Cyberpunk 2077 continues to lead the charge as one of the most enticing new RPGs of next year, and we were very fortunate to sit down with Hollie Bennett, UK Head of Communication at CD Projekt Red, to discuss her remarkable journey in the industry
As Keanu Reeves so eloquently put it during his legendary surprise appearance at E3 this year, we've always been drawn to fascinating stories. Despite the palpable frenzy surrounding Cyberpunk 2077, we were more interested in exploring the career trajectory of one Hollie Bennett, a true ninja of PR and community management. You'll likely recognise her from her six years at PlayStation Access, where she was instrumental in shaping the YouTube channel into the behemoth that it is today.
But go back even further, and it quickly becomes apparent that Hollie's entire professional course has unquestionably been charted by surprising shifts and the merits of honest, hard work. Six years of University training and work as an NHS midwife is no small feat, and our conversation, outside the bustling halls of EGX 2019, delved into the forks in the road that have defined her working life.
Can you connect the dots for us, and describe how you got your start in the gaming industry? Especially at a time in your life where your work for the NHS had already shaped so much of your formative professional years...
So I grew up playing video games. I've been a gamer my whole life. But I'm from a relatively small town in South Wales, and the reality is back then video games weren't considered a career. So I was coming to that age, being sat with my careers adviser. "What do you want to be?" I said that I was a huge fan of gaming. According to them, that was not a valid career path. "Can you make them?" No. "Well then I don't really see how this is going to work...".
I've also got learning difficulties. I'm quite dyslexic, so school wasn't easy for me. I'd have to work twice as hard to even come out with B's. It wasn't my forte. But I am quite practical. I'm very hands on, and good with people. So I looked at what was open to me, and I thought about nursing, but there was too many facets of it that didn't click with me. Geriatric nursing terrified me, and I admitted to myself that I wasn't the right fit. I looked at midwifery and thought I could do that. So I went with my A-Levels in Art, History, and Business, and my single Science GCSE, to Bournemouth University and I trained as a Midwife.
It was tough, and probably the first time where I ever had to really own up to the fact that I had learning difficulties. I'd always sort of managed to get away with it for a long time, but it was time to acknowledge that I do struggle. But when it came to the practical stuff, I was acing it, and I got there in the end.
While I was a midwife, I sort of started to meet people online, who were gamers like me. I'd travelled to the [United] States a few times to meet my friends off the internet. We went to [gaming festival] PAX together. I remember travelling with one guy from the UK, and my parents asked who we were meeting, and I realised I didn't know his real name!
That's the irony of this medium, that the perception and stereotype is people alone in a basement with a headset, but in reality it's a very socially driven hobby.
It was actually hundreds of us alone in separate basements all over the world...
But you'd make a connection with people who are like you. So I was part of this gaming website as a hobby, but I wanted people to start meeting up a bit more, so i started hosting UK meets, and after a while, they [the people who ran the site] said you might as well come on board as a community manager for your region. That's what we'll call you.
I was doing it as a hobby, all for free. It was an American website, and everything we did was very Euro centric. I started a podcast, because they didn't have enough coverage of European and UK news. We'd go to [Cologne based gaming convention] Gamescom, hire our own equipment, and do all the coverage for them. Trying to find a video camera rental shop in Germany was an interesting challenge, with eight of us staying in a hostel together in one room. It was intense, but so much fun.
It was the best of both worlds. I had a career that paid well enough, but I could also go off and see games behind closed doors that hadn't been released yet and have a great time. I started doing more and more work for the website, and eventually someone told me "You do know that what you're doing is an actual job, right? You should put a CV together." At first I wasn't so sure, but eventually I decided to give it a go.
I applied for one job, and got an interview. I was chatting to them, but I didn't like the vibe in their office. Everyone was quiet, with headphones on. I'm a midwife! I'm loud, and I like the hustle and bustle. I like the drama! So I turned it down. A few months later I was at a Bandai Namco Summer Showcase, once again for that same website. I bumped into the European Vice President...
Sure. That's normal, as you do...
