"To be a part of the New York skyline for me is unbelievable." - Mo Salah
Leading up to the 2018 Russia FIFA World cup BR Mag partnered with renowned New-Orleans based Mural Artist BMike, and commissioned a series of 3 "Larger Than Life" murals of Mo Salah in Times Square NYC, Neymar in Miami's Brickell Arts District, and Paul Pogba on the New Orleans’ Lafitte Greenway neighborhood. Working as a consulting producer and art director on the project I helped shape creative decisions around color palettes, themes, imagery, and social executions and ways to market the story to a larger audience in conjunction with our PR and Marketing teams to amplify one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.
Sitting at the intersection of many of our core departments, I was lucky enough to collaborate on some of our keystone projects in a way that allowed me the flexibility to be multidisciplinary in focus. A great example of that was the world cup mural project we kicked off to position Bleacher Report’s budding sub-brand, @BRFootball, as the one-stop-shop for all things football, with the goal of building brand awareness and new social followers the Instagram account and covering the event from a video first and editorial perspective with great written features that were all packaged for consumption over our various long form broadcast, website, and social platforms. From startup to digital powerhouse, Bleacher Report has helped lead a fundamental shift in how media companies create and distribute content around sports, and with this project I had a chance to be at the center of architecting that transformation.
In order to bring this Larger than Life project to life, we scouted three locations in the US for massive murals in the lead up to the World Cup, and partnered with BMike, a renowned muralist, to capture each footballer’s transcendent impact through editorial and video. In doing so, B/R Football delivered a distinct message to Americans, and a global football audience — that football is the nucleus of world culture. The key was driving eyeballs and attention during the world's biggest sporting event towards Bleacher Report while leveraging our editorial strengths. I helped bring the pieces to life by providing high level art direction and collaborating with BMike to add elements and imagery true to the regions these players originally came from, while respecting the DNA of the cities they are showing up in by drawing parallels and bringing out their essence.
As seen in the artist profile above, Brandan "BMIKE" Odums is a New Orleans-based visual artist who engages in a transnational discussion about the nexus of art and resistance through exhibits, public events, and public art works. Odums' art reflects the political enthusiasm of a generation of Black American activists who grew up during the presidency of the nation's first Black president, the rise of popular interest in police violence, and the birth of the self-care movement. His work includes luminaries such as Malcolm X, Colin Kaepernick, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, John Coltrane and other iconoclasts, and it seemed like his portrayal of these various global soccer superstars in Mo Salah, Neymar and Pogba would be an appropriate addition to his amazing work.
In the case of Mo Salah, he represented a diverse new face of fandom in the sport and a location like Times Square that was such a melting pot of cultures and individuals felt like an appropriate place, just across the street from the Bleacher Report offices to activate our mural. The man who lights up the Egyptian sky—and the entire Premier League—might just be the biggest player on the planet in terms of popularity ahead of the impending world cup, making him the perfect subject. Along with the experiential activation to this project, we also collaborated with our editorial arm of Bleacher Report Mag under editor Matt Sullivan who helped us collaborate with some of the top writers in the game to cover these superstar football players. In the case of Mo, that meant a great profile by Hanif Abdurraqib,that looked at the core of what made him such a compelling player and underdog story that so many people gravitate towards during his ascent to superstardom.
While Hanif cooked up the words and Taylor Rooks recorded an exclusive video interview with Mo, our design team was busy brainstorming and ideating with BMike on how to best visually represent all the storylines we wanted to convey with the artwork. I was a big proponent of including the indigenous flaura and fauna as an element of all of the murals as a nod to the roots of fandom and the origin of these players in their hometowns. Along with this, I wanted to visualize iconic moments like quirky hairstyles, electric goals or memorable celebrations within the elements of the spray paint composition as well. After Brandon walked us through his catalogue and the type of styles and techniques he uses to bring his art to life, our team applied the storytelling lens to include those various easter eggs as nods to the players backstories.
Salah represents the intersection of sports, culture, language, passion and so much more in a visceral way for many, and this is exactly what we wanted to tap into as we thought about how we could leave a mark on the city that never sleeps. What makes a city like New York iconic are the stories that become interwoven into the very fabric of the streets, whether that be the hallowed auditoriums of Carnegie Hall, the vaunted hardwood court at the Garden, or the familiar buzz of neon signs at Papaya King. The 2800 foot mural of Salah is found some 17 stories above the ground at the intersection of 51st and Broadway took about four days to complete. In it, Salah is in front of a red background with a white circle around his head. In many ways, the white represents a halo. For Eygpt, Salah is the chosen one and his trademark curly hair and beard are covered in Egyptian flowers and images of Salah celebrating in colors that harken the neon lights of Times square itself.
