Xbox made Cannes Lions history by turning gamers into entrepreneurs

Microsoft Xbox and McCann London won the first Cannes Lions Grand Prix in eCommerce. Campaign speaks to the creative directors about their unconventional approach that turned consumers into designers and marketers.

Three years ago eight people accepted a bold challenge, climbing atop a London billboard to brave heat, wind and snow in the spirit of Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft. That Xbox stunt, "Survival billboard," swept Cannes Lions and became one of the most awarded campaigns of the year.

It was a tough act to follow, but the brand has kept up its unorthodox marketing to great reward. Last week, Microsoft and McCann London became the first winners of the Cannes Lions Creative eCommerce Grand Prix, for "Xbox Design Lab Originals: The Fanchise Model".

"Every time we do good work, there’s more trust. [Microsoft] is getting braver," said Jamie Mietz, one of the McCann creative directors behind the campaign.

After the success of "Survival billboard", McCann was invited to pitch and then won the Xbox Design Lab account, an online store allowing gamers to customise their controllers.

Gamers showed an appetite for customisation, but there was a problem: not many people were actually clicking "buy." This was largely due to the fact that customised controllers cost more than normal ones.

"People were using it but something was stopping them from buying. They were investing their time but not money," said creative director Sanjiv Mistry.

So to increase awareness and sales for Design Lab, McCann decided to give gamers a stake in the business. The Fanchise Model offset the cost of the controllers and turned consumers into entrepreneurs, by allowing them to claim ownership of their unique design, promote it and earn money based on its sales.

"By having that ownership feature, people started acting entrepreneurial and strategically. This actively engaged them and showed us how entrepreneurial and marketing savvy they were," Mietz said.

For example, some gamers started tailoring their designs to fill gaps in the market, creating controllers for nations, causes, football clubs and even Minions fans.

Even the campaign’s art direction reflected Xbox’s mission to treat gamers as professional designers. Some of the new designs were chosen as centrepieces for poster, magazine, TV and online ads, drawing inspiration from advertising for luxury items such as watches. The imagery placed controllers on a pedestal to give them a "premium feel," Mistry explained.

The Fanchise Model won in Cannes Lions’ eCommerce category because ecommerce was not merely a result but at the heart of the creative idea, Mistry said. On average, each designer made $95.24 (£72.39) from their controller, with the top earner making $1,131.

But, more importantly, the campaign achieved its aim, with overall sales of customised controllers rising by 350%. By giving consumers part of the profit, the brand profited as well.

Furthermore, the Fanchise Model is proof of the exceptional creative work that can come from strong client relationships and a mutual willingness to take risks, the team said.

"If we’re responding to briefs in an unexpected way, we hold creative capital in their eyes," Mistry said. "And the next time they’ll have even more faith."