[laughs] And I gave him my business card, and I said "If you're ever hiring, this is what I want to do". A week later, they gave me a call. We went for coffee and a chat, and I woke up the next day with a job offer in my inbox, to become the Consumer and Community PR Executive for Bandai Namco UK.
And this led to [YouTube Channel] PlayStation Access, right?
Yeah! So, I was at Bandai Namco for about 18 months. Worked on really amazing stuff, including the Witcher 2 (for CD Projekt Red), Ni No Kuni, Dark Souls, Tekken, Soul Calibur ... I even sent the original press release announcing Cyberpunk 2077! Afterwards, a former [Bandai Namco] employee called me up and told me that a job had come up at PlayStation. It was for Social Media and Community Manager. I applied because I felt I'd come to the end of my tenure [at Bandai] Namco, and I was hungry for a new challenge. And I got the job!
The DualShock 4 [controller] was shown in February . I joined in April . So well ahead of the November  PlayStation 4 launch. I really joined during the blessed and golden times! My job was to look after the social media and anything associated with it. They also had a video series, which used to be a weekly show, only available via PSN [PlayStation Network]. As it [PSN] was changing and evolving, the show was getting pushed further and further back into the library, and becoming much harder to find. So the team decided to make the jump to YouTube, and called it "PlayStation Access".
It had been going for about a year or so, at about 11,000 subscribers, and I remember in my interview saying "this should be bigger. I don't get it. This has so much potential". YouTube was coming into its heyday. They obviously had the team, and the infrastructure. But something wasn't clicking. They [PlayStation] told me they'd halved the team and cut the budget, and were giving it till April or they were going to axe it. I'd been doing social media stuff with Bandai Namco, and I'd sort of had my fill of it. But [PlayStation] Access was so much fun to just throw myself in to. And that's exactly what I did.
That notion of fun was always apparent in the on screen chemistry between the presenters. How important was that dynamic to building the channel?
When you build a channel like [PlayStation] Access, it bridges a funny gap because it is an owned channel. It's owned by PlayStation. It is an official channel. Now, if you look at most official channels, it is marketing guff coming from all sides. Everyone is talking the party line, heavily scripted, and heavily produced. It feels a little artificial, and can be hard to relate to. It's clearly an advert.
The whole point of [PlayStation] Access was that it was personality driven content. If you're hiring professional presenters, make sure they can be friends. Access worked because we love each other very much. It should be natural and organic, with no buy now or pre-order now messaging. Even in weekly store updates, we never put pricing. We knew that Access would only work if people trusted us. If they think we're just trying to sell them a red herring, no-one would have trusted us, and we'd have lost that special community that makes Access work.
My job was to grow the channel, but also be a bit of a gate keeper. If PlayStation said "Can you make this video?", I sometimes would say "No". "Why?" "Because it's not going to work".
And you were in a position, informed by all of your previous experiences, to know that authenticity is what works.
Exactly. And there were times when we had to make videos on the bigger games. You might not love them as much, but, like with websites, you need to drive traffic. But driving traffic allowed us to make videos about that amazing indie game that people should care about, and you know is charming and deserves more coverage. It was my job to find a balance, and protect that idea.
And now, you're back with Bandai Namco working for CD Projekt Red. Are you based on site with them in Warsaw?
No, I work from home in London. I worked from home for the last two years of [PlayStation] Access as well. If you put all of the press trips together, I was actually travelling for about 4 and half months of the year.
So even though you're working remotely, have you had an opportunity at CD Projekt Red, with Cyberpunk 2077, to put your own stamp on the promotion? Is it a case of here is our strategy, and you need to execute this like we know you can? Or have their been moments where you've been able to throw your own input into the mix?
CD Projekt [Red] hire people because they think they're going to fit the culture. You're part of the family. There's a lot of freedom, especially if you see something that's worth focusing on. If you speak up, you'll be supported.
We'd like to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to Hollie Bennett for being so candid, and for taking so much time out of her extremely busy EGX presentation schedule to sit and talk with us. Cyberpunk 2077 launches on 16th April 2020, for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.