BMike actually had to pass a 16-hr class to operate the machine that would allow him to paint the Mo Salah portrait on the side of the building, per New York City regulations. The class taught us that the system wasn’t as sophisticated as one would hope, a platform suspended by two wires clamped to the rooftop of a 15 story building . Needing two people to operate on opposite sides , each harnessed to a “life line” also connected to the roof but secured by a knot. That knot was our fall protection. That would stop us from hitting the ground in the event the platform failed - mid air. The heights and cold winds weren't enough to stop us as the mural filled the wall over the course of the week, mentally preparing us for the two more that we would be making in New Orleans and Miami in the following days.
The city is full of places that tourists and fans seek out, and the Mo Salah Larger than Life mural sitting just a few blocks north of Times Square, has become a landmark of pilgrimage for those passionate Egyptian and Liverpool fans who love watching Salah tear up the field. We were able to take the early reference sketches and photoshop composites we created for BMike and project them onto the side facade of the building as he painstakingly soared hundreds of feet above the streets of New York layering on the paint that would become a fixture of the drive down Broadway for years to come.
Despite getting derailed in the world cup, Salah's star only continued to grow and during a visit to the city during the offseason he finally had a chance to visit the site of the mural himself in person. After posting a selfie that garnered well over 100 Million impressions across social in front of the mural, the spot has become something of a tradition for fans to visit. Rituals are synonymous with the sport of soccer, and now whenever you visit the city a familiar site on the corner of 52nd and 7th street has become an indelible part of their New York City must visit list like the Seinfeld Diner or Queens Boulevard.
A location tag search on instagram or twitter reveals a litany of fans taking selfies in front of the mural, which now boasts it's very own Egyptian food stand in the proximity to cater to the newfound flurry of people from an Egyptian demographic walking around that corner of the city. The fact that I had a chance to collaborate with a talented team to bring a project like this to life that has become something that fans seek out and visit on their trips is nothing short of special. To have left a fingerprint on the edifice of New York City is to touch eternity and the fact that fans come from around the world just to make it a point to visit is extremely cool. Seeing the smiling faces of all the people that go to the corner just to take a photo pointing up to the mural, much like Mo does after he scores a goal really reinforces the global nature of the sport and how it brings people from all walks of life together for the love of the game.
To help facilitate engagement we also activated with spray paint stenciled artwork on the streets of New York to drive foot traffic to the actual mural and to provide spots for fans to engage with and take photos. This type of more grassroots marketing was just the tip of the spear, along with linear television promotional content on TNT, to social vehicles designed specifically to amplify and promote this content, as well as merch and swag and an actual watch party to help capitalize on the hype of the world cup. This project became a stepping stone for an integrated marketing approach that gave us the top of the funnel advantage in targeting a new football fandom demographic for Bleacher Report and Turner Sports.
Along with art direction on the murals and helping our editorial team position the storytelling I was also in charge of helping our marketing team work on some merchandise that we could give away during a World Cup watch party that would also serve as a mural reveal for the Mo Salah piece visible from the BR office during the first Egypt game. I had a chance to design a base look and collaborated with my illustrator friend Sam Melvin to help create a look and feel that could be promoted on our BR Kicks social channels to get in on the kit reveal hype and give us an e-commerce angle to this world cup project as well. Along with T-Shirts and posters specific to the players I also created agnostic universal kits for the BR Football brand to really help announce it's arrival.
This coincided with Turner getting Champions league's rights and signing Steve Nash as a commentator, so these pieces were meant to help hark in a new era. With Turner paying UEFA $65 million dollars a year for the next three years to broadcast the Champions League across TBS, TNT, and B/R Live, Bleacher Report’s focus is creating content that will help Americans fall in love with the stars who transcend culture both on and off the pitch. Getting a tangible representation of this project allowed for us to create a deeper connection with our core consumer. The kits took inspiration from iconic stripes within the BR logo dash and featured languages from across the world while taking inspiration from the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich. The T-shirt became one of our hottest pieces of in office merch and even the Bleacher Report CEO at the time, Howard Mittman saw one of our designers wearing an eary sample shirt in the hallway and personally requested a couple for himself and both of his young kids! The jerseys were given away as a part of a client gifting suite at various Bleacher Report Football events over the course of the next few years and became the base design for our Steve Nash Showdown annual charity soccer match in the summertime as well.
This type of editorial worked opened up the door to produce more branded content through our BR Football sub-brand, the relationships brokered with athletes of Mo Salah's caliber along with their representation and agencies allowed for us to tap into them for future collaborations and brand amplification opportunities. A perfect illustration of that is the Adidas cleat campaign we activated in partnership with BR Football with Khammy Vilaysing, another example is seen in the season premiere episode of Taylor Rook's show "Take it There" where we were able to get a commitment from Mo to be a guest during the interview sessions for this world cup project. There is a distinct domino effect between these projects and how to drive revenue generation opportunities, because of this we learned to keep a keen eye on tracking analytics and impact so that it could be used to further fuel our marketing narratives. The content world really is an ecosystem where each segment has elements that feedback into others and allow for growth opportunities and partnerships such as this.
