Accentuate’s Graeme Fraser-Bell on relentlessly pitching, the three things he takes to every show and braving Dragons’ Den
Graeme and Fiona Fraser-Bell are a brother-and-sister team that successfully self-publishing their first game – Accentuate – five years ago.
Now they and their team pitch games thousands of times a year at trade shows and retail stores across the country.
We caught up with them to find out what they do, why it works – and the difference between pitching to the Dragons and the public…
Graeme, thanks for making time for us. I know you’re incredibly busy despite the lockdown! Since we’ve spoken before about how you got to market, I thought we’d go a little bit deeper into the way you, Fiona and Daphne work. So let me ask you this… When you do pitches for the public, how do they differ from the pitches you do for retailers?
The pitches to retailers are planned, scheduled and have a targeted outcome. There’s more time to discuss the detail of a game offering and appeal to the ‘fit’ of the game within the retailer’s portfolio. Those to the public are effectively unplanned; they’re ambushes with any number of outcomes.
Ambushes?! Okay… Yes, okay! That feels quite strong but I realise I can’t argue with that. And how do you prepare for those ambushes?
We secure a position in-store that has high visibility and maximum footfall, ideally at the base of the escalators. It’s essential to have a ‘podium’ – something that captures people’s attention.
We also have a quirky demo-box, branded t-shirts, oversized game components, and banners highlighting our Dragons’ Den appearance or offering a chance to ‘Meet the inventor’… The plan being to draw in people who are curious and not necessarily interested in games.
These people exist?!
Believe it or not, the majority of people are not the least bit interested in games! So we set ourselves up to trigger people; to get them to ask themselves “What’s that?”; “Who are those people?”
And once you have their faintest interest, how do you go about selling a game? How would you grow my faint interest?
We’d give you eye contact and smile; we’d say hello and ask if you’ve heard about our games…
Interesting. I think anyone with a hard-sell attitude would baulk at the idea of offering a yes/no question… I’m taken with your ambush comment, though. In context, the last thing people want is a hard sell when they’re only slightly interested! And that question – “Have you seen our games?” – I think that’s great, actually! At worst that gets you a soft “No”; it doesn’t preclude the possibility that they want to see the games now!
Yes – and either way, there’s now a dialogue.
Right! Yes, you’ve kind of sneaked into a pitch!
We also want to trigger your attention when you leave the store if you played a game, but left the stand without one. We give people a useful reminder – actually, Deej, this was an idea you suggested…
Oh, if it’s an idea of mine, it’ll be GOLD!
It’s pretty good! So if we play a game of, for example, FReNeTiC, and people like it – but don’t buy a copy there and then – we give them a branded ‘Thanks for Playing’ card… We write their score on the back where it says “Super Score” in the FreNeTiC branding. This way we remind people about the game and how it made them feel, even once they’re home.
Yes, now that you mention it I remember the idea! Card size so it drops in a purse or wallet… I’m glad that’s working for you; it does give you a second bite of the cherry. Speaking of which, what kills your chances, do you think? What’s the one thing you think can kill a pitch completely?
Too much detail! Providing too much detail and attempting to explain the intricacies of the game-play.
Simple as that?
Simple as that! People want the highlights. That’s it.
Okay! And as I recall, you and your team have pitched games at a few shows… Autumn Fair, Games Expo, New Scientist Live. Which were worthwhile? Which were a surprising disappointment?
Our attitude toward shows is much the same as when we perform an ‘audience analysis’ before preparing a retailer presentation. We’re looking to ensure the right fit of the content, style, detail and delivery to a particular audience… So we need to analyse the demographic of the footfall at a particular event or venue and ask: why are those people there? What do they want to do? Or see? What do they want to leave with?
We’ve pitched at many exhibits and shows and by applying these and other ‘effectiveness filters’, we now have a selection of events that really work and a list of those that were ineffective. In the early days, we jumped all over some of the county shows, and we did The Ideal Home Shows in Manchester and London as well. As a games producer these proved to be a total waste of time, money and resources.
Really? Not, in fact, ideal for you?!
No! Exactly. And when you see people walking around with the mops and buckets they’ve just bought you realise you’re in the wrong place. On the flip side, a targeted gamer show such as UK Games Expo is an absolute must. That’s a gamer-focused footfall of upward of 22k; generating sales, intensive play experiences, valuable feedback and tremendous awareness.
Similarly, we focus on events such as New Scientist Live where we solely exhibit FReNeTiC – the frenzied word game of the elements. That show has a footfall of 42k… And because of their love of science, it’s a perfect fit for our game; dare we say, “A target-rich environment”. It’s a sell-out every time.
Wow! Yeah… Gosh; that is fascinating… Because I think the temptation for most people is to just rock up at Autumn Fair! You know – games and gifts… But you’re looking beyond the obvious places! So now, if you had to give three pieces of pitching advice to any inventor, what would they be?
