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Unapologetically Football, Unapologetically Festive: Behind Sports Direct’s Christmas Ads


To find out about Eric Cantona and Mason Mount’s behind-the-scenes jokes and what went into parodying the “Christmas advert arms race”, we spoke to Sports Direct CMO Beckie Stanion, COPA90 CD Lawrence Tallis and Pulse director Freddie Waters

Unapologetically Football, Unapologetically Festive: Behind Sports Direct’s Christmas Ads

2022 is the international football Christmas. With the World Cup going on while we’ve got the baubles up for the first time, it’s going to feel different this year. Which has provoked a unique flavour of hybrid advertising frenzy: The World Cup Christmas ad. 

And what brand is better positioned to smash those two things together than affordable activewear retailer Sports Direct? 'Give Me Football', is the result of that, bringing together some of the biggest names in the game for a series of films that subvert the tropes of the traditional Christmas ad. 

Stereotypes of a common Christmas ad are turned upside down to deliver something unexpected. The series of commercials stars Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen, Emma Hayes, Gabriel Jesus, and the iconic football commentator, Clive Tyldesley.

Convinced that the fun conveyed on screen had a story behind it worth telling, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Beckie Stanion, chief marketing officer at Sports Direct, Lawrence Tallis, creative director, at COPA90, and Freddie Waters, who directed the films and is represented by Pulse Films.

LBB> What was the original brief and how did it evolve? Clearly this Christmas is a particularly football-y one. How did that lead to the eventual concept?

Beckie> For the first time ever, we’re building up to the World Cup and Christmas at the same time, so our brief for this year’s festive campaign just had to be centred around football lovers - evangelists and those who are new to the sport alike. We wanted to position Sports Direct as the go-to destination to give the gift of football this Christmas, by unleashing the magical power of the World Cup at an unprecedented and special time of the year. 
Lawrence> Sports Direct wanted a Christmas campaign inspired by a unique World Cup tournament. Unapologetically football and unapologetically festive. They wanted to drive credibility in football, to stand out from the crowd of competitors that would be activating around the tournament, and put Sports Direct front of mind for football-related purchases this Christmas World Cup.
Sports Direct lives to help footballers play more football and all these elements went into the mix and inspired our concept.
We got thinking about the crowded field that we’d be playing in, wondering how we could cut through amongst the plethora of Christmas ads that would be going out at the same time. That’s when we had our idea – rather than just trying to stand out against them, we’d insert ourselves into them.
We decided to recreate some classic Christmas ad forms and then hi-jack them with what everyone really wants for Christmas; football.

LBB> All three films are unique takes on Christmas ads, with a heavy football flavour. How did you land on the three scenarios?

Lawrence> We actually had scripts written for maybe 10-15 different scenarios but eventually whittled them down based on the ones we found the funniest, that had the greatest potential for the surprise football reveal, and that we felt there was football talent that would be well suited to the roles.

Beckie> The Christmas TVC concept was developed by our strategic partners COPA90. The season is always dominated by brands of all shapes and sizes trying to persuade you to spend your hard-earned cash on their products, so we decided to playfully parody the Christmas advert arms race honing in on the traditional types of adverts you see at this time of the year – fragrance, food and home technology. 

LBB> How did you build these around the football stars involved? Was the casting there from the beginning or did you fit them into the ideas when you found out what was possible?

Beckie> As the campaign celebrates all things football, we wanted to work with some of the biggest names in the sport. King Eric Cantona was our red thread throughout all three adverts, and we worked with COPA90 to ensure the scenes were authentic to the talent and vice versa. Declan Rice and Mason Mount are always so fun to work with and it was brilliant to bring in some new faces to the Sports Direct family including legends Thierry Henry and Clive Tyldesley, current stars Gabriel Jesus and Jarrod Bowen, in addition to Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes – a true pioneer for the next generation of football. 

LBB> How did the playful tone of the campaign come to be the way it was?

Beckie> The playful tone is something we try to convey in all that we do, but to really drive it home in our three Christmas ads, we got director Freddie Waters on board to bring a real comedic edge to the TVCs. Freddie is a long-time collaborator with Jack Whitehall and has previously worked with the team behind ‘People Just Do Nothing’, he understands comedy and really understands us as a brand too. At the root of it all, sport should always be a fun, engaging experience, and that needed to come through in the adverts. 

Lawrence> This was really built into the initial concept. It's an inherently silly idea, but in order to make it work we needed to play it straight – if it was obvious from the start that the films were parodies then the rug-pull moments wouldn’t have worked. Freddie really understood what was going to make these funny and he was meticulous in identifying the right tone for every beat in the scripts, knowing at what point we should show our hand, and how everyone in the scene should be behaving to make it as funny as possible.

Freddie> The tone was already there from the concept. Setting up some classic ad tropes. So I built on that by pitching a different treatment for each ad, under different personas.

