This article appeared in the June edition of SportPro Magazine and is available via their website Sportspro Media - In the Comfort Zone.
You’ve signed an elite athlete to represent your brand. You’ve settled on an eye-watering fee, negotiated the appearance days and scope of the partnership and convinced the board on the merits of the deal. But the hard work is far from done. Stephen Quinn, creative director at Atomic Sport, a Dublin-based sports marketing agency that has worked on brand campaigns for Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, explains how brands can maximise their relationships with elite athletes.
As a marketing or sponsorship director, activating the athlete endorsement can be the most complex and difficult part of the project. Getting face time with the athlete, dealing with agencies that you depend on to activate, and a fickle fan base that can vent their anger depending on results means that you need nerves of steel. The risks are great but the opportunity is greater.
With so many variables to contendwith it can be a chaotic and stressful process. Here, we share some simple steps to putting you in the driving seat and offering a better chance of a smooth and successful engagement.
Know the athlete
This might seem obvious but it’s surprising how little brands know about their athletes. What makes them tick, what their personal style is like, where their insecurities lie (yes, they have them, too). When we build personal brands for athletes this is a first and integral part of the brand-building programme. For an athlete’s brand to be authentic, it must be rooted in the truth of the athlete’s personality.
If your athlete has already articulated their own brand values then a meeting with the agency responsible should be your first port of call. If they’ve done their job properly they will have listened acutely to the signals and cues from the athlete and will have used those signals to create a bespoke and authentic personal brand. In many ways the agency will have done much of the groundwork for you as they will be searching for the same clues that you are in creating actionable content and campaigns – albeit for the athlete themselves rather than for a brand. The learnings and content are transferable, though, and highly valuable in your journey to create a successful result.
If this exercise hasn’t been done then you should bring a suitable agency on board to understand those values. While getting the views of the athlete’s agent is helpful, since they are closest to the player, it’s only one part of the puzzle to understand your asset and how you can leverage it.
However it happens, it is imperative you undertake this exercise to understand the asset you’re about to activate. Without that knowledge and gut feel you hand over that control to third parties, placing you as a passenger in the journey rather than the driver. When you start the project without control, elements downstream in the process can have a fatal flaw that only reveals itself when you read about it post launch on Twitter.
Step one: write the brief
Whether it’s an activation, a TV campaign or social activity, you must write the brief. Handing this task over to an activation, digital or ad agency is dangerous as they will not know the athlete and the opportunities and threats the way you do. Set the ground rules and guidelines from the outset and never deviate from them, no matter how persuasive an argument is to the contrary.
Some simple watch-outs when writing the brief are:
- No acting – Athletes are not actors. Don’t expect them to deliver to camerain the way a trained actor will. It canlook amazing on a storyboard when the creative team delivers the killer line. When surrounded by a crew, cameras and lights, you can be guaranteed the athlete will not deliver the way it’s been pitched.
- Self-deprecation is dangerous – Some athletes are more than happy to laugh at themselves but most are not. Bear in mind that many athletes participate as part of a team and dressing room banter is rife. Athletes will most likely not set themselves up to be the fall guy.
- Public displays of skill – Some athletes are happy to do public displays of skills and some detest it. It may be the public nature of it or that they’re simply just not good at it – skills to win a match are not the same as skills to show how you can balance a ball on your neck. Avoid if possible.
A good brief should contain the values that the athlete aspires to, what the expectations from the activity are – fan engagement, market development, brand awareness, etc – and, of course, the kind of campaign you don’t want. There can be a perception from agency staff that athletes want to be perceived in an epic way most likely because that’s how we perceive them. Often athletes want to be shown in a more authentic way so setting those ground rules is imperative.
Step two: choose the agency or creative team
There’s a very simple question you should ask of your agency or the team that will be working on the project. Do they love the sport that this athlete plays? Do they know the players, the history and the loyalties of fans and the media? If not, I’d suggest you get a team or agency that does.
In theory, a creative team should be able to work for any product or brand but in my experience a team that doesn’t have a personal passion for the sportand a good knowledge of the athlete takes longer to get to the right solution, can revert to cliché and, on shoot or activation, reveal their lack of knowledge.
Step three: be tough on the ideas
We’re in the persuasion business. So what can seem hilarious, epic or deeply moving in the confines of a presentation room can fail when attempted in the real world. If you have a deep understanding of the athlete’s personality, have written the brief andare working with the right team then you should be able to follow your gut feeling on what feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, get them to go back to the drawing board.