With a bigger soccer audience, the goal also is more and new kinds of advertising. Advertising tied to Bleacher Report’s soccer coverage in 2018 was able to go up over 400% year over year as it went from making up just 2% of our yearly revenue to a tenth of our overall revenue. Soccer is a passion that attracts a young and diverse audience that’s extremely attractive to marketers and premium brands. The global nature of soccer has helped Bleacher Report attract new, non-sports advertisers, including Chanel and Chase in fragrance and finance categories beyond the likes of sporting brands like Puma and Adidas as well.
In keeping with the theme of young energizing players with iconic hairstyles, Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent, How the Word Is Passed, and Above Ground penned the fiery story on Brazil's mercurial star on a trip to his hometown to really help us get a feel for his origin tale as we ideated on how to develop the mural. Neymar was a part of the next generation of stars beyond the likes of Ronaldo and Messi that were taking the game to it's next evolution. Finding an amazing location in the up and coming arts district of Brickell on the side of the Gazit Horizons building at 90 S.W. 8th Street in Miami the mural would felt right at home next to the art that fills the streets of South Beach and Wynwood during the hustle and bustle of Art Basel. Miami made sense for Neymar because it’s bright, it’s vibrant, it’s colorful, it’s flashy and it’s extremely South American.
Unlike Times Square which was more of a tourist destination that represented a landmark meeting point for fans of the sport to come visit, this neighborhood was really far more of a local community with a heavy Brazilian population. We wanted to make sure to really serve as a way to help revitalize the neighborhood and we felt like helping to create this mural would also help the hole in the wall cafe across the street filled with the sounds and smells of Rio with some of the strongest Caiparinas you are gonna find in Florida. By providing a mural like this as the backdrop of the local watering hole that folks watched the games at we were really able to weave the artwork into the community in an area that was as dynamic as Neymar himself.
Integrating all the elements of this project and making sure they all had the same voice across the various platforms was something I was tasked with. It was important that the energy of Neymar's game you saw when you tuned in on the field would show in the artwork when you saw the murals in person and came across in the details and easter eggs that true fans would recognize would be mirrored in both the writing, and the videos we were producing featuring the artwork.
Along with this, we also needed to ensure that this was all packed up properly on social and broken into bite sized pieces for our various sub brand audiences to consume. Finally, I was also working closely with Will Lievenberg on our marketing teams to ensure we could drive fans back to our social profiles to build a return on the investment, and then to see if we could package and pilot this concept in future branded content opportunities. The world cup allowed for us to use the editorial calendar to pilot concepts that could become repeatable vehicles.
When you think about an American city like Miami, you think about the colour, the energy, the deep South American roots and the energy that showcases itself in everything from the coffee to the music. Neymar has a history with Miami, having played exhibition matches here over the years with both Brazil and former club Barcelona.He has taken in a Miami Heat game, partied with Drake at the Versace Mansion, and appeared at the Nike Miami store. Also, the U.S. final for Neymar’s five-a-side soccer tournament has taken place in Miami the past three years, and he has truly taken a liking to the city. The 10,000-square-foot image of the Brazilian maestro took us three days to complete and on his next trip to the city for a Red Bull footy tournament, Neymar actually had a chance to check it out when we spoke with him about his tattoo journey, an opportunity that was brokered thanks to this Larger Than Life project and became a big piece in our Champions League coverage for the next season which Turner had rights to.
The final player we landed on to represent the next generation of stars taking the world cup by storm was none other than Manchester United and French star Paul Pogba. Since the last World Cup, Pogba became known internationally for his celebrations—for capping off goals with powerful, joyful dabs, each of his long arms jutting out over his head in quick succession. This joyful energy and enthusiasm for the game has made him an icon amongst Gen-Z as videos of his dances go viral on TikTok all the time. We tapped in Amos Barshad to put together a story about his rise to fame while we headed down to New Orleans by the French Quarter to bring his image to life. During the interview with Pogba, he mentioned a nugget that I really think encapsulates the ethos of this entire project quite well in terms of the intersection betweek art and sport;
We did New Orleans for Pogba because New Orleans is a city of creativity, it’s a French city, and it’s a city rooted in culture and fun just like Pogba who really embodies not just that energy but also who much of our audience is. The building that we ended up painting in the mural actually ended up housing thousands of barrels of French wine, so it felt quite appropriate to choose that for our location. For our creative team it was key that the murals were impactful and in spots that would highlight the folks living around it, we wanted to make sure that beyond being visible, the portraits were in locations that reflected what the players represent and what they have accomplished both on and off the pitch because these parallels really are at the heart of this project.
