We are the mischief makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams

They’ve sent Dennis Rodman on a basketball diplomacy mission to North Korea, annoyed UEFA with some ‘lucky pants’, upset the LGBT community and supported gay footballers. Just what are the ‘mischief-makers’ of book-maker Paddy Power and its ad agency up to?

The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has a simple philosophy when it comes to its advertising: “We feel it’s our duty to entertain,” explains Harry Dromey, who has the intriguing title of ‘mischief champion’ at the company. Entertainment runs through the core of the brand’s marketing, uniting a wide range of campaigns and messages that range from the cheeky to the bizarre and which, on occasion, have prompted offence and widespread complaint.

This is the brand that outraged UEFA by sponsoring Danish footballer Nicklas Bendtner to wear a pair of ‘Paddy Power Lucky Pants’, which he revealed upon scoring a second goal for Denmark in a match against Portugal in 2012. It’s also the brand that suggested that ‘Chavs’ visiting the racing at Cheltenham should be tranquilised. And it’s the same brand that bemused the world by enlisting basketball eccentric Dennis Rodman, flying him to the Vatican in March to “spread the gospel of Pope betting” by lobbying for Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to be the first black Pope and, more recently, sponsoring a visit to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. The upshot of the latter exercise in ‘basketball diplomacy’ is the announcement of the Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Invitational, an international basketball event taking place in North Korea next January.

Many of these marketing moments reach audiences via the editorial columns of newspapers and blogs, rather than the ad spaces, and Paddy Power has certainly fine-tuned the art of getting people talking, if not always in a positive way. Over the last couple of years, in fact, it feels like barely a month goes by without another Paddy Power story hitting the headlines. It is therefore unsurprising to discover that the betting brand launched their ‘department of mischief’ – the in-house marketing department at the company that works alongside their lead ad agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky in London to create their ads – in 2011.

According to Dromey though, “mischief has been an intrinsic part of the brand ever since we were founded 25 years ago”. “The founding fathers of Paddy Power realised it really chimed with our punters and differentiated us from our dusty old competitors,” he continues. “The Department of Mischief’s formation in late 2011 was about the business formally recognising the key role mischief has played, and will continue to play, in our growth.”

Power to the punter

While it might seem that Paddy Power’s main intention is to create campaigns that entice or outrage the media (this, after all, is something that CP&B in the US has been hugely successful at doing for brands in the past, particularly Burger King), executive creative directors Ben Walker and Matt Gooden at CP&B London stress this is not their sole purpose. “It’s not that we go, ‘what are going to do to attract the media?’,” says Walker. “What underpins Paddy Power is the fact that they want to rock the sporting establishment, they believe in ‘power to the punter’. For us, the tension is that although sports fans are the people that keep sport moving, they don’t have a say in sport whatsoever, and Paddy Power gives them a chance to have their voice. I guess that’s why it might seem like we’re courting controversy but we don’t start everything [with that idea], we start every brief by saying ‘how can we give our punters a voice?'”

This approach is central to the brand’s ongoing Ball of Shame campaign, which sees the bookmaker give football fans free bets and other offers when the players or clubs behave badly or unfairly. These ‘justice payouts’ are part of the brand’s philosophy, a demonstration that the company aims to be more on the side of the punters than the rulemakers. “That’s their product differentiation,” says Walker, “they’ve a sense of justice towards the fans. I think when you’ve got that, it’s only a small leap to say you’re giving the fans a voice, and then it’s how can we do that in an entertaining way?”

And if that upsets the sporting establishment, all the better. “We want the killjoys to have a good moan because our punters love that,” Dromey says. “UEFA have been the best killjoys. Their bonkers response to Bendtner scoring and revealing his Paddy Power Lucky Pants was something to behold [Bentner was fined £80K and banned from participating in one international fixture for breaking UEFA’s strict rules on sponsorship]. Especially when you compare their reaction at the time to some racist behaviour by fans that got a smaller penalty.”

