What sweaty people can teach us about advertising

Written by Guy Futcher

As far as years go, 2020 sits somewhere between watching grass grow and watching a platoon of Panza tanks roll across that grass, flatten your house and honk clown horns at your mailbox.

It’s no surprise then that things that help us forget about this year are a roaring success. 

Case in point, Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” doco. When it aired earlier this year, I relished my time staring through MJ’s freakish yellow eyes and into the mind of one of the greatest athletes of all time.

But as the final credits rolled, and I landed firmly back in the year time travellers will avoid, I thought of a quote I like, by Earl Warren, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States: “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures.”

In a year of COVID-19, Karens and murder hornets, the 1968 sports-illustrated quote is as poignant as ever.

No matter how we much we are struggling, or how badly the world is losing, someone, somewhere is winning on a sport’s field.

For me, sport has always had the answers when I don’t even know what the questions are.  

So, having just landed in Singapore with VMLY&R as this asteroid-sized shit started to hit the proverbial fan, I thought I’d once again turn to sport to see what it’s doing right, and how we might be able to apply this to what we do.

Watching sport on the couch is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

For starters, at times like this, it’s ok to just be entertaining. Not everyone wants or expects us to focus on the world’s problems all the time. In fact, people often need time to forget those problems exist at all.

So, as brands add boosters to the very on-trend quest to one-up each other with more altruistic, life-solving positionings, it’s still ok to have fun and be silly. Everyone needs a distraction. Some entertainment. Everyone needs to laugh. Look around at the world for a moment. Seriously, everyone needs to laugh.

Social is getting more physical. This year the tour de France competitors are competing from home via the virtual training platform ZWIFT. You can watch the race online, and by race I mean a split screen view of avatars on a CG course and riders sweating bullets on stationery bikes in their loungerooms.

The real beauty of this, however, is that anyone around the world can and do join in. By the thousands. The virtual l’etape du tour de France (excuse my terrible Aussie accent) allows people at home to ride three legs of the event, and raise money for a chosen charity in the process.

Competing at home alongside the pros is something I think we’ll see more and more of in the next few years. And what makes this evolution so fascinating to me is that fitness, gaming and sports are finally intertwining. The nerds and jocks are interbreeding. And that interbreeding is making for very entertaining babies.

No doubt brands are already eyeing how to get in on these platforms. We’re already doing some work with clients in a similar space. Hopefully before the rest of the world does too.

Ditch the polish. Unlike its ugly cousin—reality TV—sport plays out on air exactly as it does in the stands. No editing, manipulation or deceit to impress its audience. Brands can learn a lot from this. Especially in Singapore. It’s ok to be real; to be imperfect and fallible. Production budgets are tightening or being cut altogether. So don’t try and make a cheap version of perfect. Make real and authentic for less (if need be).

Technology is great, but humans are greater. This is not new. This is not even insightful. But it is so, so critical. And it needs to be said daily. I now work with so many super-strategic, tech-savvy humans who are way smarter than me, but whilst I don’t always understand them, we can always agree that connections have to be human. Yes, technology is amazing. Life-changing. World-changing. But our job is always to connect brands with brains. And the human brain is still my favourite machine.

Go where the fans (or customers) go. When the people can’t go to you, go to the people. Unsurprisingly, esports revenue across the world has reached an all-time high. In Singapore alone it hit almost $1.6 billion, up almost 16% from last year. Surprisingly though, for me at least, esports hasn’t gained the mainstream traction it was expected to. Of course, it’s only a matter of time. Maybe next week.

Side note, if you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary “League of Legends,” I suggest you settle in for a couple of hours.

People are powerful platforms. A lot of influencer’s hopes and dreams dried up with their budgets as the new C word hit. But although many sports stars have taken pay cuts, countless others are still raking in the dollars. Just last month, 2019 Superbowl winners Kansas City signed its star quarterback to a record contract worth up to $490 million to secure his services for the next 10 years.

Player and influencer sponsorship will grow exponentially as brands continue to recognise the power individual stars hold over their audiences. Especially as sports platforms bend to our demands to be closer to players on and off the field.

Ultimately, adversity breeds creativity. Through the madness, good ideas and innovations have risen to the top. England’s Premier League was temporarily held on FIFA’s gaming platform, the UFC held fights in isolation at its ‘Fight Island’ located on Yas Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, UAE.

And it’s not just on the sporting field.

Agencies everywhere have and will continue to evolve as 2020 rolls out. Containment and chaos is seeing creativity flourish in wonderful ways. Good thinking born out of restrictions.

Yes, a small consolation amongst the chaos.

But in a year unlikely to ever be looked back on fondly or often, and definitely not as the good, old days, I’ll take it any consolation I can get.

And whilst ultimately, and yes instinctively, I’ll still turn to the sports pages first to get my daily dose of happiness and positivity, it seems not all hope is lost.

Unless of course, my team loses.

Then it’s a whole different ballgame.