Another important factor in this project was how it positioned BR Football as a new player in the football media space in comparison to it's UK based counterparts. Competing with the likes of Sky Sports and the BBC meant a new type of content format that they wouldn't be as ready to touch. The way that the European media has covered soccer for so long, the access isn’t there. They get a couple minutes after a match, with the players in front of a wall full of advertisers and they get very canned bites and very bland answers. There’s not a lot about personalities or stories about clubs that you really get to see, we’re not just trying to break the mold, but destroy it. Thanks to the creative team and BMike, and a willingness to push the envelope, we were able to use creative collaboration and something as simple as a paintbrush and spray can to innovate storytelling and disrupt media companies entrenched in the space for decades.
Pogba rounded out our trio of players whose hairstyles became the canvas for our storytelling as the fleur-de-lis native to both France and New Orleans blooms across the bottom of the sidewalk, really representing hope for a city and a neighborhood that really needs it in the years following it's rebuilding post Katrina. A chance to serve the community and beautify the neighborhood with artwork in BMike's hometown was something that felt like a great way to tie a bow around this project in the most appropriate way. Paul is one of the most dynamic players in the game today and his improv on the field and the rhythm and swagger with which he plays is reminiscent of the great freestyle Jazz and Blues musician's that fill the streets of the French Quarter every week.
Having to paint massive murals has its own inherent challenges, but having to do them in three different cities, with three different players, and still find a way to connect them all was the most exciting part of the project. That was the one thing that visually connected all three of them. Their hair was almost telling a story. Whether it was the sweat in their hair that showed how hard they were working or just the hairstyles themselves, all of their hair had a lot of character. In the process of trying to figure out how to connect all three of them, but also leave room for the images to be simple but have a lot of information the hair made it all possible. It is a unique facet of all three stars and became a canvas for us as well to bring to life for this project and beyond.
What ended up being an awesome culmination of the project was the fact that France and Pogba ended up bringing home the hardware in epic and commanding fashion, cementing this squad and Paul into the history books in an extremely unique way. One of the most polarizing players that we pegged to redefine the next generation of football alongside the likes of Salah and Neymar showed why they truly are Larger than Life. This project really showcased what a multi pronged and integrated campaign for a major tentpole event could look like, and I was able to be involved in multiple aspects in bringing it to fruition.
With Paul and France taking home the coveted trophy it was also a reminder that our work was not done, that this Larger than Life project was really just the coming out party for BR Football much like it was for these young superstars and that the future of our content calendar looked a lot more promising once this proof of concept project was out the door. This would really set the stage for a number of our future partnerships in growing the brand and driving a 40% increase in yearly revenue for the company at large as well. This was really a jumping off point for a bunch of sponsored content and editorial content we would pursue with the likes of Adidas, Puma, Chase and more.
A great example of how this type of editorial content drove revenue was in subsequent branded content deals that Beckley Mason and our Playmaker team were able to broker with our BR Football presence like our world cup mural integration with Puma. The goal was to create a unique hand-painted advertising mural in the heart of Shoreditch, featuring some of Puma, and the world’s, biggest stars at this summer’s tournament including the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku. Rather than just create a mural crammed with this galaxy of footballing superstars we were tasked with creating a mural that would help keep the public engaged throughout the tournament whilst also helping to create content for Bleacher Report’s many social channels.
In partnership with the GraffitiLife UK team e decided the best way to engage the thousands of people who pass the wall every day was to design a piece that could be updated regularly to reflect the many stories coming out of the tournament. With street art campaigns being shared readily online and often going viral, this kind of ‘evolving’ billboard is a great way to continue to engage a local demographic over a longer period and help bridge the gap between OOH and social media. The centre of the wall has an image of a mobile phone, which our graffiti artists have been updating regularly. Our team has had to respond quickly in updating the advertising mural so that we could ensure the content remained relevant! By proving the feasibility of the vehicle, the editorial element became somewhat of a pilot project that the branded content team could take to market as a sort of proof of concept. With analytics to back up our engagement we were able to broker strategic partnerships with companies like Puma and Adidas to help supplement these type of content opportunities and fuel our business goals in terms of revenue growth.
Key Collaborators: Ryan O'Leary, Matt Sullivan, Will Lievenberg, Duane Jackson, Brandon Odums, Sean Swaby, Clint Smith, Chris Perez, Amos Rashad, Hanif Abdurraqib. Sam Melvin, Sean Fay, Mark Bollons, GraffitiLife UK, Khammy Vilaysing, Mark Phillips, Amøbe, Matheus Masello, Barrilete Cósmico, Steven Kelly, Anton Alfy, Pete Schwedel
Tools: Photoshop, After Effects, Final Cut Pro
Deliverables: Mural Activations, Video Features, Immersive Articles, Social Packaging
Category: Creative Direction, Motion Graphics, Producing, Directing, Design, Writing, Experiential