Industry Interview: Stefano Petrullo - Founder of Renaissance PR and award winning PR man
In this blog, we’re joined by Stefano Petrullo, founder of Renaissance PR, and an award-winning professional with over 25 years of experience in PR. He has worked on some of the biggest entertainment brands in the world, such as Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed II - the latter which won a Guinness World Record as the most cover-featured video game.
He tells us all about starting out in the games industry, moving to the UK, and the problems of writing an article on a Commodore 64…
30 Years of Play: Easy question first: tell us who you are, what you do and a little bit about your career in the industry.
Stefano Petrullo: I’m Stefano Petrullo, founder of Renaissance, a boutique communications agency born in 2015 built on a legacy of working in PR since 1997. I started out in my career back in 1991 as editor of Zzap64 Italy before I then moved on to PC Zone Italy. It was a fun, exciting era, but at some point I decided my talents might be better applied in the world of PR, and I managed to land a job as PR Manager for the biggest Italian distributor of the time, founding the first Italian dedicated video game PR agency in the process.
In 2006, I finally made the decision to leave Italy to make the trip to Britain, becoming Head or PR at Koch Media UK, and the fact that a Germany company took on an Italian to launch their products in the UK has always struck me as being a prime example of European integration - pre-Brexit Britain at its best, you might say. A couple of years later I joined French publishing giant Ubisoft, where I stayed until I set up Renaissance in 2015.
30YOP: How did you start working in the sector and how did you end up in the UK?
Stefano: I wrote my first review for Zzap64 when I was the grand age of 16 years old - back in 1991, if you’re trying to pin down my age - before I then left school and became Assistant Editor three months later. It was around 2005, though, that I started getting bored in Italy and began thinking about making good on my longterm wish to move to the United Kingdom, which was - at that time - the European powerhouse of game development. Ocean, Probe Software, Team17, Core Design, Eidos were companies I already knew from my experiences in both journalism and PR and, after driving my car all the way from Milan to Basingstoke - which was the first place I lived in the UK - I felt immediately at home.
30YOP: Did you experience a culture shock? What were the main differences between working in the industry in Italy and the UK?
Stefano: I love my country for a million reasons, but meritocracy and pragmatism are definitely not our strong points. I have to be honest and say the first three months in the UK were not easy, as I had to quickly learn to live alone with no friends - there were no Italians whatsoever in Basingstoke at the time, but the people there were super friendly and helped me get used to their culture. What I love about the UK is that people recognise hard work, and the economy and laws both allow you to build up a business. Despite amazing weather, great food and people, Italy isn’t an ideal environment for sustainable business, namely due to a mass of bureaucracy, lack of open mindness, and just the Italian culture. I can’t deny, it’s it a shame, a real shame, since there is definitely a lot of creativity in Italy and opportunities that often still fail to flourish.
30YOP: Assassin’s Creed II won a Guinness World Record as the most cover-featured video game, and it went on to massive commercial & critical success. I do remember myself in the lead up to its release it was everywhere on every game magazine! Did you have any idea the campaign would have such an impact and that the game would go on to be so big?
Stefano: I have been in the industry for over 25 years and worked for a lot of companies in a variety of roles, but Ubisoft was the most incredible in terms of empowerment and potential for growth. I enjoyed my best memories and biggest achievements there - except for Renaissance, of course. On Assassin’s Creed II, we knew it was likely to be a difficult campaign - reviews for the original Assassin’s Creed were a little underwhelming, so it really did require Ubisoft to throw its entire weight behind Assassin’s Creed II to make sure it was the success it deserved to be.
"I'm sure plenty of commentators (including myself) would have predicted another well-known game winning the title instead, and this achievement is even more impressive in view of the other 2009 releases that Assassin's Creed 2 was able to beat."
Gaz Deaves, editor of Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition
Specifically in the UK, we started to target media very early to gather feedback, taking an open and honest approach about what the new game was about. Then we proactively worked with the central team in Paris and developer in Montreal to make sure Ezio was absolutely everywhere. The end results were absolutely wow amazing - I still get shivers remembering when we received the ‘world record’ news in our Chertsey office. I was like… WOW!
30YOP: In your experience, how has PR & marketing changed in the industry over time?
Stefano: Communications in general has changed a lot, and will continue to change in my view. However, the core principles of good ethics combined with maintaining good relations with people will always make the difference. Renaissance was born to disrupt the formulaic approach to traditional communication, progressively moving to have a 360 degree approach to the market; not only the media, not only influencers but also a wider look at how you make your product successful with metrics. The amount of firepower you have today to reach people is incredible, but with market saturation and lots of new platforms and business models, everything has become a lot more complicated. The ‘one size fits all’ campaign does not exist any more - you still have mandatories and you still have ‘bread and butter PR’ as I like to call it, but these only achieve the bare minimum now. You need to be creative and see the big picture across all the channels.
30YOP: Were there any big challenges or controversies that you faced in your career?
Stefano: I hate doing stuff I do not believe in and I used to be very vocal if this was the case. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to let it go, have people fail and then go to them and say “I told you so”. It’s something I personally do not like as an approach but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. When I started my career in 1991, I was the youngest editor in the industry, then the youngest italian videogame PR - I think I saw the good and bad of our industry. However it still infuriates me when people think PRs are just a bunch of people trying to push for the higher score for a game. Our job is so much more than that and it’s not as easy as people think. I often get frustrated when I see a journalist’s value determined by the traffic they generate and companies repeating the same errors over and over. As communicators, we have to be facilitators for media, influencers and consumers alike to do a good job. We are also amplifiers of the message, taking a consistently ethical, measurable and factual approach.
30YOP: What’s your biggest achievement?
Stefano: Wow that’s a question. I would say Renaissance is my biggest industry achievement. I was talking - or maybe moaning is a better word, in truth - with some people recently and I suddenly realised how incredibly lucky I am in not having almost any turnover in the people joining the company. On top of that, almost all the clients that started working with us back in 2015 are still with us if they use external agencies. Also, winning the MCV Awards this year for best Boutique Agency has really come as unexpected and flattering surprise!
30YOP: How did your role in the games industry change and what drove it?
Stefano: Well, for starters, I was one of the youngest when I started, and now I am definitely one of the oldest PRs in the industry. Haha.
Joking aside, I believe as a communicator or PR or storyteller, the name might change but the substance of communication does not. We talk and we build relations to generate content - that used to be print, newspapers and magazines etc, before it switched to the internet, websites, influencers, social media etc. Platforms and brands will keep changing, but the industry will always be driven by people and the ethics that surrounded them. This is something I have continued to treasure since I started my career in 1991.
30YOP: Have you got a memorable anecdote that shows what the industry was like in the early years of your career?
Stefano: Many, so many...I could potentially write a book! Specifically as a journalist, I have to say that writing articles with a Commodore 64 and then transferring them to a Mac with a dodgy cable takes some beating.
30YOP: If you could change one thing about the sector, what would it be?
Stefano: More diversity, no gender gap for salaries and less stereotyping. I believe our industry keeps changing and evolving - better than others and I hope this becomes the norm.
30YOP: What would be your one piece of advice for someone starting out in the industry?
Stefano: Fight a lot, and do not give up. It’s a cliche, but you have to keep the passion alive. “If you have passion, you succeed,” Is something I hear a lot in speeches and seminars but, do you know what? Passion is great, it’s fantastic and hard to come by, but it’s not enough on its own. Passion is an incredible booster, but common sense, training and skills are the ones that take you to the next level. See passion as the power up that allows you to go to the next level. The games industry is one of the greatest sectors in the world to work in, but it will forever be incredibly competitive