By Mark Tungate
Who is Willie Beamen? Not the founder of the advertising agency that bears his name, that’s for sure. In fact he’s a fictional character: the quarterback played by Jamie Foxx in the classic sports movie “Any Given Sunday”.
But it makes sense that he should have his name on the door of an agency that specialises in sports. Co-founder Nicolas de Fautereau explains: “It took us a while to find the name. As we’re a young agency, so to speak, we didn’t want to use our initials like the agencies of the 1980s and before. And sport is at the heart of our DNA: we’re all fans and practitioners at a certain level.”
One of the three co-founders, Sylvain Ventre, was a professional handball player, while Romain Collinet, who is also CEO, played rugby at a high level until his early twenties. Nicolas himself runs marathons and competes in motor races.
The trio also have an understanding of what Nicolas calls “the ecosystem of sport”. Romain was an agent and talent manager for sports pros – Sylvain being one of them. Nicolas spent 12 years at BMW, three of them heading sports sponsorship. They met in a professional capacity but soon found that they had a number of friends in common, often through sports, as well as a professional affinity.
It was actually a friend – a film director – who suggested the name Willie Beamen, partly because of Al Pacino’s famous inspirational speech as the team’s coach.
“It’s all about doing your best through work and discipline,” says Nicolas. “We also wanted a name that was easy to say in different languages, because we’d already begun to work with international clients. Sport has no barriers.”
Willie it was, then. The agency launched in April 2013 and remains independent. Its founding client was the French men’s underwear brand Dim (say it “Deem”), which had developed a sports range and whose brand ambassadors were rugby stars. “At the beginning we worked quite a lot on image rights and so on, with the objective of getting a chance to work on the creative as well, because that was the direction we wanted to evolve in.”
Six months later the agency won Moneygram, the money transfer service, which had signed a partnership with the iconic football team Paris Saint Germain. The nascent Willie Beamen pitched against the likes of Havas Sport to win the business. “We presented ourselves as if we were a well-established agency, but in fact there were only five of us doing everything.”
Today the agency is 25-strong. At the time of writing, of course, they’re all working from home. “It’s a real test for the solidity of the agency, the commitment of our co-workers and their capacity to work from a distance over a long period of time, while staying motivated.”
Luckily, the agency is working on three big pitches that keep the team focused. In terms of its clients, Nicolas seems confident that the agency has built lasting partnerships. “The three of us don’t come from the traditional agency world, so I’d say we work differently with clients. We ask them to think of us as team-mates.”
The agency’s films have that same sense of authenticity – and they’re always suffused with a love of sport. They are uplifting and emotional. “Well sport is always a story of passion, of excitement. Some of the most intense moments in life come through sport.”
One film that vividly captures this passion is for the football team Olympique de Marseille and its new sponsor Uber Eats. It was born out of a PR crisis, when the sponsor wanted to display its name in green on the team’s iconic blue shirts. There was a violent backlash from supporters. On the advice of the agency, the sponsor relented and the name was turned to a more suitable black. Uber Eats sent out a tweet along the lines of: “We hear you. Now it’s time to work up a sweat.”
“Among the supporters, hate turned to love,” says Nicolas. “As I said, sport is often about extreme feelings. And that’s why the campaign was totally about the supporters and their love for the club.”
Clearly there’s not much film-making going on right now. “But you can use images, words,” says Nicolas. “When Allianz announced their Olympic partnership last year, we made a one minute film without shooting a single scene. We used existing images of intense sporting moments, augmented with special effects. It was a very well-received film for which we shot zero images.”
As anyone who does sport knows, you never give in to defeat. You look it in the eye, you give your all – and sometimes you win.