CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/SEGA - 'Creative differences' cited as BBH and Sega split. Sega is still playing a game of catch up in the consoles market, Jeremy White says

At the games console prom, Sega would be the last to arrive - with the added humiliation of turning up in a cheap tux and with no date.

At the games console prom, Sega would be the last to arrive - with the added humiliation of turning up in a cheap tux and with no date.

Sega has never really got its act together. Ever since it launched the Master System in the late 80s, things haven't gone to plan.

It brought out the console after Nintendo had already cornered the market in the US with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Crucially, Nintendo also had the nous to contractually tie the best games developers to produce titles exclusively for the NES. This starts a familiar cycle. The kids buy the NES because it has the best games, developers want to work for the more popular console and pretty soon the competition is left out in the cold.

Sega had to resort to producing the majority of its games in-house - and they just weren't good enough. To push the final nail in the coffin, Sega annoyed the remaining developers by allowing them little space to advertise their brands on the packaging - Nintendo did the opposite. Sega did have more success with the technically superior SMS in Europe - but the damage was done.

With the Saturn, Sega made sure it got in first but it arrived with a very small games library. So no one bought it. Sony PlayStation burst on to the scene soon after with a huge marketing and advertising drive and the all-important stack of top games. It wiped the floor with the competition - and is still doing so.

The news last week that Sega and its incumbent agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty were to split after only ten months together couldn't have come at a worse time, with the new-born PS2 flexing its muscles and Microsoft's X-box on the horizon. And with Sega announcing a move into mobile phones and handheld devices, it possibly marks the final chapter in the company's troubled console ambitions.

Sega looked like it had finally learned its lesson with the Dreamcast.

It launched in the UK before the PS2 with an impressive selection of titles.

But Sony and Nintendo were killing it in the branding war and it needed to raise its advertising game to compete. WCRS launched the console with the 'six billion players' campaign in July last year - and then nothing much happened.

BBH took charge of the pounds 60 million account from WCRS back in February. A Sega Europe spokesman at the time said: 'We are pleased with the WCRS work that helped launch the Dreamcast successfully, but we are moving on to the next stage.'

Stephen Woodford, the chief executive of WCRS, gave his own version of events: 'We are very proud of the launch of Dreamcast but we could not agree creatively on the way forward.'

Indeed, sources confirm that WCRS and Sega's relationship was strained at best. The creative team grew dispirited when the client wouldn't concentrate on brand building. Sega got annoyed at the standard of service from WCRS - especially when the pitching creative team got moved off the account after it was awarded.

But then what happened with BBH? Certainly, there's been little sign of Dreamcast 'moving on to the next stage'. One theory is that the Sega pan-European account, which was said to be worth pounds 60 million when BBH took it over, has actually been reduced to pounds 2 million next year with ad hoc advertising intended to promote specific products rather than the brand.

As a result, BBH had talks with Jean-Francois Cecillon, Sega Europe's chief executive, about the future of the contract and agreed last week to pitch for X-box, worth pounds 50 million.

Another version is that Sega, unhappy with the service and standard of work BBH was providing, fired the agency. Sources say that the client was particularly displeased with BBH's 'spank Johnny Foreigner online' summer campaign - depicting German, French and Spanish stereotypes.

Sega thought this inappropriate for a pan-European campaign and, this month, the ASA upheld a complaint against the execution.

A Sega spokesperson offers the official line: 'BBH is contracted until the end of the year - then we will look at our arrangements.' Contrary to all sources, Sega is insisting that it may not replace BBH. But surely it bothers Sega that the agency is on the shortlist for Microsoft's rival console?

'If they got it, it would,' the spokesperson admits.

Guy Moore, a creative partner at Malcolm Moore Deakin Blazye and part of the team that came up with the concept of using the PlayStation symbols as 'hieroglyphics', agrees with the agency's gamble to go for the big money: 'If I was BBH, without a doubt I would be going for X-box. Sega is really struggling.'

Indeed it is. Financially, the manufacturer isn't doing nearly as well as Sony, which enjoys an 80 per cent market share and has shifted a staggering 75 million consoles worldwide. Does this explain the dramatic drop in advertising budget? 'We looked at what we had the ability to do,' the spokesperson says. 'Whatever we spent on the above-the-line advertising, a giant corporation with the power of Sony would come in and spend much more than us. So this is not a retreat from the console market, but a shift towards smarter marketing and PR. We felt that was the way we'd be able to compete.'

Sega is hedging its bets by also creating content for other platforms and has just signed a deal with Motorola to produce online content for its mobile phone network.

But all this smacks of a defensive stance from Sega - almost deferring to Sony's grip on the market. And why hasn't it concentrated on branding the console like Sony did with PlayStation?

'I don't know,' Leon Jaume, the creative director at WCRS, comments.

'They had a nine-month period before PS2. The Saturday Guardian described the Dreamcast as the best-kept secret in gaming - which is not a marketing triumph. If you are going to launch something in a competitive market and you have an edge (such as being there before the competition), you have to cash in on that as hard as you can. They seem to have only half done that.

'In that market you've got to capture the imagination of the public who are going to buy it. What (Sega) has to do is truly believe in its product and capture the public's imagination - as PlayStation has done.'

Moore agrees: 'PlayStation's advertising is more intelligent. It leaves a lot to the imagination of the viewer. The good thing about 'do not underestimate the power' and 'third place' is that it's advertising the experience - not the console. This is where Sega fails.'

So will Sega's PR drive compete with Sony's above-the-line onslaught?

It is working to a certain extent. Console sales are up from 15,000 in October to nearly 50,000 in November - not bad at all, but it should be noted that the Dreamcast never sold out like the PS2 has done.

The long-term winners remain to be seen, but with Sega's track record, you can't blame BBH for putting its money behind a bid for the Bill Gates-backed X-box. Sega's UK marketing director, Alison Turner, certainly isn't relaxed either. When Campaign called for her comments, it was told: 'She's in a meeting. She's got a big frown on her face at the moment. I don't think things are going too well.'


Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content