Last March, as the third wave of COVID-19 washed across the globe, Ben Hulse and Greg Durrell grappled with the greatest professional challenge of their career: How to get people around the world excited about an Olympic Games amid a global pandemic, set to be staged in a nation where vaccination rates were dangerously low and resentment toward the event was high?
If it seemed an impossible task, the two men from Vancouver had already beaten the odds once.
After meeting on the design team for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, they formed Hulse & Durrell, a boutique graphic design agency, in 2014. Over the years, they developed a specialty in sport and Olympic branding: contracts for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and a number of national sport federations, as well as a project for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that involved a deep dive into a century’s worth of Olympic design history.
All of which prompted the IOC to invite the pair in January, 2019, to pitch for a global Olympic campaign that would mark the beginning of the organization’s shift in marketing tactics.
“Historically, lots of the marketing for the Games has happened through broadcasters and through partners that invest, like the [Procter & Gambles] of this world and the Coca-Colas, to enhance their brand proposition,” said Matt McKie, head of global marketing for the Olympics, in an interview. The IOC envisioned a campaign built on a handful of slick one- and two-minute films posted on digital platforms that could give them a direct relationship with consumers.
Hulse & Durrell was a dark horse. Most of the other nine agencies invited to bid were global giants that could summon an army of creatives in an instant. But the pair made the shortlist of three agencies, and in March, 2019, they travelled with Derek Kent, the former chief marketing officer of the COC, to Lausanne, Switzerland, to pitch a roomful of 25 IOC executives on their vision.
“We’re a small and humble Canadian shop,” said Durrell, who is also known as the director of the acclaimed 2018 documentary Design Canada. “It was all at our own expense and at our own dime. We try to put everything we have into the creative, and the work we do. So, you know, we stayed in Airbnbs, we weren’t in the lavish Swiss hotels. We did everything to just allow us to throw everything we had at this campaign, and leave it all on the field, like the athletes.”
Three weeks later, they learned they’d won the bid. “Ben and Greg inherently understand the Olympic movement. They are super-passionate, and aligned with our vision of making the world a better place through sport,” said McKie. “They’re super creative, and they have a fantastic eye for emotive consumer-facing communications.”
Their vision was epic: a series of six anthemic spots on grand themes, cutting together a collection of athletes including the rising tennis phenom Naomi Osaka, sprinter Usain Bolt, skateboarder Tony Hawk, the former Refugee Olympic Athletes Team swimmer Yusra Mardini, and the wrestler Frank Chamizo Marquez. Over four months, beginning in October, 2019, the crew expanded from two to almost 200 (including editors and visual effects wizards), shooting in South Africa, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Jamaica, and Melbourne.
They captured moody footage of Hawk and the U.S. Olympic skateboarder Nyjah Huston gliding 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 youth; whip-fast Osaka serves; Chamizo Marquez spinning like a top around a dim 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 first spot was set to debut, the IOC told them to stop what they were doing: the Tokyo Games were postponed.
At that point, “we’re sitting on some incredibly strong moments – of Bolt running with the kids, of Tony and Nyjah in the tunnel – not knowing if these things are ever going to see the light of day,” said Durrell.
In March of this year, the IOC gave Hulse & Durrell new marching orders: rework the existing footage to meet the current mood of the world.
“The [original] spots were just incredibly celebratory,” said Durrell. “It would have felt almost tone-deaf, to be released into the world after everything we’ve been through.”
Together, Hulse, Durrell and McKie drew up a plan to pivot hard from those original spots and instead focus on the athletes, which McKie said would “humanize them and humanize the [Olympic] movement – and make [the IOC brand] more people-centric.”
They would co-create the spots with the athletes. “We said, ‘Let’s pass the mic to Naomi,’” recalled Durrell.
The result was five films, each focused on and narrated by an individual athlete speaking to their own fan base. So Hawk tells a tale of how skateboarders “used to see ourselves as a family of misfits, but now the world will call us Olympians.” Osaka narrates a spot, filled with young female athletes – playing baseball, rugby, tennis – in which she declares, “I want to inspire the girls out there, watching right now.” Bolt says that “I run for Trelawny” – the parish where he grew up.
A sixth film kicked off the campaign last month. Running almost two minutes long and titled “The world only moves forward when we move together,” it begins with news footage of the moment the Games were postponed, then picks up on the athletes training through the uncertain months of the pandemic, and slowly intercuts archival footage of Olympians helping each other to the finish line, as it builds to an operatic declaration with Bolt jogging through Kingston, trailed by the kids: “Alone, we are small. But together, we become giants.”
“If you look at the percentage of footage which is about the broader context of our athletes and humanity, versus the amount of Olympic archive [footage] in there, we’re skewing heavily on a people-centric message of hope, of relatability, of solidarity,” notes McKie.
“We had to come up with a story that was reflective of what the world had been through,” said Durrell. “It was really a story of a world that never gave up hope, and finding new ways to push toward a goal that athletes weren’t even sure was going to happen.”
“They train, they work for this moment – and to have that cancelled, or postponed – yet they still dug down and found that ability to keep going.”
Since the campaign kicked off, the IOC says it has measured 250-million impressions, helped in part by the athletes promoting it on their social media feeds. Will it make a difference to the way people feel about the Olympics? It couldn’t hurt.