Running on Empty: Third City for James Ellington

by Third City

James Ellington is one of Britain’s most talented athletes, who competed in both the 200m and the 4x100m in the games. Sponsored by King of Shaves he is a regular columnist in Metro and has become one of Britain’s most talked about Olympic stars.

It might not have turned out like this.

Due to a four-year run of serious injuries, six months ago James was also the only major sprinter in the country without a sponsorship deal. This meant that he was unable to commit full-time to training for Olympic qualification, instead supplementing his income by coaching under-privileged children in South East London alongside his training schedule.

Following many ‘false dawns’ with potential sponsors, James approached Third City for help. The agency agreed to take on his cause on a pro-bono basis, developing a campaign that would attract a sponsor to cover the £30,000 he would need to cover his living and training costs for the Olympics.

The objective was simple and the agency knew that the only way to achieve it would be with huge publicity that would draw attention to James’ situation, as well as demonstrating that he would be an outstanding asset to any brand.  

Following creative brainstorming, Third City landed on a novel approach: put James’ sponsorship bid on an online auction site. As well as drawing media attention to his plight this would allow us to put a time limit on submissions and promote rivalry between potential sponsors that would help to ‘bid up’ to the amount we needed.

The agency knew that there would always be the potential for ‘hoax bids’, but judged that this would simply add to the groundswell of publicity around the campaign as a whole, attracting interest beyond eBay.

In order to announce the bid, free use of the Crystal Palace Stadium was negotiated, with a photo-call notice inviting all national newspapers and sports correspondents to attend. A number of striking creative shots were staged and photographs were issued across all newswires. Simultaneously, a dedicated team handled all media calls back at the Third City office.

Media interest was huge, with TV crews from all over the world attending the photo shoot. The Evening Standard was given an exclusive opportunity to break the print story in its afternoon edition and James was interviewed on ITN News that evening, with most national newspapers running stories the following day.

As predicted, when it closed the top bid turned out to be a hoax. Fortunately, Third City capitalized on this by negotiating an exclusive piece in the Daily Telegraph that dramatized James’ disappointment with this adding further momentum to the campaign.

In the meantime, Third City received a long list of private approaches from brands interested in James, outside of the eBay auction. One brand, King of Shaves, approached the agency early in the process via Twitter and the team judged that there was an excellent fit with the athlete, given its challenger posture towards brands like Gillette, which rely strongly on high profile athletic endorsement.

Third City proceeded to negotiate a partnership with founder Will King that would cover all of the funding required for James’ Olympic bid. After several days, once all contracts were in place, the agency were able to make a second announcement, unveiling James as the face of King of Shaves, again staged at Crystal Palace with the founder, Will King.

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