them into her marketing efforts at EMI Canada, looking to high-tech markets like Japan for inspiration. Now at Xbox Canada since last fall as marketing manager, partnerships, promotions and events, Walsh is leveraging her tech savvy and knack for staying in touch with youth culture through music, entertainment and technology to broaden the brand’s appeal.

‘She’s got really great vision for three things that are really important to us: convergence of media, the importance of our partnership ecosystem, and how to make cultural connections with youth,’ says boss Jason Anderson, director of marketing at Mississauga, Ont.-based Xbox Canada, adding that she’s working on two long-lead projects focusing on how to connect Xbox more closely to music and how to broaden its reach beyond hardcore gamers. ‘We’ll start to see the fruits of her labour starting this holiday season.’

Walsh’s experience at EMI, during which time she also chaired the digital strategies committee for the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the association responsible for the Junos), is no doubt serving her well in tying Xbox more to music. She has already reached out to Canadian artists like Kardinal Offishall, Matt Mays and Hedley, who all participated in the Xbox backstage gaming area she orchestrated at this year’s Juno awards, where they faced off with average gamers at home in a Canadian spin on Xbox’s global ‘Game with Fame’ initiative that lets gamers add participating celebs to their friends lists to potentially challenge them.

‘She did a great job of weaving gaming into the Junos,’ says Anderson. Walsh was also able to get the Aussie band INXS (fronted by Canadian JD Fortune) to join the ‘Game with Fame’ series in a high-profile photo opp in Vancouver earlier this year. ‘We hope to do lots more with Canadian artists,’ Walsh says.

While she’s not currently working on any mobile initiatives at Xbox, she pioneered them in her role as national marketing manager, digital & wireless at EMI, where she introduced the company to text-based marketing and set up the short-code EMI EMI for users to text to for information about upcoming releases, and even receive m-coupons. ‘She’s the queen of innovation,’ notes former boss Paul Shaver, director of marketing at Mississauga, Ont.-based EMI Canada. ‘We used to think one-dimensional around here. She made us think outside of the box, and it was invaluable to the entire team…She’s left an impression. We now think digital, digital, digital.’

For Walsh, however, it wasn’t such a stretch; she has always been interested in technology. Her first marketing gig was at a small dotcom in Toronto, and she did a stint in production for Rogers High-Speed Internet Services. Several years ago, she visited Japan for personal reasons, and was inspired by their technological superiority. ‘I spent a lot of time in Japan…I’m constantly in tune with what’s going on over there,’ she says, adding that she frequently surfs the web and reads Wired to keep up.

She was also impressed by Japanese events, and the ability to build experiences in crowded spaces, pointing to the Tokyo Designers Block, a five-day festival showcasing work by international and Japanese designers as particularly noteworthy. ‘They were able to take over a [busy] environment…that definitely inspired me,’ she recalls.

This past winter, Walsh worked with her event agency, Toronto-based CIM, to carve out a spot in a busy environment – Windsor’s Cleary International Centre on Superbowl Sunday, home of the ‘NFL Fan Zone,’ featuring an interactive theme park, games and appearances by NFL players, while the big game itself took place just across the river in Detroit. They set up Xbox 360 kiosks equipped with an NFL football videogame amid all the bustle of the Fan Zone, and were able to score attention from the thousands of passersby, further revving up the excited football fans. ‘The thing about Xbox is the element of human energy is so high,’ Walsh notes.

‘She did a great job of taking the momentum from the 360 launch and continuing it post-launch,’ adds Craig MacPherson, senior client manager at CIM, referring to smaller-scale events like the Cleary Centre example. ‘She knows what she wants to accomplish, and she doesn’t hesitate to ask for it. That’s great from an agency perspective.’

While Xbox is a strong brand with a lot of pull, Walsh realizes that two brands can often be better than one when it comes to events and promotions. ‘She’s really focused on building symbiotic marketing partnerships,’ says MacPherson, adding that Walsh knows the right brands to work with. ‘Jen really gets the entertainment business and the youth market.’

One of her strongest partners is MuchMusic, which Walsh works with for Xbox Unleashed, a summer concert tour with 150 dates across Canada. This summer will be the tour’s fourth year.

Xbox also boasts strong partnerships with Rogers, Future Shop, Best Buy and Cineplex, to name a few. While many of the relationships were established when she joined the company, she works hard to build on them, and take them even further.

For example, she worked with Cineplex to develop April’s NHL 2K6 tournament, where gamers convened at Cineplex locations across Canada to face off against each other at kiosks in the lobbies, as well as in selected theatres where the games were projected onto big screens. Walsh tries to meet frequently with brand partners in casual settings like on the golf course and at gaming events.

It was her networking skills that enabled her to attract and foster brand partnerships while at EMI, as well. ‘She brought a lot of third-party partnerships like Motorola, Xbox, Bell Solo,’ recalls Shaver. ‘She went to a lot of conferences and connected with people there — she’s really good at networking.’

With her tech savvy and keen understanding of youth entertainment and marketing, Walsh is definitely one to keep an eye on. As boss Anderson points out, her impact on Xbox will really be noticeable this coming holiday season. For her part, Walsh is pleased she’s been able to get a career out of her three passions, which are traditionally male-dominated realms. ‘I’m most proud of being able to work in technology, music and entertainment…and people being shocked that I’m a girl.’

FIVE QUESTIONS

Reality show you’d most like to be on:

Ugh…do I have to choose a reality show? I’d much rather be a guest on The Simpsons. I’d like to be the first female mayor of Springfield.

Favourite TV commercial of all time:

I loved the first group of those wacky Five Alive spots from a few years back.

Last ad that inspired you to make a purchase:

Love the energy and music in both the Pepsi ads featuring Jimmy Fallon and Parker Posey, and the Rogers Wireless Live Out Loud ad for MP3 phones (where the two groups of friends make their way through the city and meet at the top of two different buildings).

Greatest strength:

Having fun and knowing when to laugh doing just about anything.

Favourite way to unwind:

Gaming, dancing, blading, listening to tunes and lying on a beach.