David Rielly, (GCD at space.camp, an independent agency within the a.network), shares his thoughts on the state of the world, creative and sports as Gary Goodman’s guest columnist this week. 

Thank you to Gary and AList for inviting me aboard. Long-time reader, first-time columnist. 😉

As easy as it would be for me to stay inside my wheelhouse and riff on tech, or toys or gaming, what my eyeballs have been drawn to lately is the wide and reimagined world of sports.

In the grand scheme of things this particular insight doesn’t measure up to the cultural reckoning of BLM or the far-reaching ravages of COVID-19, but I suspect I’m not alone in seeing my relationship to sports in a new light.

The sports dominoes fell swiftly in March, from the suspension of the NBA regular season, to the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness to MLB pulling the plug halfway through Spring Training.

And while there was no shortage of shows and movies to stream to steer ourselves away from the nightmare of the news, millions of sports fans began to feel an unscratchable itch without a single new game to watch.

The record-breaking ratings of ESPN’s The Last Dance showed I was not alone. Even though sports fans of a certain age knew how it ended, the dramatic twists, turns and revelations of Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls was as close as we could get to “new.” 

After a four-month absence, we started to see MLB, the NBA, pro tennis and more come back. And despite having no fans in the stands, watching these games has restored a rhythm to daily life that was sorely missed. 

Like many people, the only time I watch ads on TV is for live programming like sports, so I’ve definitely over-indexed here lately. So with that in mind, here are three campaigns that have made an impression on me as a viewer, but also as a marketer.

NBA: “Whole New Game”

It’s no secret that purpose-driven brands tend to break through and resonate with audiences in ways that create long-lasting affinity. But what happens when that purpose is one of the most polarizing movements of our time?

From a marketing perspective, the NBA’s “Whole New Game” campaign for the seeding games and playoffs held in the “The Bubble” (aka the ESPN Wide World of  Sports Complex at the Disney World resort in Orlando) referred to the dramatic changes required to keep the season going. But no fans also meant new access to the games themselves, as camera rigs were free to roam the sidelines without fear of obstructing the view.

Why it matters: From the player perspective, though, that new view was also a platform for the league and the players to support Black Lives Matters. Not only was the court itself emblazoned with BLM, but players were allowed to choose from a series of messages such as Vote, Say Their Names, I Can’t Breathe and more as a way to use their platform to send social justice messages to viewers.

Anecdotally speaking, the seeding games leading up to the beginning of the playoffs were marked by incredible intensity on and off the court. And as the playoffs began, and new stars were minted in the glare of the spotlight, the in-game interstitials on TNT and ESPN began to combine the ferocity of the competitive spirit with the urgency of the BLM messaging.

The details: The result was the overwhelming sense that the NBA playoffs were being marketed as a cultural event more than a sporting event. I won’t go into parsing the ratings, which can be viewed through different lenses as a success or a let-down, but they did draw the attention of President Trump which further stoked the flames. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, escalated the on-court drama even further, as the Milwaukee Bucks collectively decided that they could and would not play their first-round game against Orlando, which quickly cascaded into an NBA-wide walkout.

A Whole New Game indeed.

Bud Light: “Beer Vendor”

Let’s shift gears into something a bit more light-hearted, but also indicative of how the sports and advertising landscape has changed.

As a bit of a beer snob, I wouldn’t knowingly drink a Bud Light, but there was something striking about the sight of a stadium beer vendor walking alone through a suburban street hawking his wares. With a series of vignettes centered around a surprisingly relatable character, Bud Light created a fresh take on the spokesman while striking a chord in all of us who remember what our jobs used to feel like… and how much they’ve changed so much in such a short time. And in doing so, they’ve earned a newfound affinity for a brand that’s tended towards the zany and sophomoric.

Why it matters: Getting the tone “right” has been an evolving situation in the pandemic. As heartfelt and important as the early-days trend of “let’s stop the spread” and “we’re in this together”, there was a limit to how much plaintive piano we could take. Humor was inevitable, but it had to be a nuanced take.

Hearing “Even-though-you-can’t-go-to-the-game-doesn’t-mean-the-game-can’t-be-brought-to- you” delivered in the fast-talking high-register shout of a beer vendor acknowledges the pandemic, while slyly offering you a solution to your thirst that may not have been top of mind.

The details: The spot’s CTA asks you to go to BudLight.com/Delivery, which takes you to a landing page that makes it easy to have Bud Light shipped to you with Amazon PrimeNow… because 2020.

The production solution is also a great fit for the current challenges facing live-action shoots. There is only one on-camera talent, and you can bet they collected enough material on their shoot day for a nice suite of vignettes and social content. As a tertiary read, it feels like a savvy way to normalize the new product Bud Light Seltzer as something that of course beer drinking sports fans would be sipping as they watch the game.

I’m betting we’ll be seeing plenty more spots with the high-level conceit of nostalgia for the way we were cold-filtered through the challenges of the time we’re in.

TikTok “It Starts on TikTok”

As a tennis fan watching as much of the US Open as possible, I considered diving into the hypothesis that sponsoring brands for this sport had not yet found a way to tap into the current zeitgeist.

But as I watched Serena’s quest for Slam #24 fall tantalizingly short once again, I was surprised to see a :60 for TikTok. Those who follow the sport may find this ad-buy surprising as well, as tennis audiences are usually perceived as older fuddy-duddies, with most commercial breaks peddling IBM’s Watson and various high-end retirement solutions.

Why it matters: But when I saw the “It Starts on TikTok” spot, I felt a breath of fresh air blow through the telecast. Diversity is so critical to everything we do as marketers, but as a sometimes-cynic, I feel that I can spot where it is forced and where it is authentic.

This spot blew me away with its authenticity, its energy, and its positivity. Embedded in its message is a nod to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and the simple joys of self-expression and stepping outside your comfort zone. Not to mention the user-friendly mechanics of getting views and likes.

The details: As Gary and I have discussed many times in our decade-plus as collaborators and co-conspirators in the a.network, you can’t overestimate the power of a good music track to create a receptive mood.

“Sing to Me,” a sweet and twinkling duet between Walter Martin and Karen O, underscores the warm and fuzzy collective of talent arrayed across the widest and most inclusive spectrum of humanity a :60 could possibly hold. 

I also appreciated that the mix of TikTokers featured was a blend of famous, influential and everyday users. It’s hard to think of an app with as much chatter around it as Tik Tok, and it’s very savvy of them to present their mission of limitless self-expression as a way to control the narrative.

Coming full circle to the sports analogy, this spot encapsulates what I continue to be drawn to. The unscripted, the unpredictable, the magic and drama of real life, all captured, interpreted and curated to forge a new style of connection. 

It’s hard to think of a year that’s gone off-script more than 2020 has. When advertising content captures unscripted presence and expression in a moment, our guard is lowered and the key marketing messages become much harder to ignore.