It’s easy to assume that those that have achieved success in sport have had a burning desire to play from their earliest years, and that they eat, sleep and breathe their chosen game, above all else. Chat to Lawrence Dallaglio though, and it’s clear that this isn’t always the case. “I never meant to be on that journey at all, it just happened,” he says of his (incredibly successful) professional rugby career. “I was in the right place at the right time and thought ‘I’ll give it a bit of a go’.”
This isn’t to say that Dallaglio wasn’t committed – you don’t get to be England captain if you aren’t – but just that it wasn’t necessarily what he expected to happen. “I wouldn’t say rugby got in the way of getting on with my life, but it certainly stopped me from going down a path I might have wanted to follow,” he continues. “When I finished my rugby career, I was like ‘phew, now where were we?’ It took me on that journey and I became completely obsessed – one, with winning, and secondly, with that shared, collective enjoyment of celebrating something together.”
It is this latter point, that sense of being part of a team pushing hard to achieve a mutual goal, that Dallaglio feels he has also found at BBH Sport, BBH’s specialised sports division, where he is a founding partner and has helped produce work for clients including adidas, Samsung and the Rugby World Cup (naturally). “Rugby is the ultimate team game, I’ve always felt that,” he says. “It’s full of people of all different shapes and sizes, backgrounds, everything. And you’re thrown all in together and everyone’s very good at what they do, but in very different ways, and it’s how you come together as a group, and the results you achieve on the back of that, that ultimately define you. And that’s not dissimilar to this type of organisation. Being involved in a sports business is much more natural to me than a couple of other businesses I’ve been involved in since I left rugby.”
Across London, at independent creative agency Pablo, Ben Kay (ex Leicester Tigers and England rugby star) also sees an analogy between the challenges of sport and life in advertising. “It won’t work for everyone, but I think there are a lot of similarities in the ways of thinking,” he says. “Whatever position you play, at some point you have to have a little bit of creativity, you also have to be able to analyse quickly and get to an answer. So I think it is a role that can suit sportspeople. They also tend to be quite good at thriving under pressure.” Kay studied marketing as part of a sport and business degree before his rugby career really took off, and he met Gareth Mercer, Pablo’s founder, while serving as the ‘talent’ in a photo shoot for a Hewlett-Packard sponsorship deal.
“I was at that stage where I was looking ahead to what I might do if everything went wrong,” he says. “I just asked if I could follow him around for a bit. I’m a bit of a geek so with Hewlett-Packard I knew a lot more about the technology than he did so we started helping each other out.”
Kay helped Mercer set up his own agency while he was still playing, and later joined Pablo as a partner. In an industry where ‘authenticity’ is an increasingly prized commodity, Kay brings highly valuable insider knowledge of the real world of professional sport to the agency, alongside the marketing skills he has accrued along the way.
“One of the dangers you have when doing a sports campaign is you try and tap into things that are almost givens in sport, such as ‘passion’,” he says. “It’s very difficult to recreate passion without actually being in that high-pressured environment and it should be a lot deeper than that – it’s finding out what creates the passion.”
“If you’re a sports brand and you sponsor something or you’re involved in a particular sport, I think the best way of getting everyone excited and engaged is being credible, relevant and authentic,” agrees Dallaglio. “In order to do that, you really have to understand sport.”
Dallaglio also developed an opinion about how to successfully connect brands to sports while he was on the talent side, and sometimes wasn’t impressed with the marketing solutions he was presented with. “I’m sat in the room with the agency and the brand and going ‘is this what we’ve come up with? Is that the idea?’ Because actually I know my sport and I’m pretty passionate about it. I was just surprised. I wasn’t pointing the finger, I was just surprised that there wasn’t a level of creative excellence and strategic rigour that you would expect from some of the biggest brands and the so-called best agencies.
“That led me to want to probe a bit deeper and understand what makes a good campaign,” he continues. “If you’re going to invest an amount of money in a sport like Samsung have done with rugby, say, what are the reasons why you’ve done it? What are your objectives as a brand? What are you trying to achieve, who are you trying to reach, how are you trying to reach them? And let’s do it in a credible, authentic and genuine way. If you do that, then I think there is a place for brands in sport, a massive place for them. Sports fans want you as a brand to enhance their experience, they don’t want you to ruin it. And in order to do that, you have to do it in a credible way.”
Both Dallaglio and Kay have of course called upon their extensive contacts lists to help with campaigns, and, in the case of Pablo, to form part of a ‘sports panel’ where ex-professionals including rugby player Tom Croft, cricketer Jimmy Anderson and racing driver Andy Priaulx are on hand to advise and offer insights for brands and campaigns.
The two have also appeared in campaigns produced by their agencies too, with Dallalgio performing in ads for the recent Rugby World Cup and also in a witty series of Samsung ads which see Jack Whitehall (also a friend of Dallaglio’s, it turns out) attempt to learn rugby (see above). Kay recently appeared in a NHS Give Blood campaign alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson, which included a film showing the ex-players talking candidly about their time as England players while donating blood.
The striking campaign implored viewers to ‘Bleed for England’ and was informed by the insight that blood donations tend to drop at the time of major sporting events, because people are distracted. It ran at the start of the Rugby World Cup and had to weather the storm that all sports brands and sponsors are likely to experience at some point: when things don’t turn out quite as hoped.
“Obviously it’s not ideal that England get knocked out halfway through the tournament,” says Kay of the campaign’s association with the England team. “So it’s about finding other ways of keeping the noise despite the disappointment.
“It’s about being able to adapt to the things you can’t foresee but also manage the fact that actually things might go the wrong way. If you’re thinking about how they might go wrong along the way, then even with those unforeseen things you tend to be a bit more agile.”
With their incredible contacts books and hugely valuable insights into professional sport, coupled with an obvious passion for the world of marketing, it’s easy to see why Dallaglio and Kay are fitting so successfully into advertising, however incongruous that might appear on the surface. Plus, as Kay points out, one of the biggest challenges facing ex-sportsmen and women is finding a second career that will provide some of the variety and exhilaration of their first: perhaps the worlds of advertising and marketing can offer this, to a certain extent at least.
“Rugby is such a multi-faceted job that a real fear for me would be sitting behind a desk, crunching numbers, doing the same thing for hours and hours every day,” he says. “There is quite a big group that go into the city, and I think that’s the thrill of the chase, winning big. Whereas for me, the thing that I really liked about rugby was how everything was always so different and that’s what I love about this industry, it’s always a different challenge.”
This feature also appears in CR’s December sport issue which also includes the Photography Annual. Details here