One… Practice condensing your “grab” into the most compelling four seconds of dialogue. When we say practise, we really mean: practice, practice, practice! You want it to be easy to say and easy to follow!
Two: create a visually intriguing pitch space. It helps to have something that grabs attention… And three: throw your ego and passion for the depth of your game out the window. No one else cares! Slash your pitch down to the bare essentials. Make it deliverable within 30 seconds…
Thirty seconds? The whole thing? That is FAST!
Oh, thirty TOPS! A short pitch lets you gauge the involvement of the person you’re engaging with… You want that person to have a short, memorable and entertaining experience. You’re really there to entertain and create experiences.
You know what? I don’t think I’ve heard it phrased this way but this is important… I think if a person says, “We’ve got to go to this event and sell some games” they’re probably starting out on the wrong path. If they say “We’ve got to go and entertain with these games”, the games sell in the wake of that…
So then, how do you structure your pitch? I mean… Don’t feel obliged to tell me what you say word for word, I don’t want people to think: that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to say! But I mean… You’ve got my attention… You’ve asked if I’ve heard about your games… Maybe I say, “No…” in a way that lets you know I’m curious. What next?
We have an attention grabber – takes about four seconds. It’s along the lines, “Could I introduce… Hilarious… Award-winning… Show you in 30 seconds… Then, as we just discussed, we have about 30 seconds of engagement: “We have an over-sized board to show you…
Right; you have a big board with over-size game pieces glued down so it’s much easier to show the gameplay…
Exactly; exactly that… And we say, “It’s very simple…” and we explain the basics really quickly. It just has to be really simple. Then we say, “Are you ready? Okay… go!” And they try it!
Which is the absolute beauty of your process: in under a minute, you’ve taken somebody from merely wondering who you are to giving it a try!
Yes; well within 30 seconds they’re experiencing the essence of the game. Then we just say the first one to get to however many point wins, and we close.
Great! I like that you’re using the word “close” here: I think it’s a bit of a lost art, isn’t it?! No one wants to close a sale anymore! So what do you say?
Well, first and foremost we’re very encouraging. People have no idea whether they’re playing well or not – how would they know?! So assuming they’ve done okay we say, “Well done; you did really well!” or more casually, “How did that make you feel?”, “Did you enjoy that?” and then: “CAN WE GET YOU ONE?”
Okay! I used to think of that as a sort of, “One step, two step, tickly under there” approach! Very gentle; very respectful: you’re effectively reminding them that they ARE enjoying themselves, then pulling them straight to a yes/no question. So it’s not at all pressured; no one feels cornered…
No, and that sort of approach wouldn’t work for us because – well, for one thing it wouldn’t suit us! But for another, our team’s there to create awareness of our games and spread the message…
Public demonstrations are an ideal way of achieving that and I see so many demonstrators happy to achieve only that… For us it’s imperative that we sell that stock, and add value to the significant costs of arranging those demo-days. We also want to create value for our retail partners, create pull-through of inventory and orders and – most of all – create an environment of enjoyment and entertainment.The close is vital and so few demonstrators actually deliver it.
And I’m curious then: did you script your pitch, or did it come together through trial and error?
It’s a constantly iterative process. We’re still crafting our in-store Accentuate pitches even now after five years. We started with scripts as a foundation but then you learn from experience what works, what’s punchy, what actually sounds laboured and dirgey; what switches people on, what switches them off. Again, I come back to the need to define why you’re at the venue: your sole purpose is to entertain and generate memorable and satisfying emotions.
This is fascinating! I love that there’s so much research in your method. Of which, as you know, when I visit stores like John Lewis at Christmas time, I always do a little research myself… Well, I don’t think I told you this but, last Christmas, after I said cheerio to you, I went round the corner…
In John Lewis?
In John Lewis! And I watched how people interacted with the games on the shelves: what they picked up, what they turned over, what they put down again. Then, when I saw somebody looking fed up in the queue with one of your games in hand, I explained who I was and said: “Out of interest, may I ask why you want to buy this game?” Most of the people said the same thing: “They made it sound simple!”
Well, that’s great! And that just backs up what we’re saying… If it sounds too complicated, it won’t sell. And we’re pleased to be able to say, by the way, that for the first time, Waitrose are offering Accentuate and FReNeTiC as part of a select portfolio of games from 8th June.
Great! Great news; congratulations. Strewth… That’s a lot of stores; how many stores is that?
It’s 338 UK stores; John Lewis & Partner have 50 stores.
Okay, so let’s wrap up this part about retail with a question I don’t think anyone asks: let’s say you’re doing your in-store demo days; your “store tour” as I call it. What’s the one thing you unfailingly pack that someone else might not think of?
Just one? Can we break the rules here and suggest a few?
You can do anything you like!
