'We think of ourselves as a gang of thieves': Vitro digs in as new AOR for Adidas Golf

Sergio Garcia and Jason Day

As golfers battle for the big prize at Oakmont for the US Open in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, the leaderboard is constantly in flux. A bogey here, an eagle there changes the dynamic. Players chip away at the lead in the hunt for greatness. For San Diego-based Vitro, this is also their mindset.

“We like to steal share,” said Tom Sullivan, partner and CEO of the MDC Partners shop. “We don't think of ourselves as an ad agency. We think of ourselves as a gang of thieves."

One of the things that Vitro is most proud of is that with nearly every agency of record (AOR) client they have ever had, they have increased their market share within the first twelve months. The swagger is well-earned, especially in a golf, a category that is highly competitive and one that Vitro is well-versed in, having worked with several golf brands over the years. In large part to the experience and success, Adidas Golf recently named Vitro as their agency of record.

“A lot of agencies will come in and really just think about creative,” said Courtney McHugh, senior director, global brand marketing at Adidas Golf. “Vitro came in from a business side. They really thought about our objectives. We gave them some numbers and some business objectives, but it wasn't just about the creative. It wasn't just about a marketing strategy. It really was about helping us obtain our business goals and thinking about it from true solutions.”

McHugh and the Adidas Golf team had considered other agencies in the process, but it was abundantly clear that Vitro had hit the right nerve.

“(With) some of the other folks, it really was about, ‘Hey, we can do great creative. We can create a TV spot for you,’” said McHugh. “The big thing that (Vitro) brought to the table was their golf experience — where the other two agencies that were part of the scope had dabbled in it, Vitro was more about a solution to a true problem that we're dealing with right now.”

One of the main problems McHugh alluded to was the seemingly ponderous route to relevance. She worked in the fast-paced world of the beer industry at Anheuser-Busch where “we really pushed the envelope and did some great things, but with golf, they just lag a little.”

The golf world needs an infusion of excitement and there is ample opportunity in the digital space overall, while leveraging Adidas athletes such as Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and the world number one, Jason Day. At present, Adidas has three golfers in the top ten, and four in the top fifteen.

“There's an athletic, youthful edge,” said John Vitro, partner and creative founder. “Golfers like them have sort of changed the game. It's a more exciting time than it has been in the game in a long time, and that's simply because of the athletes. I think that sort of spirit we're going to be able to bring into the marketing and how we go to market.”

Making an impact sits high on the list for Vitro. With that comes a level of scrappiness and risk, something that Sullivan and Vitro know well in getting Odyssey Golf from launch to $100m in sales and reviving an almost-dead Cobra brand to a 12% of market share.

“I think when you look at our competitors, for instance, Nike, we can't compete with those budgets,” conceded McHugh. “There’s definitely channels that they win on simply because of dollars, and we can't compete with that. I think for us, risk would really be talking to that golfer, but also making sure that we're talking to the athlete overall.”

“I always think, ‘Leap and the net will appear’,” added Sullivan. “We're never afraid to take the big risk, but you have to have a compelling argument. You can't go to clients with some idea that's outrageous for the sake of being outrageous. While we do want to break through the sea of sameness, we also want to be able to back up our argument that it is going to help drive the business forward.”

But just where is the golf business headed? According to Vitro, a younger, focused audience, mirroring Adidas’ athlete roster, plays a critical role.

“Golf is a sport and golfers are athletes,” said Vitro. “That's a road that we want to travel down, and millennials will command focus. Adidas Golf has the opportunity to attract that audience because they've got these fashion-forward trends that don't sacrifice performance. Millennials are overwhelmingly focused on fitness and they turn to sports both on and off the course and in and out of the gym, so that's a trend that will give Adidas Golf a chance to draw a younger generation of golfers with this fashion-forward approach. When you look at Jason (Day), Dustin (Johnson), Sergio (Garcia) and even Justin (Rose), there's a competitive drive and an energy that is attractive to millennial golfers, and these guys are the right faces for a brand that is looking to connect with a younger audience and will do so.”

The larger campaign from Vitro is on track for a 2017 release, but the agency has been tasked with interim projects before any major launch — and the path appears clear.

“Digital and social has been under-utilized in the category,” said Sullivan. “That’s going to be a huge part of what we do, as well as in retail. You go to any golf green grass shop or any big box, it's kind of the same old, same old. How do we bring technologies in to connect all the dots — which very few brands in this space, strangely enough, have not done yet. Millennials ‘showroom’ — going into stores but not buying and that’s hurt a lot of retail brands.”

Like the athletes going for the championship outside of Pittsburgh, both Adidas Golf and Vitro are thinking about what a win looks like. To McHugh, breaking the mold, doing cool things, getting back to “being the cool brand, especially in the golf space” and having the brand’s name “in lights a little bit more” is part of the story. To the agency, those things resonate, but it’s always about getting out there to steal share and forging ahead in the spirit of the athletes they will work with.

“We have a creative philosophy here in our shop, which is ‘never settle.’ We always try to drive home this reality that ‘good enough’ are two words you're never going to hear from us,” said Vitro. “Sometimes that can be frustrating for people who work for us, and sometimes it can be frustrating for our clients, but it's all meant to drive the work forward. That's one of those things that seems to exist in every ultra-competitive athlete is they never settle, they never feel like they're good enough.”

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