Understand your audience — A clear understanding of the audience you’re trying to appeal to. Is it someone who’s trying to be a pilot or a person riding the metro in between meetings who wants to distract them self? Candy Crush is a great example of the latter persona. Know what you want to achieve and who is going to be part of that as the end player.
As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Draper.
James is the founder and CEO of Bidstack, the leading in-game advertising platform that empowers game developers, publishers and esport organizations to monetize pre-existing advertising spaces within their games opening up a new, incremental revenue stream. Bidstack also work with premium brands, helping them to activate campaigns in the world of gaming in a way that respects the gamer and protects the gaming experience
James founded Bidstack in 2015 utilizing more than 15 years of commercial experience to launch his own business. Since the initial launch, he has seen the company grow from a one-man operation to an international business which trades on the London Stock Exchange.
Under his stewardship, Bidstack became the first-ever Crowdcube funded company to go public. James pivoted the business into gaming in 2017 and leads the business as a whole, overseeing the company’s direction, growth, development and vision.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
The best way to describe my career path is eclectic. I’ve worked across publishing, sales, events, and creative agencies.
At age 18, I skipped university and went straight to work for a speciality magazine publisher. We’re not talking about the typical grocery store magazines — these were very particular. Our two best sellers were a tractor and a car mechanic magazine.
And sure, the titles didn’t particularly excite my 18 year old self, but the most important takeaway was that it gave me a real appreciation for other people’s passions and interests. It was a really great experience to mature both personally and professionally.
In 2004, I was given the opportunity to pivot my career to the events side of publishing in a race called the Kelsey Cup, which was created to bond the readers of our different publications. We pulled in some major sponsors, including Red Bull and Jaguar, and it became the most successful event of its kind in the UK at the time.
At that point, I’d gained more experience and diversified into events and sponsorships. Doors began to open for me to expand into motorsports and motorsports marketing, which became a real passion of mine. I’ve always enjoyed putting things together — creating something that didn’t previously exist and giving fans a unique experience.
After a stint teaching novice drivers how to race supercars, I decided to get back into a marketing role. I spent about eight years trying my hand in a few different creative agencies, which varied in size and focus and they offered another great learning experience.
Fast forward to 2013 — an old schoolmate, and successful entrepreneur, reached out to me to join his new venture in London which was a new point-of-sale platform. I dropped everything, moved overnight, and joined the team the next day.
There was a lot going on at this company and a lot of lessons were learned but critically, I led on a project that gave me the idea and foundation to create Bidstack.
The idea was rooted in the concept that these fast-moving consumer goods stores’ inventories could plug into nearby billboards and advertise special deals that could then be tracked in the same system upon purchase. This got me thinking that this could be a standalone product and it opened the door for me to meet media professionals, which almost immediately resulted in me receiving an offer for another project.
That was it — then I just needed some funding.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of my favorite stories is a big risk that I took in the early days of Bidstack. We had recently raised $100k, but hadn’t collected all of it yet.
An old friend of mine went to work for a second division football club, Norwich City FC. He was working to secure a back-of-the-jersey sponsor for the season and asked if I would be interested. At first, I had no intention of even entertaining the idea, I figured it would be 3–4 x the amount we had just raised. However, he offered me the back of the shirt for far less than I expected.
Most people would have thought investing a considerable chunk of the money we had raised into a marketing exercise was insane. But for me, I thought it would look impressive, and figured that no startup would ever sponsor a football club of that size while at our stage of growth. I wanted us to stand out, so I took the gamble and committed.
And you know what? It worked. Not only were the relationships we built with Norwich incredibly worthwhile, but the name recognition and publicity we got from the deal really elevated our profile. Most importantly, it put our technology capabilities out there. Soon after we were getting approached for business development, including a connection with the soccer game Football Manager. It absolutely set us apart and opened doors that similar investments or sponsorships never would have.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s really tough to name just one person. I’ve personally had some great mentors, friends and connections that opened a lot of doors for me, including ones that secured the first bits of funding for Bidstack.
