“At first I was thinking, ‘Are they kidding?’... and then I was thinking ‘Are they kidding?’.”
When creative agency Neverland
pitched their idea for the newest Ladbrokes advertising campaign, James Kennedy felt like Ivan Drago at the end of ‘Rocky IV’. Knocked for six. Neverland had suggested that the latest iteration of the gaming and gambling brand’s ‘We Play Together’ series would feature Rocky Balboa’s famous training montage from Rocky II - with a huge, diverse crowd of supporters running alongside him, cheering him on.
It was, from the off, an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Working with iconic material brings many challenges - licensing issues, getting the blessing of the star, not to mention the careful craft needed to pull it off. But James was full of fighting spirit.
“I knew I’d be signing up to a hell of a journey with pitfalls at every step, but leaping in my mind to the likely end result, I felt this was going to be epic. I’m a big Rocky fan and to take an icon, the most famous run in movie history and mix it all up? I was all in.”
The campaign follows two previous cavalcades of collective playfulness. ‘Drummers’ saw a nationwide drumroll spread across the land ahead of a vital penalty kick, and ‘Balloon’ saw an innocuous red balloon and some innocent keepy-uppies trigger a cross-city kickabout. It’s all part of the ‘We Play Together’ platform, which has been created to bring new people to the brand.
”The brief was how do we build in our ‘We Play Together’ creative platform, but lean further into the world of entertainment in a bigger, bolder, unexpected way,” says James. “The campaign fits bang in the centre of our broader marketing and commercial strategy, where we’re looking to bring new audiences to Ladbrokes by entertaining them and offering more ways for them to play together with friends across sports and gaming.”
For readers from outside the UK, Ladbrokes is a gaming and gambling brand with significant heritage. It’s been around since 1902, and its bookies have been a familiar presence across the UK’s highstreets for over a century. But as the gaming and sports sector evolves, digital platforms grow and interests diversify. Ladbrokes - which is owned by Entain - needs to find new ways to speak to people.
“Because of that heritage we’re seen as a valued brand, but we need to move with the times and so changing things up in unexpected ways and entertaining our audiences through fun, shared experiences is an exciting new trajectory for the brand,” explains James of the broader business and marketing challenges that this campaign addresses.
This idea of playfulness that’s embedded in that broader brand platform couldn’t be more relevant in a post-lockdown world, particularly in the UK where bad news headlines feel unrelenting. “I think the message of inclusivity and everyone playing together after such a rubbish few years for all of us is exactly what we need right now,” says James about the importance of this messaging right now.
With a clear idea of what the creative needed to achieve, and the explicit strategy of bringing in a bigger audience through entertainment, one thing they couldn’t scrimp on was craft. Maestro commercials director Nicolai Fuglsig and production company MJZ
were joined by post house Selected Works, who were tasked with composting an enthusiastic horde into the well-known scenes - weaving them into the grainy texture of the film. Not to mention the careful music and sound work from 750mph
, tackling Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme, ‘Gonna Fly Now’.
In an age of false efficiency and churning out low-effort content, this idea is one that might have, in lesser hands, been faked. A non-copyrighted, Rocky-esque character, and vaguely similarish, licence-skirting track, shot in a nondescript location would have been cheaper. After all, using original imagery and tracks represents a chunky investment. But as a marketer who has worked at brands like Apple, James says that it wouldn’t have the impact and cut-through without the commitment and follow-through.
“We could have done a hack job on this, but where’s the collective reward and pride in doing that?” he says. “It was really important to the team and for the Ladbrokes brand that we did this as authentically as possible. I mean, this piece of footage is a museum piece, cherished by fans all across the world.If we were going to do this, it had to be done right and involve the best talent. Coming from Apple, I’ve seen what crafting work is all about so it was never in my mind to do anything less than execute this flawlessly and brilliantly.”
The insightful behind-the-scenes film that accompanies the ad reveals the level of care and innovation that’s gone into to revitalising this retro favourite. A cast of hundreds - jockeys, basketball players, gymnasts, drag queens, dancers and more - were brought together and filmed in a Budapest studio. By mapping a 3D virtual space, the team at Selected Works were able to carefully place the new cast into the existing footage. When it came to the epic theme tune, it was re-recorded in the famous Abbey Road studio in London, with a live choir and orchestra and a new spin that brought extra oomph to a classic banger.
And this commitment to craft is seen in the director choice. Nicolai Fuglisg has a reel to envy, and is, of course, the filmmaker behind the beloved Sony Bravia ‘Balls’ spot, not to mention the stylish Guineess ‘Sapeurs’ and playful Coca-Cola ‘It’s Mine’. James is full of praise for Nicolai’s ability to elevate an already ambitious idea.
“Nicolai’s body of work speaks for itself. He’s a world class director with incredible skill and versatility. The pacing of his films are so beautiful and he draws out brilliant performances from people and objects alike. The overriding impact of Nicolai was his infectious energy and absolute obsession with the project. He brought incredible focus, energy and that absolute attention to detail that only master craftsmen can. For that I’m truly grateful.”
This campaign has been a real labour of love and a journey - and for James it has included some real career highpoints. Waiting for sign off from Sylvester Stallone is nerve-wracking stuff.
“There were three brilliant moments for me,” James adds. “The first was hearing that Sylvester Stallone loved the idea while he ate his eggs over breakfast. The second was seeing an edit of the film where Selected Works (our brilliant post production house) had painted out, frame by frame, all the other people along the run. It was Rocky running along the streets all by himself. That was weird but brilliant. The third was seeing the final edit and feeling the hairs lift up on the back of my neck.”
Looking forward, there’s much more to come from this expansive and inclusive ‘World of Play’. It represents a real evolution in Ladbrokes’ marketing, and a stepchange in terms of cohesion and expansiveness. James hints that Rocky is set to show up across all of Ladbrokes’ touchpoints, and that there’s much more fun to be had across this playful sandbox.
“The launch film is part of a much bigger ‘World of Play’,” he says. “From brand films to product films to RG films, Rocky leads the charge all tied together with the brilliant ‘Rocky’ music. All the different characters featured in the film represent our world of sports and gaming, and they continue the story in through-the-line assets that extend to every consumer touchpoint. This will be the most comprehensive and joined-up approach Ladbrokes has ever delivered for its communications, and that’s exciting. We’re also launching a series of new digital and social activations, including Snapchat Lens enabled posters which will bring to life characters from the film and invite users to enter the world of play.”