It’s incredibly frustrating for a creative team but often a stronger, more authentic idea emerges as a result. I’ve been there many times and hated having to reset, but often the end result was better for it.
Step four: engage the athlete in the process
If you have the concept that you’re happy with, you have one more hurdle to overcome: the buy-in of the athlete.
So who’s going to sell it to the athlete? The agency? Not necessarily. Agencies generally like the drama of the pitchand the presentation and often revelin the big reveal. This is fine when presenting to marketing professionals who understand the structure and form of creative presentations. A presentation in this format to an athlete generally doesn’t work because the athlete doesn’t understand or care about the analysis that goes into the creation of the idea. More worrying is asking an athlete to make a judgement on the merits of a creative idea. This puts them in an awkward and often uncomfortable position.
A better approach is for you to meet the senior management person or agent and discuss the idea and explain what’s in it for the athlete – yes, you’re paying them large sums of money already but that’s just for the association with their name and image. If the athlete sees how it will improve their image or reach, they will more readily approve the idea. Then, when you have buy-in from the agent, you and that agent should meet with the athlete together – preferably in the athlete’s home, where they are most comfortable.
To a busy marketing director this might seem like an overly complex processto get athlete buy-in but the resultson the shoot or activation day can be exponentially improved. The feeling of a partnership between athlete, agent and brand will result in more commitment and dedication.
Try to shoot within two weeks of buy- in from the athlete. This can stretch the agency, but leave it too long to shoot and the athlete will have forgotten the concept and their approval and enthusiasm.
Step five: use the best
You’ve gone this far. Don’t scrimp on the quality of photographers, film production or event management. Preferably use people that the athlete has worked with before and enjoyed the experience (ask the athlete or agent about this – they may have a different view than the agency).
Step six: measure twice, cut once
If your athlete is booked for a day, then hire everyone associated with the shoot for two days. On day one run through all your shots, check lighting and even do a test shoot using a stand-in. On day two bring the athlete in and do the shoot in earnest.
All the teething pains and creative discussions should have been ironed out before the athlete arrives on set. Athletes don’t realise how long it takes to create an ad and as the day drags on with creative discussions and resets the momentum can be lost. It’s hard to get a performance once that torpor sets in so keeping the day moving along is key.
Another good idea is to get all the key shots done first – anything where the athlete is expected to perform in any way or is the focal point within frame. It can complicate a shoot schedule but ensures the key shots are in the can in case of delays later.
Step seven: keep it tight and keep it short
Having a big crew, lots of your staff present and everyone staring while the athlete is already out of their comfort zone is a sure way of getting a poor result. Only have necessary people from the crew or your staff present. It might disappoint lots of people but will make the athlete much more comfortable.
Also, a chain of command on the day is critical to the success of the venture. In my experience, the marketing director and creative director should sit together and instructions delivered from the creative director to the director only. Delays and problems arise when too many instructions and opinions are floating around. As the client, it’s imperative that you have the last say. I know of one situation where the client was kept in another room and had no contact with the director or agency staff.
Another personal rule of our agencyis not to ask the athlete for autographs. In my view it breaks the partnership relationship and affects the idea that the athlete, client and agency are peers in the venture, all with a goal to win together. If requests have been made for autographs for family or friends, ask the agent post- shoot to facilitate with the athlete.
It makes sense to try to shoot near the accommodation that the athlete is situated in – whether it’s their home or a hotel. Travel times cut down on your shoottime and nothing induces a low-energy performance more than sitting in traffic for an hour before a shoot.
Step eight: don’t change the brief
Athletes live a surprisingly structured life. And they like to know what’s happening ahead of time and what’s expected of them. A mistake a brand and a creative team can make is to agree one course of action and then try something new on the day. You may be lucky and get the result on the day, but the next time you want to create a campaign or activation you may find a less than willing participant.
What should be a simple process canbe fraught with danger and obstacles. But when done well, the results can catapulta brand into the consciousness of your audience in ways that pure advertising can’t. The athlete’s buy-in and level of engagement is the key to that result. It’s not about pandering to their wishes but rather understanding their motivations, matching their levels of professionalism and getting the very best out of what isa major investment from a financial and reputation point of view.
One of the best compliments Atomic Sport has received was from a world-famous athlete who, after spending three days shooting with us, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for making it so easy.” That kind of athlete experience is what we strive for every time and, trust me, it shows on camera and in their endorsement of your brand.
Stephen Quinn is Creative Director at Atomic Sport - contact him directly at email@example.com