IAB PlayFronts 2023 recap: In adland, the pace of change can be glacial

Yesterday marked the second and last day of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s 2023 PlayFronts conference. The event was full of buzz about the ad opportunities present in video games — but it also showed just how glacial the pace of both technological and cultural advancements can be in the advertising industry, particularly when it comes to gaming.

Between March 8 and 9, a crowd of ad industry movers and shakers gathered in New York City to discuss the current state of advertising in gaming. The event was exclusive and invite-only — but don’t sweat it if you didn’t get the invitation. Here’s the lowdown on the IAB’s annual gaming conference, Digiday style. 

That’s right: annual. While the IAB approached last year’s PlayFronts as an experimental venture, it’s clear that the organization is full steam ahead on gaming this year. During her second-day opening talk, IAB Experience Center vp Zoë Soon announced that the organization will be relaunching its games committee later this month.

“It’s one of our new marketplace tentpoles,” said Soon, who organized the event. “So yes, it’s definitely intended to be an annual series.”

The IAB’s enthusiasm was reflected in the event’s sponsorship group, which included Samsung Ads, Activision Blizzard Media and — tantalizingly — TikTok, whose gaming plans have been a source of speculation for many industry observers in recent months. (TikTok’s involvement was tied to the event’s gift bags. The platform did not have a representative speak at PlayFronts, but it was intriguing to see it get involved.)

The purpose of last year’s PlayFronts event was largely to make marketers aware of the advertising opportunities present in gaming. This time around, some of the presenters looked to actively build on the groundwork laid in 2022, but the rest spent their presentations rolling out the same slate of tried-and-true gaming stats that already felt stale last year — 3 billion gamers in the world, 50 percent of gamers are women, and so on. 

At PlayFronts 2022, it felt like the entire audience was breathlessly ready to be educated about the role of advertising in gaming. This year, it was clear that a fair amount of the audience — and some of the presenters — were still stuck in that same place.

“There are certain panels that have felt so authentic and natural to gaming, with people that truly live and breathe gaming, and get it,” said Amanda Rubin, an svp and global head of sales and marketing for Enthusiast Gaming. “There’s certainly some other panels where you could tell it was a sponsor, and they don’t really still understand the gaming industry — and that’s a little cringe.”

To be fair, the presenters who did come armed with new information had interesting data to share. In 2022, PlayFronts was all about intrinsic in-game advertising — which makes sense, as the IAB was in the process of developing its new measurement guidelines for that form of ad. Several of the big in-game ad companies were present this year, but the focus of the talks widened considerably. At PlayFronts 2023, presenters informed the audience about a myriad of new ways to advertise alongside gaming, including esports integrations, immersive Fortnite and Roblox experiences, and creator-focused marketing campaigns.

“If you look at the diversity of presenters at this PlayFronts relative to last year, it’s highlighting all of these different entry points into the ecosystem,” said Jonathan Stringfield, whose presentation breaking down what exactly defines premium gaming inventory was a highlight of the conference. “Last year, understanding the importance, the size and the scale of a game like ‘Call of Duty’ was not readily apparent, because a lot of marketers might not be familiar with the industry. So we’re just slowly moving this pace along.”

As a recession mounts and the so-called “esports winter” grows colder, the gaming companies with authentic and informed knowledge of the space are the ones who are better placed to succeed in capturing brands’ shrinking marketing budgets. At this year’s IAB PlayFronts event, the wheat started to separate from the chaff.

“There’s definitely been a shakedown in terms of how much money and investment is in the marketplace in general right now,” said Gabrielle Heyman, head of global brand partnerships at Zynga. “Last year was very focused on justification — you know, why gaming is important — and so we saw a lot of repeat justifications from multiple presenters. This is an upfront, so it should be about content.”


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