In order to fully engage with what fans are saying about sport, Paddy Power and CP&B have become adept at using social media to both talk to their customers and to get ideas for marketing campaigns (the ‘Chavs’ ad was supposedly created in direct response to a remark on a social media site, for example), as well as for different bets and products to offer their customers. While many brands struggle to get to grips with how to use social media successfully, Paddy Power has made it intrinsic to the way it operates, both in its marketing and its business. “We are entirely fueled by what our punters are interested in,” says Dromey. “This helps build an affinity between punters and the brand. It serves nobody to have a conversation with our own arse. We tend to join and enhance conversations as opposed to create them. Social media is incredibly important to us for a few reasons. Our punters are social media animals. It allows us to quickly find out what punters are interested in and quickly join conversations. We are the clear market leader in this area, with over one million Facebook fans and over 200,000 Twitter followers.”

In order to make social media work for them, Paddy Power demands quick, responsive advertising from CP&B, alongside more in-depth, planned campaigns. “There are different levels of projects,” says Gooden. “There’ll be longer term projects, where they’ll be looking for a bigger campaign or thought and then there’s very much hit-and-run style things, or stuff that’s very topical and of the moment. Things pop up and they’ll be on the phone saying, ‘wow, this has just happened, let’s do something’, and they’ll want to see ideas in 24 hours.”

“I like it,” says Walker of this fast style of working. “I think it’s good. I think you have to think in a slightly different way – 20 years ago we’d sit down and we’d craft things for months and months; I think the Paddy Power world isn’t quite the same as that, it gets you thinking a lot quicker on your feet. At the moment, for our Ball of Shame campaign, we’ve got people working throughout the weekend to make sure that if something happens in the football that weekend we’re ready to go on the Monday…. Once a story’s happened … if you miss the boat, if you’re more than a day late you might as well not bother doing anything.”

“The best bit about it is you’re joining the conversation,” agrees Gooden, “the debate that’s going on anyway, you’re being part of it, so if you can react quickly it does have a value, without a doubt.”

Perhaps inevitably, with this way of working, Paddy Power’s advertising has occasionally run into problems. Alongside the Chavs ad, which was banned, the most obvious example of this was another Cheltenham Festival spot, Ladies Day from 2012, which featured transgendered women and somewhat tastelessly invited racing fans to spot the “stallions from the mares”. The ASA received over 400 complaints and subsequently banned it too. Paddy Power was bullish about the ban, saying that it had consulted with UK transgender group The Beaumont Society in making the ad who, according to the bookmaker, “said there was ‘nothing untoward with the advert concept’.”

According to The Guardian, however, The Beaumont Society later claimed that the script it saw did not include certain scenes used in the TV ad and that it was ‘not happy’ with the manner in which some phrases such as ‘stallions’ and ‘mares’ were used. Talking of the episode now, Gooden expresses some regret. “We really didn’t want to offend people but we kind of got it a bit wrong, to be honest, it wasn’t meant to be a nasty piece of work,” he says.

For Dromey, controversy inevitably comes with the territory of being a Paddy Power ‘mischief-maker’. “One of the reasons punters love ‘mischief’ is because it’s close to crossing the line. Sometimes we accidentally cross the line and, when this happens, we hold our hands up but there is no point in beating ourselves up. Being boring is the worst crime we could commit,” he claims.

In a move that perhaps wrongfooted some of its critics, Paddy Power recently used its talent for provocation in a more positive way. In September it launched its Rainbow Laces campaign, in collaboration with Stonewall, which saw the brand send pairs of rainbow-coloured laces to every professional footballer in Britain, who were encouraged to wear them in support of gay footballers. In a sport that has no out gay players, it was a serious political point, and received widespread acclaim.

The odd serious moment aside, Paddy Power’s marketing is mostly about making headlines that will cause sports fans and beyond to chuckle. Their ads may not be particularly elegant or subtle, but then neither is the product they are promoting. Instead they are quick-witted and of the moment, and undoubtedly make the brand stand out. Next year will likely bring yet more shenanigans, starting with Rodman’s attempts at diplomacy between the US and North Korea via the medium of basketball. Twitter trending undoubtedly awaits.


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