As the sportswear brand’s engaging new show hits Amazon Prime, Gary Raucher, Neil Dawson and Hamo Forsyth chat to Laura Swinton about the epic branded entertainment experiment with a colourful cast of Mind Gamers
Ben Pridmore is sceptical. A lifelong and resolute non-exerciser, the former World Memory Championships winner is taking part in an experiment that explores whether exercise can sharpen the mind. As someone who can barely walk a kilometre, let alone run a kilometre, he’s not convinced that there’s any link whatsoever.
However, the 45-year-old, who has previously held the world record for speed-memorising the order of a pack of cards, is gamely having a go. After undertaking a battery of baseline tests, he’ll be working through a 16-week regime with a trainer to find out whether it has any impact on his cognitive abilities and emotional state. It’s part of a huge global study, run by Dr Brendon Stubbs, of King’s College London, that looks at the impact of exercise on the performance of so-called ‘mind gamers’.
So, was Ben proven correct? Well, you’ll have to check out the feature length documentary that’s been created by sportswear brand ASICS and has just been launched on Amazon Prime. (Or check below for spoilers*)
‘Mind Games: The Experiment’ is the latest campaign from the brand to combine science and technology with ASICS’ eponymous purpose and positioning - anima sana in corpore sano, or ‘Sound Mind, Sound Body’. It follows Ben, alongside three other inactive mind gamers: a competitive mah-jongg player, an ambitious Street Fighter esports competitor and an aspiring chess grandmaster as they undergo a new training programme. It’s a globe-hopping affair that spans Europe, North America and Asia.
It’s the brainchild of creative agency Neil A Dawson & Company and its regular collaborators Robert Rutherford and Darren Borrino, and was borne from an exacting brief from ASICS’ Gary Raucher and Caroline Fish.
“We had a very simple brief to drive familiarity for ASICS’ Sound Mind, Sound Body positioning. We were looking for a brilliant creative idea that had the potential to drive fame and talkability for our unique brand purpose,” explains EVP ASICS EMEA, Gary Raucher.
Neil Dawson says that he could see the potential for the brief straight away. “From my perspective there is nothing better than the freedom of a tight brief. I have worked on briefs for Sound Mind, Sound Body since 2019 so I do have a good understanding of the task. But this time we were looking for a new and unexpected approach. As I told all of my teams, ‘Opportunities don’t come any better than this.’”
And so Neil’s network of creative talent set to work generating ideas - and one seemed to tick all of the boxes.
“I wanted to leave no stone unturned so I invested heavily in creative talent from around the world. I set my agency to deliver world-class talent to clients so this was right up our street. My view is that the best talent out there is now freelance. I was able to show Gary and Caroline a breadth of ideas all peppering the target. But there was one idea by my pals Robert Rutherford and Darren Borrino that piqued mine, Gary and Caroline’s interest more than others,” recalls Neil. “Initially it was called Body Theory but at the heart of it was the question that led to Mind Games – can exercise make the minds of mind gamers perform better? “
Demonstrating the nature of the collaborative relationship between client and agency, the team at ASICS was keen to push the idea further and to take the risk of testing Robert and Darren’s hypothesis with real, rigorous science of exploration and collaboration.
“Gary and Caroline are very good at spotting a great idea but also seeing the potential in one. The initial idea just concentrated on esports but they felt broadening it out to several mind games would give more scale and interest. The other crucial aspect they brought was the need for a bigger, broader study to underpin the idea. To make it a real experiment.”
That scientific angle has become a key part of ASICS’ marketing strategy, which helps emphasise the advanced technology of its products. Previous years have seen them create face scanning apps that show the mood-boosting impact of exercise and study, and what happens when athletes stop training. It takes a certain kind of steel-backboned embrace of the unknown to work on such a project. The issue with bringing science into the mix is the very real possibility that the data doesn’t back up your theory.
“Mind Games is the latest in a series of experiments we’ve conducted, so we’ve become accustomed to taking risks in order to demonstrate our brand in action,” says Gary. “Based upon previous studies, we were confident there would be a correlation between movement and the mind…but it was indeed nerve-wracking! As with any experiment, the outcome was uncertain.”
Neil says that the risk made the project into an emotional journey, but belief in the strength of the insight and idea kept them going. “It was nerve wracking because you had to let the cards fall where they may (pun intended..),” he says. “We navigated that by holding our breath! But also by having faith in the truth behind the idea – exercise does have a positive effect on the mind. How positive, we would just have to wait and see. I felt the pressure but I wasn’t the one financing this idea. If Gary and Caroline felt that pressure they never showed it.”
Let the cards fall where they may: Ben memorises a pack of cards
Putting their faith in science wasn’t the only challenge the team had to face. The production itself was long and complex, spanning the entire globe. The casting started all the way back in November 2021 and the project was well over a year in the making. Luckily they had a team of expert TV producers from Beyond Productions to turn the idea into reality.
Hamo Forsyth is creative director for factual content at Beyond Productions and he says the opportunity was appealing as it ‘offered a new kind of challenge’ for the company, which is more used to creating shows for the likes of the BBC, ABC and Netflix.
“Whilst we were making another documentary, the partnerships and processes were different and in a world where everyone is having to be really creative about how projects are funded and get to broadcast, this was novel and too good to turn down,” he says.
There wasn’t a huge amount of time to devote to pre-production because, while the timescales may seem generous for adland, which is more used to turning out 30-second commercials and snackable social content, from a TV perspective there was a lot of ground to cover.
