IOC turns to small Vancouver agency to try to win over Olympic skeptics
Last March, as the third wave of COVID-19 swept the world, Ben Hulse and Greg Durrell faced the biggest professional challenge of their careers: how to get people around the world excited for an Olympic Games in the midst of a global pandemic, which should be staged in a country where vaccination rates were dangerously low and resentment towards the event was high?
If that seemed like an impossible task, the two Vancouver men had already beaten the odds once.
After meeting as part of the design team for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, they formed Hulse & Durrell, a boutique graphic design agency, in 2014. Over the years, they have developed a specialty in sport and Olympic branding: contracts for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and a number of national sports federations, as well as a project for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which involved a deep dive into a century of Olympic design history.
All of this prompted the IOC to invite the two in January 2019 to launch a global Olympic campaign that would mark the start of the organization’s shift in marketing tactics.
“Historically, much of the marketing for the Games has been done through broadcasters and investing partners, such as the [Procter & Gambles] of this world and Coca-Colas, to improve their branding proposition, ”said Matt McKie, global marketing manager for the Olympics, in an interview. The IOC envisioned a campaign based on a handful of one- and two-minute films posted on digital platforms that could give them a direct relationship with consumers.
Hulse & Durrell was a black horse. Most of the other nine agencies invited to bid were global giants capable of mobilizing an army of creatives in an instant. But the couple shortlisted three agencies, and in March 2019 they traveled with Derek Kent, the COC’s former marketing director, to Lausanne, Switzerland, to present their vision to a room full of 25. IOC executives.
“We are a small and humble Canadian store,” said Durrell, who is also known as the director of the acclaimed 2018 documentary. Design Canada. “Everything was at our expense and at our expense. We try to put everything we have into the creation and the work that we do. So, you know, we stayed in Airbnbs, we weren’t in the fancy Swiss hotels. We did everything to allow ourselves to throw everything we had in this campaign and leave everything on the field, like the athletes. “
Three weeks later, they learned they had won the auction. “Ben and Greg inherently understand the Olympic movement. They are super passionate and aligned with our vision to make the world a better place through sport, ”said McKie. “They are super creative and have a fantastic eye for emotional communications with consumers. “
Their vision was epic: a series of six anthemic spots on big themes, bringing together a collection of athletes, including emerging tennis phenomenon Naomi Osaka, sprinter Usain Bolt, skateboarder Tony Hawk, former team swimmer. Olympic refugee Yusra Mardini and wrestler. Frank Chamizo Marquez. Over four months, starting in October 2019, the team grew from two to nearly 200 (including editors and visual effects assistants), touring in South Africa, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Jamaica and Melbourne.
They captured moody footage of Hawk and US Olympic skateboarder Nyjah Huston sliding through a neon-lit Los Angeles tunnel; slow-motion shots of Bolt running through the streets of Kingston, followed like Forrest Gump by an ever-growing gang of smiling Jamaican youths; quick services from Osaka; Chamizo Marquez was spinning like a top around an obscure wrestling ring.
In February 2020, Hulse, Durrell and Kent flew to Lausanne to present their first cut of the films. Then, on March 24, three weeks before the start of the first spot, the IOC told them to stop what they were doing: the Tokyo Games were postponed.
At this point, “we’re sitting down to some incredibly strong moments – of Bolt running with the kids, of Tony and Nyjah in the tunnel – not knowing if these things will ever see the light of day,” Durrell said.
In March of this year, the IOC gave Hulse & Durrell new marching orders: rework existing imagery to respond to the current mood of the world.
“The [original] the spots were just incredibly festive, ”said Durrell. “It would have seemed almost deaf to be released into the world after everything we’ve been through.”
Together, Hulse, Durrell and McKie devised a plan to move away from these points of origin and instead focus on the athletes, which McKie said would “humanize them and humanize the [Olympic] movement – and do [the IOC brand] more people-centered.
They co-created the spots with the athletes. “We said, ‘Let’s pass the mic over to Naomi,’ Durrell recalls.
The result was five films, each centered around and narrated by an individual athlete addressing their own fan base. Hawk tells how the skateboarders “considered us a family of misfits, but now the world will call us Olympians”. Osaka recounts a spot, filled with young female athletes – playing baseball, rugby, tennis – in which she says, “I want to inspire the girls out there watching right now.” Bolt says “I’m running for Trelawny” – the parish where he grew up.
A sixth film launched the campaign last month. Almost two minutes long and titled “The World Only Moves When We Move Together”, it begins with news footage of when the Games were postponed, then resumes the athletes training during the games. uncertain months of the pandemic, and slowly interspersed archival footage of Olympians helping each other to the finish line, as it morphs into an opera declaration with Bolt jogging through Kingston, followed by the children: “Alone, we are small. But together we become giants.
“If you look at the percentage of footage that deals with the larger context of our athletes and humanity, compared to the amount of Olympic archives [footage] in this, we strongly bias a message of hope, relativity, solidarity centered on people, ”notes McKie.
“We had to find a story that reflected what the world had been through,” Durrell said. “It was truly the story of a world that never gave up hope and found new ways to progress towards a goal that athletes weren’t even sure would happen.”
“They’re training, they’re working for the moment – and to have this canceled or postponed – but they’ve still dug and found that ability to keep going. “
Since the launch of the campaign, the IOC claims to have measured 250 million impressions, helped in part by athletes promoting it on their social media feeds. Will it make a difference in the way people perceive the Olympics? It couldn’t hurt.