It had become, by AIB’s admission, a “tired” sponsorship. But the bank’s long-standing relationship with the All Ireland club football championship has become a means for it to create three hours of branded content for Irish television.
AIB, the only brand straddling both club and county football, is currently warming up for the second year of its three- year sponsorship of the GAA All Ireland Senior Football Championship. And group brand director Brian Keating is preparing for the campaign on a high after the The Toughest Trade, the second and third episodes of which aired on RTÉ2 in March, garnered several "best thing RTÉ has ever done" tweets from viewers.
In fact, the sports-swap format was not only backed by AIB but devised by AIB's advertising agency, Rothco, with creative direction from both the production company Motive Television and Rothco.
The title built on “The Toughest”, the line AIB used to reinvigorate its sponsorship of club football three years ago.
“We came to a point in 2013 when we had the club sponsorship for 20 years and, to be honest, it was quite tired,” says Keating. It was “some way behind” other GAA tournaments in terms of its allure.
But then the bank’s marketers spoke to “legends from the sport” who had never won the club championships and regarded it as a hole on their CV of triumphs.
“We realised that it was actually the hardest competition to win,” he says.
Out of that idea, grew the idea of “The Toughest”, at first a traditional campaign of billboards and 30-second television spots, and later “more about creating unique content” – short documentary videos showing footage from club dressing rooms and grounds.
This led to The Toughest Trade, a factual format in which a GAA player gets to grips with another sport, such as cricket, baseball or American football, while the cricketer, baseballer or American footballer assumes the life of the GAA player.
“It came out of a conversation that GAA can stand up with any sport in the world,” says Keating.
The first documentary aired on TV3 last year, before RTÉ2 snapped up the next two parts: "It was a brilliant canvas, to have 60 minutes rather than to try to get a story across in 30 seconds."
The production values on The Toughest Trade suggested a spend higher than the average for an RTÉ2 factual show, though Keating won't disclose its budget on the grounds that it is commercially sensitive. He does describe the production as "very economical" compared with buying ad spots, however.
“In essence, you are not paying for your media. The production cost is your only cost.”
The programme is not only a coup for the bank, it is a reflection of how fond Irish television has become of branded content. As Rothco copywriter Shane O’Brien put it at Dublin’s Offset festival last week, “a few years ago, the idea of a bank making a TV show would have been utterly ridiculous”.
At this stage, Keating doesn't know if there will be any more episodes of The Toughest Trade. But the bank is pleased with how its GAA sponsorships, which also include support for the camogie championship, has helped with the "rehabilitation" of the brand.
“Backing club and county” sits alongside “backing putting down roots” (its line for mortgage lending) and the higher- profile “backing brave” (small- business lending) and “backing doing” (personal credit) campaigns, which are set to continue throughout 2016.
When it chooses its marketing messages now, does it want to reference an economic recovery, or is more the case of recognising that even mention of recovery will be galling to the many who are feeling no such thing?
“We would speak regularly with our customers to understand their needs,” says Keating. “The last thing we want to do is be out of step with how they are feeling.”