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."