Chess player Kassa Korley steps up his training
In terms of the logistics, the team had to juggle the four individual storylines of the far-flung Mind Gamers as well as covering the study at King’s College in London. “Thankfully, while we were across the setting up of the overall science project, we didn’t have to run that study so we could concentrate on the filming and storytelling,” says Hamo. “Because of the time crunch we had to double up on directing teams and crews in order to be in two places at once. We also had to consider the threat of covid restrictions so we had back up contributors on standby in case of major events.”
Mahjong player Ryoei Hirano on his journey
As the documentary unfolds, the viewer is invited into fascinating niche communities. It adds a fascinating extra dimension to the show - although it also added some interesting challenges for the production team to navigate. Some, like the world of chess, have a long-standing glamour and profile, not to mention a fairly clear hierarchy - whereas others, like the decentralised esports space or the idiosyncratic memory sport community, were a little trickier to open up.
“Access was quite a challenge because some of these worlds we were entering had never really worked with documentary crew before,” says Hamo. “We had lengthy periods of access negotiations and we had to work out ways of working around gameplay strictures – for example not being able to be too close to players during games and having restrictions on the number of minutes of games we could follow. As esports, these events were huge but it took us a long time to identify the right people to talk to about filming. There’s no traditional head office for tournaments because it’s all so modern.”
Streetfighter competitor Sherry Nahn battles it out in the esports arena
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the lot was distilling four rich and very human stories - and four intriguing worlds - into one documentary. When it came to the edit, they needed to work with someone who was used to cutting complex documentaries.
“We had a seasoned documentary editor on the project so we were always searching for the best human story material even though we had something of a structure in the competitions themselves. The progress with the exercise and its effect was also crucial throughout. Four is a large number of contributors and so we had to make very hard decisions about what to leave out – that was the hardest bit,” says Hamo, reflecting on the edit. “I think we could easily have made a film with each of our amazing mind gamers individually.”
Another balancing act to get right in the shoot and the edit was the strength of the brand presence in the film. However both agency and marketers agreed that they couldn’t be too heavy handed. “Visually the brand needed to have a light touch,” says Neil. !The beauty of this project is that the brand philosophy is a human truth. If you dramatise that truth you are telling the brand story.”
And that came directly from Gary and Caroline. “As uncomfortable as it may have been, we were always very clear to the team that this was a documentary and not an ad. So the key priority for everyone was to tell an authentic story,” says Gary. “Luckily for ASICS, our products are an integral part of that story, so brand visibility never felt forced.”
Pulling the whole film together is a warm and gently authoritative voiceover by none other than the British broadcaster and comedianStephen Fry. As someone who has spoken publicly about his own experiences with the benefits that come with walking, he also had a personal reason for getting involved.
“Stephen brings so much to Mind Games,” says Neil. “Firstly he is the president of Mind.org, the mental health charity. Also, as you say, he has said how much movement has helped his mental health. In addition, while chatting with him I found out he also wears ASICS shoes. He had a problem with a knee or ankle which had been solved by changing to ASICS. So he didn’t take much persuasion at all. Even his agents were fans of the brand! In any case, credit must go to Claire Browne at Beyond for securing his services.”
To ensure that the film gets to as broad an audience as possible, it will be streaming on Amazon Prime. In fact, it was always conceptualised as a streaming show and that meant that it needed to cross a high bar in terms of quality.
The participants and producers discuss their experience making the film
“We set out to create a documentary that would be watched by as many people as possible around the world. So, yes, finding a streaming partner was always the goal,” says Gary. “Amazon was an ideal partner due to its reach and the marketing opportunities its platforms provide. The Prime Video team quite rightly is very selective about the content it broadcasts, but from an early stage, thy were excited about the authenticity of the story we were trying to tell.”
Publicis Groupe NL led the media elements of the project, including helping to sell it into Amazon Prime. Francesca Wallis at Publicis helped get the ball rolling.
“Our media partner Francesca Wallis connected us with Amazon and then we had the invaluable support of Michael Dwan and Paul Lazarra at Amazon,” adds Neil. “Amazon was very clear about the type of content that will and will not work on Prime, in termsof content itself, time length and branding. But as I said, Michael and Paul really helped us navigate our way through that.”
The documentary will be streamed globally, but will also be part of an integrated campaign which will amplify the story across owned, earned and other paid channels.
Mind Games is an ambitious, international project for ASICS - not just in the way it’s hoping to reach people but in the scope of the scientific research behind it. At heart, though, its power lies in the human stories and the wonderful worlds it has opened up.
Indeed, being part of the journey has clearly had a deep personal impact on those behind the scenes.
“It was personally genuinely moving and emotional to watch the individual journeys of our four on-screen gamers,” reflects Hamo. “You never know what’s really going to happen in competition or with science studies but when it became abundantly clear that they were personally hugely benefitting from taking part it gave the whole project an inherent purpose and justification beyond being just a film.”
And beyond the stories on screen, the project has led those who have made it to reflect on the impact of movement and exercise in their own lives. While the film and the study looked at the cognitive boost for mind gamers, one can’t help but ponder what the impact is of exercise on creativity? It’s a point worth considering for creatives and a curious potential avenue for further exploration.
“I believe it’s really potent.,” Neil reckons. “For me, covid lockdowns brought that into sharp focus. A walk in the countryside was all that was allowed but the benefits in terms of unlocking problems or coming up with ideas were huge and almost immediate. And walking in the countryside even helped me start a new relationship!”
Participants’ international gaming rankings improved by an incredible 75% and cognitive function was boosted on average by 10%. Group confidence levels increased by 44%, concentration improved by 33% and anxiety levels plummeted by 43%. The research shows exercise can be as effective at boosting brain function as learning a second language, daily reading, playing a new musical instrument or completing a puzzle every day.