Our fourth investor, Simon Mitchell, is one I’ll forever be grateful for. Simon has a great story and made his money in a previous exit. During Bidstack’s first pivotal months, he injected money that kept the lights on when we were trying to get things off the ground. I thought it was a really brave thing to do — a big risk for a young founder and it was a major turning point for me and the company.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve never been driven by money. I’ve always been motivated to create something great that can be useful for people and the world. But one particular story involves the relationship between Bidstack and Norwich City Football Club.
25 years ago, Norwich City played in the Champions League (which is obviously massive in Europe). They wanted to raise money for a community sports fund. In order to do so, they planned a rematch between themselves and Inter Milan featuring club legends on both sides. I decided to get involved, but with a more creative activation.
We ran an esports competition on Football Manager, the video game, that would award the winner a chance to be a football manager in real life for the Norwich City rematch. Participants applied by submitting videos of their ‘game plans’ should they become managers. We had people fly in from all over the world and two years later, the participants are still active on their WhatsApp group, which I think is real testament to the community and engagement it created.
This season, we donated a kit sponsorship for Norwich City FC to an organization called Badu Sports that works with underrepresented youths. We wanted to support an organization that could create opportunities, be it for aspiring coaches or athletes or for young people looking for careers in the business of football. A number of the young athletes mentored by Badu Sports have already been recruited into professional clubs in London.
I’m excited to create opportunities for young people that they might have never otherwise had; to me, it’s a much more genuine way to involve the company in a cause beyond simple words and statements.
Probably our most well-received initiative to-date was using our technology to place COVID-19 awareness advertisements into three of the UK’s leading video games, in partnership with Codemasters. The “Stay Home, Save Lives.” campaign displayed safety calls-to-action prominently in the video games. We were able to get this very important message across to a massive gaming audience and in a way that wasn’t intrusive to their experience.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?
The technology we’re building makes something that has never really been possible a reality — the ability for brands to advertise programmatically within high-fidelity, photorealistic gaming environments. It’s never been done before. The key here is the ability to do these placements programmatically, which is how all agencies want to report on digital spend whenever possible to provide transparency to their clients on how money is being allocated.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
We’re creating an entirely new segment of the advertising industry, so the challenges are incredibly complex with massive barriers to entry every time we make progress. This does, however, put us ahead of the competition in terms of the relationships and the technology we’ve already built. It’s very useful for us to know the journey that the newcomers are about to go on in building their tech, and just how far advanced we are. I think we’re actually setting the bar for an industry.
A major driving philosophy of ours is to never be intrusive to the game itself. In developing the technology for the secondary audience, we are finding very innovative ways to place advertisements into the secondary audience experiences. The ability to target the secondary audience is a major tipping point for brands to get involved, but they need to be assured they’re reaching them without disturbing the experience, while also increasing their reach beyond traditional banner ads etc.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
Developing a new industry while furthering an existing one opens up all kinds of opportunities for the people who make games as well as the agencies and media buyers that place the creative. Our mission is to provide the best technology possible for game creators and advertisers to work together in ways they never could before so that both can benefit from it in a sustainable and long term way.
Through campaigns like “Stay home. Save Lives” which I mentioned previously, we can actually impact the lives of players for the better by delivering important messages and content, while also introducing them to incredible companies and their missions and products.
I believe we’ve done something amazing and unique by creating a company that constructs an environment that enables everyone to exist off the back of our technology. Having both agencies and game creators work with us from the very beginning will afford them opportunities to open up their revenue line and jumpstart success while assuring we always have the best technology capabilities for both parties.
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?
Education now is very memory-based — you learn things, memorize them, take a test, and that’s how your competence is measured.The idea of bringing gamification into a traditional classroom or education setting is the future. With the graphic capabilities, we can actually start to take students into environments to learn, and make them far more interesting. You can learn history by practically being in the environment you’re learning about — it’s completely immersive. It’s going to help students absorb information in ways they couldn’t when the mentality was “sit here, read this textbook, and then recount all of it.”
