Date: 4th September, 2017

When Stern Pinball announced the hiring of a new Director of Marketing on August 11th, it was a name familiar to many in the pinball world.

Zach Sharpe is perhaps best known as a world-class pinball player –  currently ranked #1 in the IFPA rankings, an organisation where he holds the post of Vice President – but is also a professional marketer, previously working as Senior Marketing Producer at advertising agency iris Worldwide.  He also authors game reviews for Play Meter magazine.

Zach Sharpe, Stern Pinball's Director of Marketing
Zach Sharpe, Stern Pinball’s Director of Marketing

According the Stern, Zach will lead in… “expanding its rapidly growing global business while focusing on extending the Stern entertainment experience within the consumer, commercial, and competitive player brand portfolio including pinball machines, merchandise, and accessories.

Pinball News caught up with Zach to ask him about his new job, starting with how he came to be offered the position. He told us, “With Stern Pinball growing as a company so fast, they were definitely stretched a bit thin on the marketing side of things. They had approached me to see if I was interested in working in pinball given my background in marketing/advertising working at iris Worldwide. Needless to say, I was more than interested!

His appointment at Stern Pinball comes as Jody Dankberg, who previously held marketing responsibilities, becomes the company’s Director of Licensing and New Business Development.  It might seem there is some crossover between marketing and new business development, so we asked Zach is he could clarify the responsibilities of the two roles.

He said, “It’s incredible that Jody doesn’t have as much grey hair as I do given all of the responsibilities I’m helping take over on the marketing side of things! With his promotion to Director of Licensing and New Business Development, he’s really able to focus on that side of the business. It’s going to allow some incredible collaboration between the two of us to really promote and take pinball to the next level. We’re already doing some incredible work together and are excited to see where we can take things. Less than a month on the job and we’ve already secured a spot set-up at the Big Buck Hunter World Championships where we will be running the inaugural Heads-Up Pinball Championship! Many more exciting ideas and plans in store that we’ve been brainstorming, so stay tuned on that front.

Now that Stern has a dedicated Director of Marketing, we asked Zach about the key areas in which he saw potential for pinball to grow, and if there were any expansion opportunities Stern has yet to explore.  He was, as you might expect, very upbeat.  “There’s always room for growth for all things pinball!  In particular though, I’ll be helping not only increase the exposure and awareness of pinball to the general public, but also add a heightened level of customer engagement to and throughout the community through many different channels.  Call me an eternal optimist, but I would love to expand to the point of where every single person on the entire planet knows and loves pinball!

We questioned how that increased level of customer engagement will be felt by Stern Pinball’s existing customers and enthusiasts.  Zach said the Stern Army scheme in collaboration with the IFPA was one area which would benefit.  “I’m definitely passionate about all things pinball and now that I get a chance to combine my skills from my previous day job into my actual day job, I’m hoping the result of my enthusiasm is seen and felt throughout the community.  One of the first big initiatives I’ve been diving into since starting here has been with the Stern Army program.  This program and all of the members of this army are such huge assets to the community in truly getting the word out about how pinball can make an impact at pretty much any location.  There’s no better case study to show operators what pinball can do for them at their location and now with the time and resources here at Stern, I can really help foster, nurture and grow this already incredible and impressive army from 50 locations up to 500! (again, eternal optimist, it’ll never stop)

The Stern Army logo
The Stern Army logo

While the Stern Army focuses on operating pinball, there is no doubt that the direction of travel has been markedly towards home sales in the past decade.  Domestic buyers not only expect a high-quality, attractive and reliable product in their homes, they also expect a higher level of after-sales support in case of any issues, often underpinned by consumer protection laws.  We asked Zach if, given how Stern Pinball markets their products increasingly towards this retail channel, whether they have the support structure in place to match.

He stressed the importance of making sure the product is designed and built in the best way possible from the start in reducing issues further down the line.  “One thing that was extremely eye opening to me as I started here and am still learning the ropes, was going on the factory tour (and in fact giving a few of them myself!). It truly is incredible the level of detail and the environment these machines are built in, one of the key aspects being the quality assurance process every step of the way.  And what I found most fascinating and illuminating (apologies on the Demolition Man reference) is the proactive nature of the team to continually refine and update processes to improve the end product whether it’s process advancements through our supply chain or process advancements on the factory floor.  Ultimately, we are very focused on the quality of the product we’re selling because at the end of the day, if we aren’t happy with the product, the customer won’t be (and vice versa).  We will always stand by our product so I’d say Stern is in a great position to support not only home buyers, but operators alike.

 Another initiative to help get more pinballs into the home has been The Pin – Stern’s range of sub-Pro models sold through big-box retail stores and warehouses.  Stern has struggled to gain market traction with The Pin, despite trying several different versions and sales partners, and there is currently no promotion of these games on the Stern Pinball website.

One of the earlier incarnations of Stern's The Pin - Transformers
One of the earlier incarnations of Stern’s The Pin – Transformers

But the company regularly insists there is a market for this level of game, something Zach endorses.  “For as much flack as The Pin gets from the enthusiast community, it’s actually a lot of fun to play!  We are still testing and refining this product, but the Spider-Man pin has a really nice and easy to understand ruleset for that rec room consumer.  We absolutely believe that there’s a market for an entry level consumer game as we have seen first-hand, and the goal is to broaden the market to as wide an audience as possible.

Stern's Spider-Man The Pin
Stern’s Spider-Man The Pin

As Director of Marketing you would Expect Zach to be upbeat about the future of Stern and the pinball market in general, but does he think pinball can ever reach the heights of popularity it achieved in the ’90s – a time which many see as the ‘glory years’ for electronic pinball?  “It absolutely can get back to the glory years of the early ‘90s, there’s no doubt in my mind.  And as far as public reach and awareness goes, until I come across the day where every single person on this planet knows what pinball is, I’d be hard pressed to see how pinball can’t or won’t keep expanding within consumers’ consciousness.  It definitely won’t be easy by any means, but as long as we keep innovating, locations keep increasing around the world, further promotion of tournaments/expos/shows go up, the trend is solely pointing up.

And what can we as fans of the game do to help pinball grow?  “Play!!  Go grab a friend or introduce a co-worker and play!!  Don’t be afraid to enter in tournaments, introduce new people and generally get the word out.  I’ve personally never met anyone who has played a game of pinball and didn’t have some level of enjoyment from that experience.  I like using the quote/analogy from Wayne’s World “and they tell two friends…and they tell two friends”.  To me pinball personifies that quote since most people are introduced one by one into the hobby.  It’s really a niche, grassroots hobby that is only growing up, so until you exhaust all of your friends and contacts about this incredible machine we all love and play, keep playing and sharing the pinball gospel.

Zach Sharpe in the final of the Flip Out tournament
Zach Sharpe in the final of the Flip Out tournament

Finally, as the top-ranked player in the world, are we still going to see Zach competing at the highest level, or is his new job going hinder his ability to play in major tournaments around the world?

He is optimistic it won’t be a problem. “I would certainly hope not!  But I’m sure just like in my other job; timing of tournaments is always at risk based on work conflicts, so that’s something that will never change.  And if pinball ever got to be so huge where employees of the company providing machines weren’t allowed to compete in the event….well I guess Lyman, Keith and I will just have to play for dollars in the arcade here on our lunch break!

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