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The marketing power of major athletes - not only to shift products but to create that all-important connection between brands and consumers - is hard to argue with, so it's no surprise that everyone from Nike to Under Armour is queuing up to find the next big sports star to front their campaigns. 

But in an age where an athlete's beliefs and causes are as important as their performance on the sports field, what should brands be wary of and how can they work with sports personalities in an authentic way?

We asked John McKelvey and Hannes Ciatti, founders of NY boutique JohnXHannes, who created Under Armour's I Will Want I Want, and Academy director Ian Pons Jewell, who's helmed two spots for Nike China, what they've learned from their experience.   

The Creatives: John McKelvey (left) and Hannes Ciatti

You've worked with a series of sports personalities over the course of your careers - how have you gone about building believable connections between the brands and the athletes? 

We believe in bringing together culturally relevant talent with a brave brand to tell a mutually beneficial story. Enormous value can be created from authentic partnerships, through an alignment of shared values. Then telling a story that resonates because of its human insight, connection to the real world and credible brand role. Even if the talent cost is the same, there’s a difference between talent just getting a paycheck and the exponential value of building a mutually beneficial partnership. 

So we’ve always tried to find true, personal common ground on which to build creative work, from collaborating with Serena Williams and Neymar Jr. for Beats by Dre, to Misty Copeland and Gisele Bundchen for Under Armour, to Shaun White for Squarespace. When both an athlete—the person, not a manufactured persona—and a brand can unite over an inspiring shared value, it resonates. Great stories have heart. And when you invest early in that relationship, it pays off in the end. Build the right partnerships, find common ground, be authentic and make everyone involved look good. 

Beats By Dre – Beats By Dre: Above The Noise Compilation

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What are the key things brands need to bear in mind when choosing an athlete as a brand representative? On-field/court performance, or opinions/behaviour/causes that the athlete supports? 

Using athletes and their fame to promote a brand is nothing new, but it can feel like a fleeting product endorsement. At JohnXHannes, we believe in the potential of telling a bigger story, for both the brand and talent. Something that inspires people to put on their running shoes, lace up their boots or even bigger: help reveal their best selves through sport. Be authentic, so a story might shape culture. Ensure the partnership makes sense, even if it’s an unexpected partnership that challenges opinions. 

Additionally, we try not to recreate a sport. We all know what athletes do well. Recreating that for a commercial feels like a wasted opportunity. Instead, we gravitate to what all of us love: human stories, where we can see and feel a real person’s struggle behind their success. Today, sport is becoming an ever-bigger platform for pushing social change. And because of social media, it’s more important than ever to see what an athlete stands for, both on and off the court. Brands can embrace that. Case in point: Nike’s recent support of Colin Kaepernick, in their Dream Crazy campaign, or what Under Armour did with Misty Copeland, celebrating the first African-American ballerina soloist. 

Under Armour – Misty Copeland - I Will What I Want

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What are the biggest creative and production challenges in working with sports personalities / high profile athletes? 

Production starts long before the camera rolls. Our best work has always happened when we connected with our talent before an actual shoot. It’s about building trust beforehand, because when everyone embraces an idea, dedication builds on all sides. You have more chance of getting an athlete to give you more of their time and story if they believe in it. 

When you do get a story everyone believes in, do it justice. Tell it well. We often get an athlete for less than a day - sometimes just an hour - so our work requires pre-planning. Knowing your exact shots and being able to pivot when circumstances change. Work with the best to ensure authenticity to the sport, and it will translate beautifully on-screen, from the right choreography and music to the best cinematography. Great work is shared for its beauty and clarity. Get everyone—athlete, brand, director—to share the same vision, then give production partners and athletes space to do their magic. You partnered with them for a reason. 

Under Armour – Gisele Bündchen: I Will What I Want

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The director: Ian Pons Jewell

How did you draw out the sportspeople's personalities for Nike China's Further Than Ever? Were they happy to have their inner-demons tapped for the campaign? 

 This was really all down to the Wieden Kennedy creatives, they did a lot of research and then interviewed all of them during the writing process. I then read these interviews to formulate the creative approach of using the whisper sound design surreal section that each of them break through once we see them playing their sport. I'm unsure if they had approached others who weren't up for such personal stories being told, but those we had were incredibly open and receptive. They've broken through and are happy to tell their stories to try and make a difference and lay a path for others. 

Nike – Further Than Ever

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Is there a difference in getting a great performance from a sportsperson than a traditional actor? 

Completely different. Some needed a bit more direction than others and It was really interesting working with them and seeing just how different they all approached performances. Li Na, the tennis player, clicked into it immediately. She has a lot of experience but also just naturally has an ability to bring out character like an actor would.

Not having proper time to shoot the way I do is quite a put-off. With these athletes, all of whom are high profile in Asia, I had ample time to properly execute what we wanted to do.

Cecilia Yeung, the high jumper, blew me and Mauro away with her acting ability when she was walking amongst the flashes of light. I told her that as she walks, she should imagine starting to hear a host of voices talking about her. She nailed this moment beyond what I expected, totally at a level of an amazing actor. It then just took a bit of pushing to get her to stick her tongue out for the high jump, but she nailed it in the final take! This was our amazing DOP Mauro Chiarello's idea, and it set the tone for the rest of the shoot, to work in a little humour  here and there which you can see in the way Wang Shuan celebrates her dummy kick goal.

Nike Football – Nike Football: Dare To Become

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  • Location Service Filmate Shanghai
  • Music Humanaut
  • Post Production MPC Bangalore
  • Post Production MPC Shanghai
  • Editor Sam Bould
  • Director of Photography Ben Fordesman
  • Art Director Josh King
  • Art Director Max Pilwat
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What are the biggest creative and production challenges in working with sports personalities / high profile athletes? 

I haven't personally ever shot with any high profile Western athletes, of which I have heard all the stories about getting literally an hour of shoot time with them.

Due to all the stories it's something I've never been very keen to try to do. Not having proper time to shoot the way I do is quite a put-off. With these athletes, all of whom are high profile in Asia, I had ample time to properly execute what we wanted to do. So, my experience was great and I also feel lucky and honoured to have not only worked with such amazing talent, but to have been entrusted with telling their stories. 

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