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Brand Strategy Football Sports Marketing

How Adidas got 250m organic views on a CGI billboard celebrating Messi’s World Cup win


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

January 13, 2023 | 9 min read

The real story of a too-good-to-be-true Adidas billboard memorializing Lionel Messi’s World Cup triumph.


How Adidas celebrated Messi's gilded career at the World Cup

After Argentina won the World Cup, a grainy six-second, unbranded video of an incredible out-of-home ad in Dubai did the rounds on social. The clip, complete with choppy audio, gave the impression a member of the public had shot the impossibly huge full-motion 3D billboard. It showed the ‘Impossible Rondo’ video, bringing together different World Cup editions of Messi from 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022 into one collage.

But all wasn’t as it appeared.

The video showed the Dubai Frame, a 150-meter-high concrete frame. It’s a monument, not an advertising installation. And certainly not one with a screen capable of 3D motion graphics. Furthermore, that six-second clip turned out to be the furthest thing from a fan video. In the name of authenticity, Adidas Mena (Middle East and North Africa) adopted a degree of deception to create a larger-than-life media moment worthy of Messi’s mythos.

The short video came from Adidas itself. Its authentic approach generated 100m organic views within two days, plateauing at 160m views and 12.5m engagements across Instagram, Tiktok and Twitter.

Here’s how.

That plan that almost failed

Paul O’Connor, director of brand communications and sports marketing at Adidas Mena, tells The Drum that the plan was always to have strong reactive content for the final – with one caveat. An Adidas-sponsored nation (or superstar player) had to make the final and that wasn’t always guaranteed. At the last tournament, Nike benefited from a France and Croatia final.

O’Connor says: “Before the tournament, we decided to build our activation plans around Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema. We were planning to do some incredible stuff, particularly around Benzema. Then days before the tournament, we were quite heartbroken by the news that [Benzema] wasn’t going to compete. Then a few days later, Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t a great time for us.”

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Argentina and France did end up making a final that fans believe may have been the tournament’s best yet. In the eyes of many, it was the tournament where Messi secured the title of the sport’s greatest of all time. And O’Connor’s team felt the weight of this legacy.

“We were always planning a CGI-type activation. You can be quite agile with CGI. And you have to be because there’s little time between the semi-finals and the final to organize things. A big marquee physical activation can take maybe six to 12 weeks, so we know it had to be digital.”

The stunt also had to be based in Dubai, which is one of Adidas’ 12 key global cities. The apparel brand invests in cultural capitals, knowing it will enjoy a regional halo effect.

But the final campaign almost looked completely different. During the tournament, Adidas was projecting live scores onto the Dubai Eye (like the London Eye but bigger). This was eventually going to be the location of the Messi Rondo, in a more extravagant manner. But the brand fought for the Frame to be the ad’s virtual home, creating one of the biggest out-of-home (OOH) installations the world has ever seen.

O’Connor says: “It hadn’t really been properly activated like this before, and it fit the 80s retro design language of the campaign.”

Getting ready for Messi’s coronation

The campaign was challenging to deliver. The Mena team couldn’t act until the final global creative from TBWA was finalized, which meant hoping the AI-deepfaked Messis created using body doubles were convincing. It's billboard was inspired by that creative, for overall consistency.

CGI partner Vertex had two days to fit the video into the Frame. Nikita Vantorin, a creative director from the mixed reality specialists admits that he wasn’t initially “into” the “Frame idea”. His concept was less grounded in reality. He was keen to have the creative swirling around the Dubai Eye. But he conceded that the Frame fit the campaign aesthetic better.

Vantorin insisted that the content had to look as real as possible. It had to be vertical mobile. It had to be shot at night (so it seems like it was after the final). To make things more difficult for his team, the Frame was shot from a moving car. So much effort was made to ensure the production looked like amateur footage.

His team had to install the CGI effect into the frame, creating a parallax effect and making it look real. A lot of work went into the six-second video – but it was initially supposed to last 10. Its brevity perhaps boosted views by encouraging repeat viewings.

O’Connor says: “We took a massive gamble, it was our first time working with Vertex but they’d made viral videos before and it paid off.”

Despite a dramatic final where Argentina’s win was far from guaranteed, Messi did end his international career with a World Cup trophy. Team Adidas and distribution partners Havas Middle East waited half an hour before distributing their unbranded footage with a single-paragraph explainer to sports media in the region. This supposedly unbranded footage was chopped, changed, edited and remixed the world over.

On what was learned from the campaign, O’Connor said with confidence: “The ROI was incredible versus a physical activation. CGI is definitely the future.”

A few questions arise from the campaign. Did Adidas deceive the public with its unbranded content? Was it just some sleight of hand? Would the video have worked without the trickery? And what does this ad spell for the future of OOH advertising if a talented SFX team can turn any surface or city into an ad?

Watch the making of the ‘Impossible Rondo’ video below.

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