After a long, dry year for sports fans, it has been go go go, with the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and Tokyo Olympics finally arriving, the Winter Olympics in Beijing only six months away, and the next Fifa World Cup also taking place next year in Qatar.
But despite the continued flood of money into sport and its rapidly growing global audience, brands are failing to make the most of the opportunity. That’s according to Rachid Ahouiyek and Henry Scotland, the former executive creative directors at Iris, who alongside former Iris managing director Nico Tuppen, have launched Homeground – a new sports agency that aims to authentically capitalise on the huge importance that sport plays in the lives of fans, through a creatively led approach.
On Friday, Homeground unveiled its debut work for one of the giants of the sports world, Adidas, with a stylish animated film launching Manchester United’s latest away kit. It follows in the footsteps of films the team created at Iris for Arsenal’s kit launch, also for Adidas, in 2019.
“We felt like it [the Arsenal work] moved on the idea of what launching a new shirt [means],” Ahouiyek tells Campaign.
“It used to be just like a tiny little moment in a brand or club’s season and now it's like they build their whole season around it. Again it goes back to what the fans really valued… it’s what the shirt represents, so when you launch a new shirt, it's a chance to rejuvenate, reinspire, reboot your club. If they suck, we need to address the 'suckage', and figure out how we can get to somewhere better at the end of it.”
There is no shortage of agencies catering to the huge market for sports marketing, but according to Ahouiyek and Scotland, brands are failing to grasp the real opportunity in front of them.
“Brands really underestimate how important sport is in [their audience’s] lives, so that goes all the way from how important their club is to them, and just how much they love their running shoes, to everything in between,” Ahouiyek says.
“They don't really get that these people are not like popular consumers – they know more about your product or service than you do. They are in love with their sport, their passion, whether it's as a fan or an athlete. They are this different kind of animal and I just don't see much work servicing that passion authentically, or really paying homage or respecting it, frankly.”
Scotland points to the huge money being spent by fans on NBA Top Shot, the basketball league’s NFT (non-fungible token) brand, which allows fans to “own” the video of classic moments from the sport. In April, a Top Shot “moment” of a slam dunk by LeBron James sold for $400,000.
“What this creates is a kind of a perfect storm,” Scotland says. “I think it's easy for the sports industry to become slightly obsessed with itself. And actually, filling the media space which is thrown up from rights deals, rather than taking a step back and thinking: how could we make a real statement here which means something to people?”
The Mother of sports agencies, not the mother of all sports agencies
Homeground currently has six permanent staff and works with six to eight freelancers, based across the UK and globally. Setting up during the pandemic has presented an opportunity to get people that “are nothing like each other" working together, Ahouiyek says – including within creative teams.
He believes the industry as a whole is not paying enough attention to socio-economic diversity, which, he adds, “creatively, yields way more dividends... You can have people from all kinds of different backgrounds racially, but they could all be really boring. Where does that get you?
“We were trying to be, like, we need to get that writer from Newcastle and have him work with that art director from Portugal. The art director has a kind of snotty, highfalutin photographer background, and the writer from Newcastle is just a regular working-class lad, as am I. But the two of them together, that friction is, I think, what gets you the gold.”
The team is not aspiring to rapid growth, Scotland adds. “We want to do it right. Again, because we're not starting up as 28-year-olds, we want to kind of set our stall really carefully, and the romantic vision is that we would get known to be right for stuff, and not right for [other] stuff.”
Creatively, though, Homeground has serious intentions. “You don't go to Mother for dull work, if you don't want to be challenged,” Ahouiyek says, referring to the creatively revered independent agency, to which Homeground is not connected. So do they aim to be in the same bracket as Mother? “Not in starting scale, but in the consistent quality of their value.”
Homeground wants to offer “that classic thing where you know what you might get”, even if “knowing what you're going to get is that you're not going to know what you're going to get”, Scotland adds, in an intriguing pitch that somewhat calls to mind the famous words of the late US politician Donald Rumsfeld.
“But the point is you kind of have a sense of what that organisation is going to give you. Like a kind of editorial policy – that's what we'd love to try and curate, rather than talking about how big or how broad, or how geographically spread we're going to be.”
Much of the discussion around the recent Euro 2020 tournament focused on the decision of the England team to take the knee before matches, the backlash from reactionary sections of society and the racist abuse levelled at some players following England’s defeat to Italy in the final. That depressing moment led brands, including ITV and BT, to launch work expressing solidarity with the players. Do the Homeground founders think this is the sort of thing brands need to do more of?
“Everyone complicates the answer to that question so unnecessarily,” Ahouiyek says, a little wearily. “If it's right for the brand, yes, why not, because it's a truth in culture. But I think you have to have the right or be in the right space to be able to do that.
“We've got stuff pending that is pretty gnarly in terms of addressing those kinds of things. We've told brands that they shouldn't do that stuff, because you're not the brand to be able to say those kinds of things. And we've urged other clients to go after that kind of stuff, because you are in the right place to do that – your audience, they want that from you, they'll accept that from you.”
Brands make a serious impact on people's lives
Some brands, Scotland adds, “have legitimate roles to play in some of those debates that they can't, or they shouldn't, really shy away from it, especially with the kind of current situation in society – the disillusion of trust between punter and establishment. Whether they like it or not, there's plenty of brands that have got a serious influence in people's lives, way beyond trying to sell them products and services.”
Ahouiyek gives one example of how this influence can extend to life-and-death issues. “Kids will not listen to teachers, parents or the government to tell them to sort their shit out on knife crime, but they might listen to [Adidas], which is bizarre if you think about it, but it's true.”
As part of the agency’s launch, the team has created the Homeground Academy, a community outreach programme offering three-to-six-month, real living wage, paid placements to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have fallen out of sport, providing a foot in the door to a variety of potential careers available in the sector.
“it just felt to us like it's such a big problem,” Scotland explains. “You know, diversity in our industry… where do you start? So we thought we could do something tiny, and there was this observation that so many young people drop out of a sport because they realise they're not going to turn pro, and they get kind of cast aside into the world, thinking that they've got no other chance to be involved in that sport.
"And, actually, it struck us that there will be some really interesting characters out there… and we could do our bit and take some of those guys on, and show them that they can stay involved in the sport they love through myriad different ways.”
Many young people, Ahouiyek adds, have the mentality that “if I can't be a rapper or footballer, I'm not going to bother with being anything. And I'm, like, you're not really likely to become a rapper or a footballer, but you can still stay in music and in football, and at really interesting levels – whether that's the training side, coaching, media, creative, management – there's all these other myriad facets of sport. In the end, like with everything with Homeground, sport is the answer.”