  • Perfume - Frederique, a self confessed genius and fashion photographer
  • Family Meal - The Freds, a directing duo who met at art college in London and started making documentaries together
  • Directa - Frederik, a Scandi-American who started out doing street photography 

LBB> How did you build these around the football stars involved? Was the casting there from the beginning or did you fit them into the ideas when you found out what was possible?

Lawrence> The Sports Direct team did a great job securing the talent and a lot of our original targets were able to fill the roles we wanted them to play. There’s always a bit of a dance working around players’ availability, getting the right blend together at the times we need them etc. but we couldn’t be happier with the cast we ended up with and the performances they gave really make the spots.

LBB> What are some memorable moments from the shoot(s)?

Freddie> It's hard to explain how brilliant Eric Contona is. I was quite nervous to work with him but you instantly feel at ease in his presence. He's warm, friendly, smiley, hard working, patient, funny and of course a brilliant actor. 

A highlight with Eric was him coming to the monitor very excited after one take to see playback. He watched himself back, laughed out loud, turned to me and said "It's funny, no?"

Eric and Mason Mount together also. Eric was playing around and making him laugh so much that the first three or four takes were all write offs from corpsing. It was a joy to see their mutual respect, and Mason clearly quite star struck. 

I think the real highlight for me as a director was capturing the end of the Family Meal 30-second script. Where Henry goes to ask Eric for something. This was never scripted and we grabbed it on the day. Both Thierry and Eric were phenomenal in this moment. Just pure star talent and improvisation from both of them that is very hard to find in any actor. It's my favourite moment from the whole campaign.

Thierry was a highlight. He had everyone in stitches on set, camera rolling or not, a natural performer and comedian. 

It was the job where I fell in love with Frenchmen. Our DP, Patrick Duroux, is also a totally wonderful man. Years of experience (shooting the kind of ads we were parodying) but he came at it with a fresh enthusiasm that I just didn't expect. A true pro. 
Lawrence> It’s hard to look past Clive Tyldesley popping up through the Christmas dinner table to commentate on Gabriel Jesus’ salt-passing abilities but there were so many great moments.
Having Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Emma Hayes all around the same dinner table was every bit as amazing as you would imagine and all three of them had the crew and supporting artists in stitches throughout the day.
Mason Mount and Eric Cantona cracking each other up as they tried to get through their Eau De Football scenes was another real highlight.
Beckie> There were so many great moments. My favourite would probably have to be Mason Mount and Eric Cantona corpsing on set - they couldn’t stop laughing and it took us about 30 or 40 takes. We decided to include the footage of them laughing in the campaign - it’s authentic and fits in nicely. 

LBB> What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Beckie> Striking the right balance of Christmas versus World Cup focus for the campaign, as in previous years we have had the luxury of being able to focus on these two major events separately, but with them falling at the same time this year, it was definitely a creative challenge to get the right amount of each combined for the campaign. 

Freddie> I think the biggest challenge with something like this is getting the brand to sign off on it. Huge respect to COPA90 and to SD for making it happen and trusting me. Once the scripts were in my hands, the hard work was done. It was just one of those jobs that went very smoothly from start to finish. We were all aligned and knew what we wanted to do and so all round it was just a lot of fun.

I guess our biggest challenge was juggling talent availability. As always. 

Actually, we had one freak disaster. There was a huge crash on the A40 (the one where a Land Rover ended up on the Piccadilly Line) and so all access to the studio was shut. This meant we had no lights until lunchtime. A whole morning with NO LIGHTS. Delan Rice and Jared Bowen turned up on set to shoot and he had to sit and wait while the lights were unloaded and set up. Thankfully, the crew pulled off miracles in about 15 minutes and we grabbed about five minutes of filming.


LBB> What's the reaction been like? Have there been any surprising takes from the public?

Freddie> The reactions seem really good, right? I'm super happy. I've had people I've not heard from in years reaching out to tell me how much they love it. And some industry people saying it's their fav of the Christmas ads so far. So all in all I couldn't be happier with how it's gone down.

The biggest surprise for me, is that more people haven't gone, 'Sorry, wtf was that?' Cos they're kinda totally mad aren't they? It gives me faith in audiences out there and hopefully gives agencies and brands more confidence to make bold work.

It was a huge relief that [sports commentator] Clive Tyldesley liked them and spoke very positively about it all on TalkSport. He was a bit unsure on the day, about popping up through the table, but he did it all without complaint. 

Beckie> The reaction’s been brilliant - from the icons of the sport to current Premier League stars, there’s something for everyone in the adverts and it’s been great to hear people choose their favourite moments. 


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Categories: Sportswear, Clothing and Fashion

Pulse Films, Tue, 15 Nov 2022 15:55:00 GMT