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The Influencers

5 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Professional Surfers

DDB EMEA, 2 weeks, 4 days ago

INFLUENCER: Anneli Rispens, Director of Content & Social Media at DDB Europe, Middle East and Africa, on riding the waves of marketing

5 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Professional Surfers

The pressure on marketers to perform in an environment where change is the only constant can be overwhelming. Technologies, platforms, formats and functions emerge and dissolve like waves in the ocean. As a marketer you can’t control the waves, but you can learn how to surf. Like a surfer you need to learn how to read the ocean to increase the likelihood of catching the wave that will take you all the way to the shore. And who to better teach you how to surf the waves of marketing than the pros? 

This week high performance collided with hang loose at the Surf Summit in Ericeira. One of the 21 Summits of Europe’s largest (50,000 attendees) tech conference, Web Summit in Lisbon. Connecting leading brands, agencies and content creators to start-ups, entrepreneurs, techies and… surfers. As one of 300 participants I had the opportunity to sit down with surfing champions Garrett McNamara (USA), Tiago Pires (Portugal), Anastasia Ashley (USA), Andrew Cotton (UK) and Hugo Vau (Portugal) to learn how to prepare for the unknown.  


Lesson 1: Forecast 

Just like marketing, surfing is part planning part adapting. There are factors that can make or break your surf that you can influence or prepare for. This goes beyond eating healthy, getting enough sleep and doing a proper warm-up before entering the water. “Just like in any business we rely partially on forecasting,” says world record holder and big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. “We watch the weather report to know which storm created the wave. Then when we see the waves coming our instincts take over and we rely on the specialisms in the team. In Nazaré (Portugal) we have a well-oiled machine. There are people on the cliff with walkie-talkies, three to four people on the water, one surfer and three jet skis, one tow, one safety, one backup safety." Age 49, he has 38 years’ experience as a professional surfer to rely on. “The older you get, the more you get sensitised, you don’t get scared anymore and can rely on instinct. There is a fluke, there is luck, but experience and preparation will persevere.”


Lesson 2: Find your dot on the horizon 

Although the surfing community has the reputation of going with the flow, to make it as a pro you need to set clear goals just like in any other career. Switching from plumber to pro for team Red Bull Andrew Cotton is more focused than ever. “I have two or three main objectives for a year. But I wake up every morning with a clear goal in mind for the day. My goals are broken down in smaller units that I can practice to help me achieve my larger objective. if you want to progress in your paddle surfing you need to consciously decide to not do something else like towing that takes you away from reaching your objective."


Lesson 3: Be agile 

With over one million followers on Instagram Anastasia Ashley is not only a pro in surfing but also in marketing. On a daily basis she applies the learnings of surfing to her own social media. “Surfing forces you to deal with unpredictable elements. It’s one of the few sports where the court on which you play is constantly changing." Surfing has taught her to quickly adapt and being alert to changes in her surroundings. “When it comes to my own content marketing strategy I try to focus on tomorrow's trends and predict what’s going to be big in about six months. I love it that everything moves in a daily cycle on social media. You get an instant sense whether something is successful or not. This gives me the opportunity to constantly try out new things and see what sticks. I don’t like to do the same thing every day. I like to get out of my comfort zone in marketing like I did throughout my surfing career as well.” Already proven successful in both surfing and marketing, it takes away some of the pressure and allows her to have a more playful approach. 


Lesson 4: Passion builds persistence  

Surfing is all consuming. To be successful in surfing your whole world needs to revolve around the surf. Where you live, when you eat, sleep, breathe is dictated by the ocean. Sometimes you wake up at the crack of dawn to be the first in the water and on other days you ride your last wave into the sunset. This lifestyle can only be sustained by those who are passionate and love what they do. As the first and only Portuguese surfer to do the World Tour Tiago Pires thanks his success to a combination of passion and determination. “There are so many hard days in the office. But passion is what builds persistence. If you love something, you don’t want to stop. No matter the challenges you’re facing or the number of times you get shut down. Everybody will deal with defeat. No one is successful every day of their lives. To be able to suffer defeat and climb back up is one of the best human traits.”


Lesson 5: Don’t lose a lesson 

Every beginning surfer will have to set their ego aside when experiencing the force of mother nature. Hugo Vau, a former fisherman who spends most of his days on the Azores, loves the healing his soul gets from being overpowered and experiencing a total lack of control: “If you’re not humble in the ocean. The ocean will teach you a lesson in humility.” What helps him is to keep a playful and curious mind-set and look for the teachings in every wipe-out, or as he and his fellow surfers like to call it, the “underwater ride”. “The experience of feeling very small can help you grow as a person." It’s important to realise that the moments when you fail are opportunities for growth. “Don’t lose a lesson. Analysing and learning from your mistakes makes you a more complete and better person.” 

Surfing and marketing are very different in many ways. But a week spent at Surf- and Web - Summit taught me there are also a lot of parallels connecting these two worlds. Like the importance of planning and learning from past experience to increase future success. Setting clear long-term objectives while measuring performance on a daily basis. We have heard it over and over how important it is to define your 'why' as a brand. Knowing where you’re going, what your True North is and following that with passion and persistence will prevent you from getting side tracked.  When you combine this focus with a playful and curious mentality and don’t shy away from experimentation you can stay ahead of the competition. Set aside a little bit of your time, money and other resources for pilots and invest in emerging platforms and technologies. As long as you find fulfilment in any potential outcome, positive or negative and take learnings to optimise, you never really lose.  


From left to right: Tiago Pires, Garret McNamera, Hugo Vau, Anstasia Ashley, Andrew Cotton



Anneli Rispens is Head of Social at DDB Europe