Why Virgin Media is sticking with Usain Bolt

Bolt appears in animated form in the latest spot from Virgin Media

Virgin’s brand director may be advocating for a creative review across the business’ portfolio, but Virgin Media is confident its recipe of Usain Bolt, BBH and primetime TV advertising will see it rise above the competitive telecoms marketplace.

Virgin Media’s latest campaign is dubbed 'Switch to Super', which stars Olympic athletic champion Usain Bolt for the sixth year running. Yet rather than showcase his speed in a literal sense, Virgin has him dressed up in a range of superhero costumes by an obsequious atelier – none other than Richard E Grant.

The film and its cut-downs have more of cinematic feel than Virgin Media’s recent campaigns, which appear to have been inspired more by the beat and theatrics of music videos. The Hollywood script and aesthetic are no accident: the brand and its long-term agency, BBH, admit they were influenced by the success of the Kingsman film series, as well as the surge in popularity of superhero franchises.

The result is a sleek, fast-paced film that is sparing on Virgin’s scarlet branding but heavy on the irreverence and humour made famous by the business’ founder. It launches as Lisa Thomas, Virgin’s overarching brand director, announced her plans to “raise the creative bar” across the business.

“When you view the work, you’ll get a sense of that creative bar getting higher and higher,” said Jeff Dodds, managing director of consumer and mobile at Virgin Media. “On every campaign we do we set out to make it a better iteration of the last one.”

Alongside a double whammy of famous talent, a fantastical wardrobe and impressive special effects, Virgin Media has also splashed out on the directing talents of Tom Tagholm – the filmmaker behind Channel 4’s lauded Meet the Superhumans. But otherwise, the basic ingredients of its creative process remain the same.

Most notable is the use of Bolt. He may still be the fastest man in the world, but he’s no longer racing; in fact, he only sprints in the final seconds of the ad in animated form – an illustrated device that will allow the Olympian to feature in future campaigns without physically being present on set.

He’s also a branding legacy of the 2012 London Olympics, which most brands – and, arguably, consumers – have firmly moved on from.

But the link between Bolt’s pace and Virgin Media’s broadband speed is still proving too strong for Dodds and his marketing department to break.

“He’s only one of a handful of people that you’d put alongside Mohammed Ali or Tiger Woods – a global sporting icon that’s defined by more than what he did on the track,” Dodds said. “If you walked around the general public and asked them about Usain Bolt, everybody would talk about him being the fastest man on the planet. Just because he’s retired from the track, I don’t think that’s made him any less famous of representative of that speed.

“If we get to a point where he’s no longer resonating with consumers then we’d reassess [the relationship]. But we’ve worked with him for six years now and he’s been fabulous at helping us shortcut [to consumers].”

Virgin Media is also continuing its relationship with BBH London, which at nearly seven years old is proving to be one of the more enduring brand-agency partnerships in the telecoms space. Dodds admits that it can be “temping to look around to see if there are alternative people to work with”, but believes the knowledge built over the years by the semi-integrated BBH team is again too precious a bond to sever.

“Our business model is complex and our industry is complex, and BBH has six years of building up their understanding of how our business works, which is very, very valuable and continues to create fantastic campaigns,” Dodds explained.

The agency’s suits and creatives will also provide a certain level of consistency as Virgin Media goes through an internal restructure, led by the departure of chief marketing officer Kerris Bright. The former CMO took up her post as chief customer officer of the BBC last week, while director of acquisition marketing, Natasha Oram, has recently exited for Amazon.

Dodds also revealed Sharon Hegarty, currently marketing director at Sky, will be joining in the summer.

Could more change be on the cards in the form of an in-company creative consolidation? Virgin Holidays and Atlantic combined their accounts in March this year, a process that saw Adam&Eve/DDB become one of the first casualties of Virgin’s informal yet company-wide scrutiny of its agency roster.

“Never say never to consolidation, but it’s not even something that we’ve thought about,” replied Dodds.

One thing that is unquestionably fixed is Virgin Media’s appetite for the TVC.

“When we launch campaigns we like the scale of broadcast advertising,” said Dodds. “And we’re a TV and entertainment business – when the vast majority of your customers are enjoying a premium TV service from you it would seem strange to not use that medium to launch your campaign.

“Also, that medium still affords you the best flexibility when coming up with creative concepts.”

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs