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How AT&T Integrated Olympic Results Into Its Ads So Darn Fast

Did you catch a clip of Ryan Lochte’s gold-winning swim in an AT&T ad this weekend? You weren’t seeing things. The brand’s new campaign places winning Team USA results into its advertising in near real-time.

If you’ve been watching the Olympics on NBC (rather than following the, let’s say, mixed reviews of the broadcaster’s coverage), it’s near impossible to miss the fact that on the opening weekend Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte splashed into the spotlight with a gold-medal winning race in which he nudged ahead of teammate and reigning swimming champ Michael Phelps. Replays of the race have been plenty, and that AT&T spot you may have seen on Sunday night did, in fact, include footage and time results from Lochte’s performance.

As part of its Olympic sponsorship, AT&T is bringing some innovation into its advertising with a campaign that integrates the record-breaking and award-winning performances of Team USA athletes into a series of spots created by BBDO New York that are scheduled to air the day after the events. In the spots, aspiring athletes are shown watching an Olympic performance (the real footage from the day before) on their phones and then making a note of the winning time or score as motivation. Dubbed "The New Possible," a new slant on AT&T’s "Rethink Possible" positioning specifically for the Olympics, the campaign immediately celebrates the way in which the achievements of U.S. athletes inspire the next generation of Olympians.

We’ve certainly seen ads congratulating athletes on their medals in the past from other advertisers (Visa comes to mind), but what makes this campaign interesting is how it so quickly integrates the actual award-winning performances into the ad, versus pre-recorded or historical footage.

"We had the idea of someone who gets inspired to keep practicing after seeing a record being broken. But in playing around with that idea, we thought it would be really cool if the way that the story is told is also a kind of how did they do that," says BBDO executive creative director Greg Hahn. "The blue sky idea was wouldn’t it be awesome if the record he sees being broken was the one you just saw on TV?"

AT&T senior vice president for brand marketing and advertising Esther Lee says the campaign direction—which includes additional ads and a series of seven online films called "My Journey," in which Olympic athletes share details of their personal journey from Beijing to London—came from a desire to push the boundaries of innovation. "We were encouraging the agency to really come up with something innovative," she says. "When they showed (this idea) to us we were very excited. It just then became a matter of logistics. Could we make this happen?"

It turns out they could make it happen. Here’s how: Three sports were selected as the campaign’s focus—swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. BBDO then created six versions of the commercial in advance, two for each sport alternately featuring a male or female athlete, with hundreds of different endings to account for a predicted range of winning times. AT&T worked with longtime broadcasting partner NBC to arrange for access to the footage within unusually quick turnaround times so that they could create a campaign that would stand out from the hailstorm of sponsored messages. Once one of the athletes pegged as likely to win is competing, a team from BBDO sits in London and waits. If the athlete performs well, it’s go time. A winning result means that footage has to be selected, sent to London-based post house Absolute for integration, the pre-canned shot with the winning time has to be selected and edited together. It’s then sent to NBC and the USOC for approvals and on air within 24 hours of the win. It’s a cycle AT&T is able to repeat up to five times for five winning athletes.

Though the tight schedule makes the pace a bit harried, the process is ultimately similar to making a normal commercial—only in 24 hours versus, oh, say, two months. The most challenging aspect, says Hahn, was the logistics of shooting all the possible endings where the actor writes the winning time for all six versions.

"We wanted to make it look organic and not like it was done in post," says Hahn. "We have one where the athlete writes the winning score by hand in the sand, and one where it’s written on the whiteboard. We wanted those shots to feel like you can see the hand movements drawing it, and not just a screen graphic plugged into the shot. That became very important to us but it also made it a harder production because we had to shoot every possible option within a range."

Given that the entire campaign is hinged on this notion of athletic success, right down to the hundredth of a second, it’s an essentially risky idea. No matter how unlikely, if Team USA completely underperformed the idea would be in peril. That, says Lee, was a risk AT&T was willing to take.

"Whenever you do something innovative you know there’s some sort of inherent risk. The way we mitigated some of that is by shooting different sports from both male and female perspectives, so we didn’t put our eggs in one basket," she says. "But there were questions like, what if no one wins a gold medal? Luckily the odds are good—the U.S. team generally does pretty well, so we just tried to cover our bases and hope for the best."

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  • Benjamin Eugene NElson

    Wow.. it's almost like they have access to the clips, a video editing suite, skilled workers and the time to do it..  *yawn*

  • MitchellAbdullah

    Immediately I did not notice this until the newest commercial came out, at which point I was immediately baffled and puzzled as to how AT&T managed to get the winner and the times into their commercials at such a rapid rate. Regardless of my lack of experience with TV advertisement I was still aware that the process in which it took advertisements to go from shot to on screen was several weeks if not months. In cases where the commercial was reliant on variables such as who won the super bowl was a simple shoot both commercials for the two possible outcomes and then air the appropriate one but to get not one but two unknown variables into a commercial, the winner and their time, is simply astounding. I applaud all of those who were involved.

  • Jonathan Dusing

    24hrs is a long time, they could have shot the commercial from scratch in that time.

  • Karmafreecooking

    I have been in the adv/marketing industry and was impressed immediately when I saw the commercials.  The gymnastics one just aired a few minutes ago featuring the Jordyn Weiber floor exercise score that helped the team win GOLD.  I knew they had to film a bunch of scores to be able to match them eventually to a real outcome.

    I am impressed that your YouTube link is my upload too!!!!  Thanks for the recognition... 

  • RichardLipscombe

    this is a great leap forward for marketers who want to tell you a story that may just be relevant to you...if you have not seen the event live then the ad may be even more relevant to you than if you did see it live and are merely reliving that moment via the the key to making this type of marketing/advertising work, for me, is to put the viewer (you and me) right there in the story...

    a tag line of "where were you for the 4 minutes, 30 seconds, and 1 hundredth it took "blah" to win an Olympic Gold medal?"  that would put 'you' and 'me' into the great success story that is an Olympic Gold medal performance...

    say you didn't see the event because you didn't care to do that then you may watch this ad with more interest...after you watch it you sense that here is your opportunity to tweet a friend about what a great moment that was and share this simple success story with a world of others who also missed it...that is a powerful ad...

    if the ad brings the viewer into the story it becomes both relevant (where was I when he/she won gold) and remarkable (oh my goodness jane and jack and jim and zara should know about this - i must tweet it!)...

    digital marketing/advertising will be awesome when we get 'you' the viewer into the punch line....cheers, richard.

  • YWorld

    Great concept, great collaboration to get this done. Not only does it show AT&T's support for Team USA, but it also supports the 'next generation" of athletes training for the future.

    The ad wouldn't be possible without collaboration, and it's great to see it pay off.

  • Scott Clark

    Really nice concept. The only thing is it would have been more awesome and more relevant had it been done in an OLA unit sitting next to the streaming video online. The OLA could be sitting there making calls to a database and when the score was dropped in it could have triggered the rest of the video to write the correct score on the board.

    That would have been bad ass. But it's BBDO and they do TV the old fashioned way. All be it, in a hurry.

    24 hrs is a pretty big disconnect. I don't think had I seen the actual event and then the commercial the next day that I would have put the two together.