I had the pleasure of interviewing Geneviève St-Onge and Nicolas Verge, two of the three co-founders of indie publishing agency popagenda. They discuss how the company came to be, how they help indie developers with PR, marketing, and everything in between, and the differences they’ve experienced working in the AAA and indie games spaces.
Tell us the story of popagenda! For those who don’t know, what were you two doing before, and what made you take the leap into starting your own business?
Geneviève St-Onge: Nick and I used to work at Square Enix Montreal together many moons ago taking care of launching some of the most beloved “AAA” IP mobile games (Hitman GO, Lara Croft GO, Hitman: Sniper). When I left SEM to move to San Francisco (for love), I was sad to leave behind a studio I enjoyed working at so much, but it was really when Nick and I went out to dinner on my last day that it hit me. I walked out of the restaurant DEVASTATED at the idea of never working with him again. Like full on sobbing on the street.
Many months later after I’d finally gotten my work permit in the US, I immediately approached him with the idea of going freelance. The timing turned out to be perfect, and that’s also when we reached out to MC (our third co-founder & producer), who was also at a crossroads in her professional life. It all just clicked together and we officially got started within weeks. We were honestly just excited to be in charge of our own destiny, use our (very specific) skill sets to help indie teams, and very selfishly, exclusively work on games we were passionate about.
What would you say popagenda does better than anyone else? What sets you apart and what are you proud of?
Nicolas Verge: Gen and I come from the development side of the AAA world, and from the get-go we really wanted to establish a “boutique” vibe because that really mattered to us. In our past lives we got to work with both exceptional partners and more cookie-cutter agencies with whom you don’t feel like there’s much of a relationship there. We wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case with popagenda, and I think we’ve been able to make that happen. We see our clients as part of the team and we’re very protective of their time and mental headspace.
I’m very proud of the business we created. We’re a “one stop shop” for a lot of publishing services, not just PR: we also offer release management and certification support, go-to market campaign design, business development with first parties and funding partners, just to name a few. We’re able to assume multiple roles and take care of a lot of our devs’ needs, and on the occasion that it’s a service we don’t happen to offer, we take care of coordinating what’s needed with third party partners. Releasing games is hard enough, we’re really hoping to make it as smooth of a process as it can be for them.
What has surprised you most about your business? What was the biggest difference moving from a AAA company to starting popagenda and your biggest learnings so far? (And what’s your favorite part of the job?)
Nick: So far, I’m still surprised at how little competition I feel agency to agency, amongst developers, or animosity between press and PR, something I very much felt in the AAA world. It’s extremely refreshing honestly, everyone is friendly and eager to give advice and feedback, or share about their previous experiences.
Gen: One of our biggest learnings as a team is how indies have the ability to pivot much quicker. As most of you know by now, you can spend months planning for the world's most well thought out marketing campaign in the history of video games, but the likeliness of everything you know and feel confident about being suddenly thrown out the window is very high (hello 2020, how you doin’). Don’t take this as “don’t plan anything ever”, but coming from AAA where you have to document every breath you take while making marketing decisions for months on end, in the indie world there is just not enough time. The financial runways are too short and perilous. You have to have a general idea of the direction you’re going into, and then constantly pivot based on available opportunities, external factors, and your team’s wellbeing.
Nick: As for your “favorite part of the job” question, it’s very personal to me but I’ve been able to play some of the games we work on very early in development and really take the time to deep dive and give the team critical game design feedback (I have a background as press and studied game design). Seeing changes implemented based on my comments is a feeling I’ll never get tired of. It’s quite rewarding.
What do you see indie devs (or your clients/partners) most often struggle to understand? How do you help them overcome it?
Nick: It’s a bit cliché, but releasing games is hard. It takes a lot of work and coordination with multiple moving pieces. A lot of folks underestimate this and don’t ask for help until they’re already in trouble with insane deadlines. Funny enough, by experience, a lot of the studios that have gone through it know to ask for help, while first timers think they can do everything themselves. We’ve been helping on average 10 to 15 games go to market each year, so we’re constantly working towards making the next launch even smoother. Ask for help!
We also get a lot of the classic “why does no one care about my game (ahead of launch)?” or “why didn't it sell (post-launch)?” questions. This is honestly something that is really hard to answer, and there is often not one simple answer to it. There’s a reason we see more indie devs basically A/B testing their game concept and/or art direction with GIFs on Twitter to see what catches on. It’s extremely heartbreaking when a game doesn’t find its audience, but it happens. A lot.
How do you see popagenda expanding in the future?
Gen: We get that question a lot. We don’t see ourselves growing tremendously in numbers-- we have been bringing contractors for additional help when things got a bit hectic (remember the 93-day long digital E3? Let’s not do that again). We’re currently a team of five, including two brand new PR/Marketing associates who joined us this summer, and we might eventually be looking into bringing in another release manager with the new generation of consoles at our door. We like the flexibility our tight knit team allows us to have, and the boutique approach it’s also allowed us to maintain.
What’s your advice for anyone looking to get into games PR and/or marketing?
Nick: Specifically for PR, I’d say it really helped tremendously that I was already consuming a lot of games press content before jumping into games PR. You kind of have to know what each journalist’s beat is, what kind of games they play, on which platform, and that’s stuff you learn after hours and hours of listening to them on podcasts, reading their articles or following them on Twitter. It’s the part of the job that really bleeds into my free time, but thankfully don’t see it as work.
And the classic advice is just “make stuff”. I started myself writing for fan blogs and hosting podcasts, then got picked up to do live television (yup, I did that), which eventually got me noticed by Gen (when she was looking to fill a role at Square Enix Montreal). Probably not a lot of people read my reviews or listened to my content, but it made me a better writer and ready to go on TV. You just grow from every experience.