Your Shot: How Smart Branded Content Is Winning AIB a Year-round Audience
In 2015, Irish agency Rothco and its client Allied Irish Bank (AIB) produced a one-off TV documentary in support of AIB’s sponsorship of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Club Championships. The project, entitled ‘The Toughest Trade’, marked a genuine example of the kind of branded content that much of the advertising and marketing industries are debating right now, and was such a resounding success that it’s returned this year as a two-part documentary on Ireland’s biggest TV channel RTÉ2.
The Toughest Trade sees two professional sports stars swap lives with two amateur GAA athletes, meaning the professionals have to deal with balancing the gruelling requirements of the GAA as well as a full-time day job. This year sees Ashes-winning England cricketer Steve Harmison replacing Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher, who takes up a position in the Adelaide Strikers cricket team. Ex-Miami Dolphin Roberto Wallace is also heading to the Breaffy Gaelic Football GAA Club in place of amateur Aidan O’Shea who’s crossing the Atlantic to play American football.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with AIB Brand Director Brian Keating and Rothco Account Director Jimi McGrath about taking an even bigger plunge with The Toughest Trade in 2016.
LBB> There’s a lot of talking in adland about creating content that people actually want to see instead of being disruptive and shoving it under their noses – but there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of doing. I feel you’ve done that with The Toughest, though. As a brand, what pushed you to go for an idea like this? And as an agency, how was it for Rothco to make a piece of work like this?
Jimi McGrath> Let’s go back a bit to give some background to the story. AIB has sponsored the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] Club Championships for more than 20 years. Funnily enough, when AIB first approached us, they were looking at all their sponsorships and debating keeping this one or not. Awareness of it was very low, especially from a media point of view. In Ireland other sports got all the attention – the soccer when they were successful, the rugby team when they were successful. Even with regards to the GAA, the club competition didn’t get a lot of attention, it was all about the county All-Ireland Championships which is the big competition over the summer that gets sell-out games and quite a lot of interest.
When we first started researching the Club Championships, we realised just how difficult it is to win. We spoke to some of the top GAA players in Ireland who all had a lot of success with their county, but admitted they would never have won the Club Championships. It’s a knockout competition and you might have to win 10, 11, 12 games in a row to win it, and those games are played over the winter months, which in Ireland is very harsh. Meanwhile, they are amateur players so they’re doing their day jobs in between all of this. These players are giving a lot physically, mentally, emotionally, week after week. That’s where The Toughest was born. From this idea that of all competitions, of all sports, this is the toughest to win.
LBB> How was it for you, Brian, as the client, to produce a piece of work like this, as opposed to, say, a 30-second spot?
Brian Keating> We re-launched the whole competition from being very much a family, community thing which was quite soft, to being actually about the game and how harsh and grimy it was. In fact, we almost glorified the fact that it was in the winter to really accentuate the players’ hero-like status. We did ads and content around that but we really wanted an all-year round conversation happening and we, as an advertiser, would never be able to afford traditional advertising like that. And let’s be honest, traditional methods were never going to be agile enough to keep the conversation going with sports fans. They crave commentary every day.
So we decided to make this whole thing about compelling content. But it was one thing telling people how tough the competition was, we really had to prove it and prove how GAA stars could compete globally.
So I think from my perspective as a client, yes there was that nervous moment, absolutely, because it was a big investment for us. To be honest, we didn’t really tell a lot of people within the organisation, we kept it almost as our secret because we wanted it to be as impactful as possible.
LBB> You’ve enlisted stars from the Premier League, the NFL, MLB etc. How did you approach these stars?
JM> That was a really long process. It had to involve top players in world sports to really prove our point and garner the interest we wanted. We approached every club in the Premier League and didn’t get a huge amount of traction there, we dropped down a league, dropped down another league, we looked into Scotland as well. In the end what happened was a contact of ours at Sunderland got us in touch with their CEO Margaret Byrne. She fell in love with the idea when we presented it to her, perhaps helped along by the fact she’s Irish! But the big thing for her was that we could produce this show in a way that didn’t interrupt their season, that didn’t interrupt their manager’s plans with the first team squad. Also Sunderland as a club are looking to break into the American market – they’ve just done a deal with DC United in Washington – so when they heard that one of the players in the swap was going to be a Major League Baseball star, she was really interested in how she could then take that content and present it to the States.
BK> It’s important to note that we didn’t jump on the first four players we had the opportunity to get. We could have gone for some Premier League players who could have got us some big laughs; the Premier League player comes to Ireland and milks the cows, etc. We could have taken that route but we absolutely decided we wanted people that would be up for the challenge to really see if they could hack the amateur environment and juggle that sport-work balance.
In fairness to David Bentley and Brian Schneider, our pros in year one, they certainly didn’t do it for the money, they did it because they really wanted to take part in this sporting challenge, to see how they would fare both in sporting and cultural terms. In year two it was much easier to get people involved because we had a track record.
LBB> Logistically, this is a whole different beast to a thirty second ad or a three-minute online film. How was it for you guys to organise this whole thing across many continents and time zones, and over a longer period of time?
