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DICE 2012: Activision's Hirshberg believes creative people should lead companies

Eric Hirshberg, formerly of Deustsch LA, has been leading Activision Publishing for almost two years. Here he shares some of his successes as a "creative CEO."
Eric Hirshberg has been CEO of Activision Publishing for just shy of two years now, after coming from the advertising business, working at Deutsch LA on campaigns such as the influential Kevin Butler ad series for Sony's PlayStation brand. “I have more in common with the studios and creative heads at Activision than with my peers,” Hirshberg posed, noting that he went to art school, not business school. Regarding his role, among the executive community “there's at worst some skepticism, and at best some curiosity ... about people like me, creative people being in this role,” he said. “I've always believed that creative people, while critical to the creative industries they work in, are actually a little under-utilized in the business,” says Hirshberg, noting that “creatives are rarely thought of when it's time to fill the CEO's seat. On the other hand, there are a lot of industries where creativity and creative instincts are the critical ingredient for success.” Though he says he has a lot to learn still, Hirshberg wasn't shy about his self-perceived advantages as an ad creative. When Bobby Kotick hired him, he reportedly said, “What you don't know you can learn, and we can surround you with. And what you do know, I think will really differentiate you for the company and the industry.” “I believe that games are brands, not products,” Hirshberg said of his philosophy as a CEO. “Product is the thing you buy, and a brand is the thing you buy into.” By way of example, he noted that the only top-ten trending topic from 2011 on Facebook that was a purchasable product was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. “Movies walk around like they still own the place, but that was the 20th century. I think this is 'Generation Game,'” he said. Call of Duty is an example of a brand the company tried to get people to buy into further, with the company's Elite service, which offers players a subscription-based service with cheaper access to DLC, tournaments, and scads of data. “Just because games appeal to a core-oriented audience, that doesn't mean they can't also be mainstream,” Hirshberg effused, adding his posit that “showing the mainstream audience the appeal of games is thrilling for the core.” Elite, he admits, “had some technological stumbles at launch, frustrated a few of our fans, and we're still in the process of making that right.” But the social media zeitgeist was too powerful for Activision to ignore. “There's this massive community of people, all passionate about the same thing, with remarkably few ways to interact over that content,” he noted. So they released a beta of the service, which did not please the fans, who didn't know about all the other features coming down the pipeline. But the company's fan event, Call of Duty XP, demonstrated the power of Elite, and was a turning point for goodwill about the service. Hirshberg implied that his time as a creative helped him make these decisions. “There does seem to be a bias against creative people in those moments, and the thought is that they bring an incomplete set of skills to that seat,” he said. But in fact, “all CEOs bring an incomplete set of skills to the seat. No one is born a generalist,” he concluded. “I believe that if creativity is the core of what the company does, maybe creativity should be at the core of how that company's decisions are made.”

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