by David Smith. I write sport ads for a living. Been doing it for over a decade now. I love it. But often when I meet new people, they ask how it became my thing. It’s a fair question to ask a rotund man in his forties. I don’t exactly look like an old jock. And, if I’m honest, I’ve never been that good at sport; I’m pretty bad at it.

But being bad has taught me a lot about sport.

At school, I discovered the abject terror of being in the front row. I learnt that playing silly-mid-on is not silly; it’s downright mental. I learnt that coming last in a race is not the most-embarrassing thing in the world. It is those bloody people who clap and enthusiastically cheer you on. Their masked pity is far worse than any ridicule. But, of all the insights I’ve gained from being bad, probably the most important one is just how damn hard it is to be good at sport.

So if I were to lay out a set of rules for making sport ads, that would probably be the first rule. Recognising the almost herculean effort that sport requires. Whether you are a fat bloke like me trying to run 10km in under an hour or Carl Lewis running a sub-10 world record, sport is hard. Recognise that in your work; hero that in your work.

The second rule is “find the tension”. Sport is all about conflict. It is CAN against CAN’T. It is about you against your enemies. The finish line, the opponents, the laws of physics, injury, society, race, gender, hell, even your own nipples may be an enemy (a sweaty 10km run, a polyester vest, ag shame). So, if you want a compelling story, find an enemy, find a tension — big or small, societal or personal — set it up and knock it down. Like this. Amazing stuff from the old days of 180 Amsterdam.

The third rule is “go deep”. There are very few ‘products’ in the world that people are willing to bleed for, or trek around the world to watch. But sport is one of them.

And sport doesn’t like pretenders. You need to know your subject. You need to speak like an insider, not an ad guy. Don’t play for the ad crowd or the award crowd; play for the crowd at Loftus and FNB.

If you want to impress someone in the south of France, impress the players at Toulon or Olympique de Marseille.

If you are looking to get inspired, read the best sport writers. The Player’s Tribune is a great source — all the articles are written by the athletes themselves. My favorite piece is one called “Why We Fight”, written by the NHL enforcer, Brandon Prust. Also read the old boxing greats. Such as Bob Considine’s report on the night Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling. Written almost 70 years ago, it puts you right there. If you are looking for something local, read “The King of Fong Kong Football” written by Oarabile Mosikare, a superb piece on Botswana football.

The fourth rule is “live up to the promise of sport”. If sport is about pushing the boundaries of what is possible, your work should try to do the same. It could be in the way you present your work, a new technique, a fresh medium, or it can be in the craft. Watch this piece from Derek Cianfrance.

A one-take film that puts you right inside a baseball game. It took Cianfrance two nights and 47 takes to get it. But it was worth it. It’s a wonderful film that lives up to the exacting nature of sport.

I know not everyone gets the budget to work with a Hollywood director but your piece doesn’t need to be an epic to be epic. Look at this awesome gif made from baseball cards. I wish I had something that good. So dead simple, so well put together; there’s a nerd out there somewhere!

The fifth rule: If it all goes wrong … make sure you at least get some free tickets from the client. Peace, yo!


David SmithDavid Smith is a South African creative director who specialises in sport. He works for Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, where he runs Nike and EA Sports.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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