Okay… Three things come to mind. One: a clicker; a tally counter… We track the number of households we play the games with and count how many then go on to buy a game at the end of the demo. That way we know the conversion rate, sales rate and actual sales for each of our games at every store we demonstrate at. Obviously, that gives us invaluable information on when, where and how to pitch in future.
Ooooof! Verrrrrry good!
Two: resilience! You need tons of resilience to face Joe Public day in, day out all day during peak season. While we end up playing the game with about 4,500-5,000 households, there are probably 25,000-30,000 families who aren’t even slightly interested! So in the face of that statistic, you need supreme resilience. It always helps me to remember Churchill’s quote, “Success consists of going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” And three… A bold marker pen. This is to sign the inside of the lid as the inventor! Customers ask us to do that surprisingly often… It’s warmly appreciated, and has a magnetic effect in drawing a crowd.
Great! You know, that’s just so smart! And it won’t hurt, of course, that you’ve been on Dragons’ Den in that respect. So let’s talk about that… Presumably this is completely different from pitching in the real world because – like Shark Tank in the US – it’s first and foremost a TV show… It’s edited to be entertaining. So what didn’t we see on screen?
Absolutely right, the pitch to the public, to retailers and to the Dragons are completely different. Each pitch has to be uniquely and carefully crafted and prepared. I always remember the old adage, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” –
and we certainly didn’t want that happening to us with 3.2m people watching!
For Dragons’ Den we prepared an initial audition script that was crafted many times by ourselves, and filmed many times by the BBC scouts. Once selected, we then refined the audition script into the 45-second Dragons’ Den pitch script. Alongside this we researched every episode of Dragons’ Den and developed a hit-list of 56 possible questions to which we then prepared detailed responses.
Good LORD! I didn’t know that! That’s amazing…
Our episode included approximately 14 minutes of broadcast time for myself and Fiona. What that didn’t reflect was the fact we started at six in the morning and finished at eight at night. We were actually being grilled in the Den for an hour and forty-five minutes. It was an amazing experience – even if I did have my guts ripped out for the first 15 minutes!
“Guts ripped out”! Sorry; shouldn’t laugh! But that’s it, isn’t it; they want great footage! So it’s always going to be an experience…
Yes, and it’s one we truly valued. It also made us appreciate the immense effort the Dragons go to! At every step of the process on the day, we kept reminding ourselves that this is 95% entertainment and 5% business so we needed to look like we were enjoying it and to make it as enjoyable and memorable as possible for the Dragons and the viewers. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the fifth anniversary of our appearance on Dragons’ Den in July. We’re humbled to still have Peter Jones with us as his most successful games investment.
Brilliant. Alright, let’s change topics! You and I have discussed packaging a few times. We both totally agree that you need to grab attention with the lid, sell with the back and explain with the instructions inside… What else helps?
Absolutely right, and both you and Lucy Benham of John Lewis & Partners have been a huge help with these points. With any “non-assisted sales” – non-demo day sales – the game packaging must grab with the lid. If people pick up the game, they almost immediately turn it over. Then you’ve got just 12-15 seconds to communicate the enjoyment and emotions the game creates…
Note I didn’t say, 12 seconds to read the intricate details of the rules, the how-to-play and how clever the game is! It’s about visually communicating the emotions you hope your game elicits. While it may sound cheesy, we found that including a bold red ‘As seen on TV’ for Accentuate is an attention grabber, as is a transparent window in the lid of Rats to Riches to exhibit the carefully crafted ‘Big Cheese’ rat; a sort of gold, rat-head meeple!
And the box itself has a really neat feature; tell us about that!
Okay… So with Rats to Riches, we integrated the board into the base of the box. We just thought: why not use the base as an integral part of the game? In doing so, that saves on packaging AND facilitates the ‘Big Cheese’ window in the lid. This form factor is easily shown during demo days, and widely appreciated as a unique design element.
For other games it can be beneficial to avoid an explicit depiction of the concept on the lid. We did that for FreNeTiC. We figured if the lid showed an image of the Periodic Table we’d probably alienate about 98% of the population! So we grabbed attention with bright, bold, colourful imagery on the lid… Only on the base did we indicate it was a word-search game based on the elements of the Periodic Table.
But by then it’s already piqued curiosity…
Right. And for demo-days, we use show and tell components – as I say, we use an oversized box and a massive timer for FreNeTiC. For Accentuate, we have A5 laminated accent and quote cards to make it as easy and impactful as possible. It’s an unnatural environment to play a game, so we look for ways to put the ideas over in 30 seconds. It always comes down making the pitch fast, simple, and entertaining.
Graeme, I want to thank you for your time. This is been so interesting; I honestly think it’s like a masterclass! The advice you’ve given is stuff that you’ve honed over years. And a lot of people would guard it with their lives; I’m struck again by your generosity so thank you to you, Fiona, Daphne and the rest of the team.
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