Even the launch of games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator gives people an opportunity to fly a plane anywhere in the world, using the same controls they’d use to fly in real life. You would have more than enough opportunity to figure out “wow, being a pilot might be for me”. You’d never be able to figure out something like that 25 years ago. It’s just a much more natural way to learn.
How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?
Successful games are those that understand their audience and the importance of building a community for which they can escape to and interact with. Community-based games really excite me. Their worlds run so much deeper than just jumping on and playing. It’s where people come together, especially in a time like this with COVID-19 disrupting our daily lives and leaving many feeling isolated.
These games allow people to socialize, create new relationships and keep up with close friends and family. They typically provide the best environments for all sorts of entertainment and engagement opportunities, and they’re successful because people can share in them together.
Fortnite is a prime example — there are families I know that jump on, using it as their quality time to catch up and interact with each other. I also really like Fall Guys at the moment for doing exactly this.
What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Game” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Understand your audience — A clear understanding of the audience you’re trying to appeal to. Is it someone who’s trying to be a pilot or a person riding the metro in between meetings who wants to distract them self? Candy Crush is a great example of the latter persona. Know what you want to achieve and who is going to be part of that as the end player.
- Offer escapism — A game must provide a great escape from reality. The kind of escape that, again, the target player is looking for. Great games offer a world that many people want to be a part of, and even make their own. Just look at the popularity of Animal Crossing — anyone at almost any age can participate in this world and create something of their own as well as explore what others have created.
- Create a community — A game that harvests a community in an authentic way, and creates an environment that people want to participate in is always going to be successful. Fortnite is the best example, Epic has completely knocked it out of the park in terms of creating a fantastic game that checks all the boxes, and really fosters a community of people who want to be there and engage.
- Accessibility — The best games are the ones that encourage mass adoption. They’re well thought out in terms of the “pick up and play” element. Again, Candy Crush is a great example. Whether you’re 3 or 83, you can easily get an idea of how the game mechanics work and start playing. Even in many first-person shooter games, you can just pick them up and start playing with fairly few boundaries to understanding the game.
- Make it an experience — Games that truly understand the possibilities of the metaverse and are open to working with other creators and artists (musicians, for example) to bring those elements of entertainment and action together in the game’s environment so that players can have one-of-a-kind experiences on top of playing the game have a huge advantage. The ability to create experiences that are unique to a time, place and player transform a good game into an amazing game.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve always been fascinated by the startup “world” and its community. My goal has always been to start a company and participate actively in that world.
There are a lot of people who fly under the radar in early life — not massively extroverted, not intellectual high achievers, etc. — and get passed over because their skills, personality, and intellect weren’t constantly on display. I was honestly one of those kids, and I feel like I can easily identify with those people.
The startup ecosystem can sometimes limit what founders think is the right path for their company. It can seem to many that “oh, I’ve got to go out and get venture capital in order to be successful,” and I don’t necessarily agree with that.
Instead of getting lost in the ecosystem, I want to create a safe space for those people in that phase of their career where they want to create something, want to put something back into the world. I want to empower people with that relentless energy to start something and find their passion. But I’d like to do that outside of the old school money mentality where you feel backed into traditional money-raising routes.
I want to find people who have enormous potential but weren’t protected or set-up to flourish under the traditional education system, and give them the opportunity to explore their potential without the pressures of “raise money, raise money, raise money.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There’s no magic”
When I was 10 or 11, I went to work with my dad at the local racing circuit. I would hang out with him and record the numbers. I would meet these bigwigs from BMW and other major auto brands, as well as famous drivers, and get to know them as real people without their credentials getting in the way.
I completely disagree with the notion of “don’t meet your heroes.” I love meeting people and seeing exactly who they are, stripping away those layers of identity that exist solely on a resume. Those are the real authentic relationships and experiences. And remembering that quote keeps me from ever being overly intimated or making too many assumptions about people, or building them up too much in my own mind. It makes for much better interactions and experiences with people.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn. It’s really the only social platform that I’m active on and use regularly. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesdraperlinkedin/?originalSubdomain=uk
As for the rest of the platforms, follow Bidstack to keep up with our new developments!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.