AIB and Rothco hoping for a ‘tough’ crowd at Cannes Lions

Stop ‘nannying’ brands, Irish bank and ad agency behind ‘The Toughest’ will tell festival

When Irish advertising agency Rothco and its client AIB take to the stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this Saturday, they will try to sell the benefits of "loosening up" to the audience of "brand leaders" who flock to the festival each year.

AIB chief marketing officer Tom Kinsella, his brand director colleague Brian Keating and Rothco founding partner Patrick Ronaldson will use a prestigious slot to discuss "The Toughest", the campaign that helped AIB revive its dusty sponsorship of the GAA club football championships and rehabilitate its own brand.

In a talk titled “If you love something, set it free”, Rothco and AIB will “confront the thorny issue of over-parenting in the creative process”, sharing what happened when AIB “handed over control of its big idea” and watched as GAA clubs and fans brought “The Toughest” to life.

‘Common parlance’

“‘The Toughest’ is an idea that was as much owned by the GAA clubs and fans as it was by us. It has gone into common parlance now. We just add a bit of fuel to the fire every year to keep it going,” said Mr Kinsella.


The campaign, which began in 2013, ranges from low-budget dressing-room footage designed for YouTube to the television factual format The Toughest Trade.

The central concept – that the club championships are the hardest to win and that its players are some of the toughest sportspeople out there – is one that clubs and fans have understandably been keen on. The “no nannying” approach to the campaign has led to a rare case of a marketing hashtag being adopted by social media users as their own.

AIB’s GAA sponsorship activity helped the bank reinvigorate its brand at a time when it was “in the doldrums, for all the obvious reasons”, Mr Kinsella said.

“I think you would have to say that our association with the GAA and ‘The Toughest’ has played a really big part in it.”

It is a “tiny, tiny sponsorship” in the world of international, super-brand, super-controlled sports sponsorships, but it cut through because it was seen as authentic, he said. “Too many times, sponsors get in the way of fans’ enjoyment rather than increasing their enjoyment.”


AIB and Rothco are the only Irish speakers on the main stages at this year’s Cannes, where the nature of the audience calls for a little sophistication.

"At Cannes, they are focused on the talks not being 'we're Rothco, and we're great' or 'we're AIB and we're great'," said Jill Byrne, Rothco's director of marketing.

The independent, Irish-owned agency employs 180 people and is hoping to further build its roster of international clients. The agency will send 10 people to the festival, where its sister agency Guns or Knives is also holding a workshop titled "You're Dumber Than You Think", while the agency will also be hoping to add to the bronze and silver Cannes Lions awards it won in 2015 and 2016.

“It’s hard to attract people to Dublin – you have to get in front of them,” said Ms Byrne. “At Cannes, the best clients are there, the best innovators, the best tech people.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics