How the IOC’s made-in-Canada ad campaign got stronger with the pandemic

Late last month, the International Olympic Committee introduced its long-delayed ad campaign for the long-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Called “Stronger Together,” the campaign is constructed around a nearly two-minute hero film, with five shorter spots profiling individual Olympic athletes. It’s an international campaign for a global client, but it was developed and produced by an all-Canadian team.

Vancouver design agency Hulse & Durrell pitched the assignment in 2019, and called in Scouts Honour directors Kevin Foley and Mark Zibert for a mood film as part of the pitch.

“It showed the emotion and the tone and the humanity we wanted to push,” said Foley. “We felt that with the IOC, everything has always been very polished—this perfect version of what athletics and the event represents. That’s not Mark’s style, and that’s not my style.”

But the IOC members liked what they saw, and awarded the business to Hulse & Durrell. Scouts Honour would produce, with Foley and Zibert directing, and Simon Dragland and Rita Popielak as producers.

There were would be multiple executions, but the hero film would be the campaign cornerstone, said Foley. “Originally it was really all about performance… It was called ‘Make History,’ and it was about what the Olympics does from the standpoint of what happens at the finish line.”

Shooting started in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2019. From there it moved to Los Angeles, Lisbon, Jamaica and then Australia before finally wrapping in January 2020.  “And then basically we just went on pause for quite a while,” said Foley.

When the Olympics were eventually cancelled for 2020, the creative team and producers waited, not knowing if the work they had spent months on would ever come out.

Then—finally—they were given a chance to revive the campaign earlier this year. Like so many other things from before Covid, however, it had to be transformed. That meant they had to “completely recalibrate” everything, said Foley. Because the world had changed, the campaign message needed to change too. “Make History” was out, to be replaced with something more of the moment—about people coming together to overcome enormous challenges.

The creators reviewed all their footage through a new lens of the previous year to make it more “unapologetically optimistic.” New scripts had to be written, and additional filming from around Toronto was necessary to help tell a new story.

The hero film is still there, but with the new narrative and five additional shorts providing more personal portraits of some of the athletes themselves: Naomi Osaka, Usain Bolt, Tony Hawk, Nyjah Huston, Refugee Olympic Team member Yusra Mardiniand and Cuban-Italian wrestler Frank Chamizo Marquez. It tells an even more human story about the people behind them and the people they inspire. “Rather than a voice of God telling you how you feel, you hear it from the athletes themselves,” said Foley.

The original campaign was about individual athletes making history, but “Stronger Together” is a “story for everybody,” he said.  “We always had it—we just had to readdress everything that happened and start over.”

Since launching in late June, the campaign has already generated more than 250 million impressions.

“This is an all-Canadian story,” said Foley. “It just goes to show you how many talented people we have in this country.” Aside from Hulse & Durrell and Scouts Honour, Married to Giants did the editing, The Vanity did SFX, Six Degree Music & Sound did audio, and Alter Ego handled the colour.

“It’s the most-watched Olympic campaign ever, and it was done by our regular group of collaborators, but it’s great that the whole world gets to see it and share it,” said Foley

Late last week, The Message (virtually) watched the hero film with Foley, who provided a director’s commentary of sorts, sharing some of the stories and key moments that went into the finished product.

0:01: The opening scene was from the shoot in Cape Town: “We shot the start of a marathon. It didn’t make the cut, but this moment was perfect. The confetti flying in high speed just kind of speaks to the moment that the world stops still.”

0:05: Cut to Jamaica. “That stadium is where Usain Bolt’s journey began… The Olympics are never known to showcase an empty stadium, but it was kind of perfect. It’s not only how every kid’s dream actually begins, but it was perfect in that we were all alone for quite a while.”

0:10: Usain Bolt makes his first appearance. “Starting with the greatest Olympian of all time,” said Foley. “Certain moments just come together way better than you ever could expect, and that was essentially Usain. He was so great, every reaction that he has with the kids is completely real.”

0:13: The hallway shot is Derek Redmond with his grandchild. Redmond tore his hamstring while running the 400 metres for the United Kingdom at the 1992 Olympics, but completed the race after his father ran onto the track to help him reach the finish line. “I made it a high priority to make sure he was part of our story because for me… I mean that’s probably one of the greatest Olympics stories ever,” said Foley. “And the guy was disqualified.”

0:20: “Just a note on Graham Chisholm [editor at Married to Giants] and that little sequence of editing there at 20 seconds, fluttering through different athletes, that’s part of what makes Graham excellent. He just finds those moments.”

0:24: “We shot Naomi during the bushfires in Melbourne during the Australian Open. It was 40 degrees and it was actually sunny that day, but it just looks overcast because that was from all the bushfires.”

0:27: Rock climbing is in the Olympics for the first time, so Foley and Zibert wanted to feature it. They found a young boy near Cape Town, near the rocks they were going to shoot. “He was so impressive. Mark just told the kid ‘Jump up, give me a one-arm pull up. Can you do it?’ And we shot it… that was never storyboarded, that was just found in the moment.”

0:31: Canadian Andre De Grasse side-by-side with Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. “It was one of the most iconic moments of 2016 in Rio, and that was really the last opportunity [DeGrasse] had against Bolt. Now that Bolt’s gone, it’s kind of like a bit of the passing of the torch.”

0:40: The spot starts to move into Act 2, where the theme transitions from individual performances to togetherness. “A lot of these scenes are what we captured here in Toronto: Parents, family stuck at home for long times during the lockdown, sports still driving you forward,” said Foley.

0:55: “A little nod to Paris with the breakdancing scene.” Breakdancing becomes an Olympic sport in 2024.

1:00: “This little basketball shot is one of my favourites because his kid just started dancing in the middle of it, and the boys just reacted with so much joy.”

1:08: The start of Act 3. “We move into achievement, beginning with the Olympic moments.”

1:18: “There are certain historical moments that were just perfect—the primal screams, the Nigerian woman’s reactions,” said Foley. “My favourite sequence in the film is when the weightlifter gets picked up (1:24) and then it cuts into Derek Redmond picking up his grandchild into the kiss.”

1:34: Skateboarding is debuting at these Games, so they wanted the iconic Tony Hawk to take part because of his role in building the sport; Nyjah Huston, meanwhile, is the face of the sport today. “Hawk had a three-day concert event in San Diego, and he flew up in a helicopter to L.A. for us and ripped down that tunnel for like an hour with Nyjah. They did that for essentially next to nothing, but they really believed in being a part of it: The message, and skateboarding going into the Olympics, it was a pretty big deal for him.”

For a long time, the sport existed outside of the mainstream. Zibert and Foley wanted to show how Hawk and Huston helped bring it into the spotlight of the Olympic stage—thus the pair skateboarding down a dark tunnel toward the light. “We could have shot Nyjah doing anything amazing—ripping rails—but they understood the metaphor and what that meant.”

1:40: “To me that one scene of the kids joining Usain in the way they are at the end of the film, I mean that’s what sport does,” said Foley. “It creates inspiration, not only for Jamaican kids but for the whole world.”

“Usain running through Kingston with 300 kids was one of the more beautiful, natural, organic experiences I’ve ever had. We basically had maybe 35 minutes with him, and for it to happen—for it to play out that way—it turned into a powerful story.”

David Brown