JM> It’s very different, true, but what is the same is that the creative idea stayed at the heart of it. From a production point of view, it’s all about taking the right people for the team. So within Rothco we picked Laura Ellis as lead producer because she has a background in TV production. As account manager there was me, and I have a keen interest in sport, as does Patrick Ronaldson who headed strategy and Rob Murray who headed creative. It was really about us working closely with the production company, Motive, who came highly recommended to us, and ensuring that at every point, what we were shooting was right for the documentary.
BK> I think one of the big things is that you have to be far more agile. You do not know what’s going to come out of it, whereas to some extent with a thirty-second ad, you sign off the storyboards and then almost just see how it’s brought to life by the director. Whereas with this, you have to work far closer together because the story will definitely deviate along the way and something magic can come out of that deviation. That has actually happened during both years we’ve done this.
LBB> How long did you shoot for? And how much of the shoot were you both able to be on?
JM> Each test was a week long and this year there was a week in Australia, a week in the States, and then in Ireland there were two weeks, a week in County Tipperary and a week in County Mayo as well. So it was four weeks shooting in total. In terms of how much we got to, we probably got to about three of the four weeks because the week in Mayo crossed over with the week in the United States, in Houston. Unfortunately Brian and I got Mayo!
LBB> What kind of reaction have you had to the project both as a brand and as an agency?
BK> From a brand perspective the reaction has been phenomenal. We’ve gone from being a second tier sponsorship in Ireland to, for the last two years, being voted number one sponsor in Ireland for any sporting event. That’s ahead of international rugby and international soccer. I think the winning thing for all of us is it hasn’t been solely about AIB, it’s about the people that go along to watch on cold winter nights, the people that give up so much time and effort to play. That really taps into our customer first strategy. I think not slapping our brand all over it has really changed the game in the Irish market for partnerships and sponsorships.
JM> From our side, as the agency, it’s gone down really well. I’ve had a couple of calls already this week from other advertising agencies looking to talk to me about the project. But interestingly enough I got a couple of calls from two other brands who are looking to meet up with me in the next couple of weeks just to have a chat about the experience, how we did it, how we brought that idea to life. That wouldn’t happen if other people in the industry weren’t looking at it and being impressed by the work that we produced.
LBB> Did you produce extra content around the documentary?
JM> There was a really strong social campaign around The Toughest Trade this year. As we were out there shooting the documentary itself, we were very much on hand to shoot extra content which was only shared through our own social channels. We knew from the success of last year that the audience was really looking for more in terms of this style of programming. So for us to be able to get that extra content from the guys shooting it, sending it back from abroad to the team in Ireland, who would then brand it and release it through our social channels, that was the approach that really worked for us on this.
BK> To give you a flavour of the success of that, three years ago for a full 12 months we would have had only 32,000 views on AIB content. This year we’re trending to 10million, last year 7million. It just shows that if you have great content, consumers will watch it. And that’s the challenge. The minute you drop your standards, they stop watching.
LBB> The sports stars that you got in for the project, did they take to it well, did they get stuck in properly?
JM> Yeah very much so. Last year the soccer player we got involved was David Bentley who used to play with Arsenal and Spurs. He talked about how he left the game when he was in his late twenties, went off and played for a Russian club for a while and then just gave it up all together. He said he fell out of love with the sport. When David Bentley came over and played, we interviewed him at the end and he spoke about how much he enjoyed it and that it reminded him of why he fell in love with soccer and why you would fall in love with a sport like that. He also that said by coming over here and having the week playing GAA it made him want to lace his boots up again and go back to playing.
BK> We actually spoke with him recently and he told us that some of the amateur team mates he played with actually came over to Spain to stay with him, which shows that he actually did, even in a short week, create some really long term bonds.
JM> Our NFL player this year was a guy called Roberto Wallace who played with the Miami Dolphins. He just couldn’t get over the amateur level of it and the amount of dedication that these players give to the sport, and yet they wake up every morning and go off to their day job. He couldn’t believe it. He spoke a lot about the NFL over in America and how they all love their sport but it’s big money, it’s a big money industry and the love for the money can take over the love for the game. He kept saying the same thing to the GAA players – never change it, never look for money in this sport, keep the amateur status of it and keep the love going for it. He wouldn’t change it for the world.
LBB> How did the players in Ireland take to the whole project?
JM> They loved it. What an amazing experience to take an amateur player and put him not only into the sport, but the lifestyle of professional sports stars. But I think it was really important how they were viewed when they took on the other sport. We had a Gaelic footballer who went over and played Premier League football and pretty much made it to their level of elite athleticism. Our cricketer did that in Australia, as did our footballer in the NFL, and our hurler in the MLB. What was brilliant, and I think this was a real strength in the show, is that none of our players let themselves down. Every professional coach was saying that these guys were phenomenal athletes and, maybe given more time, they could have made it professional. For an amateur player to hear that, you can imagine how rewarding that is.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
BK> From a brand perspective it really puts the brand at the centre of the conversation and gives you an opportunity to have that conversation 365 days a year. We needed to be far more agile and less structured, so we were definitely seen as more humane and I think we were able to have a completely different tone of voice from what you’d normally have as a bank. That was really important to us.
Category: Banking , Finance/insurance