How ASICS played mind games in a new documentary
ASICS's new documentary, Mind Games - The Experiment, explores the impact of exercise on cognitive function. Charting the progress of four sedentary mind gamers, the film is a captivating and ground-breaking study that explores the power of exercise to sharpen the mind. Here, Neil Dawson, Co-Founder of the agency that created the campaign, discusses its genesis, how it grew and why branded content takes courage.
Today, sportswear brand ASICS has released a feature-length documentary on Amazon Prime Video that puts to the test whether a person's mind can be positively affected by them moving their body.
Called Mind Games - The Experiment, ASICS invited competitive gamers from around the world, specialising in mind games such as chess and e-sports, and who rely on their cognitive function, to start an exercise programme. The campaign was created by Neil A Dawson & Company and produced by Beyond Productions, and while the overarching experiment, created by Professor Brendon Stubbs, a renowned researcher in movement and the mind, followed 77 different mind gamers across a four month period, the documentary itself focusses on four specific people, charting their journey as they attempt to hit certain targets in their chosen fields.
We all know that exercise is good for our mental and physical health, but the impact on cognitive functioning has been less explored.
“We all know that exercise is good for our mental and physical health," said Professor Stubbs, "but the impact on cognitive functioning has been less explored. We wanted to examine the effects of exercise on people who depend on their cognitive abilities - competitive mind gamers." The 75-minute film follows Mahjong player Ryoei Hirano, International Chess Master Kassa Korley, 'Memory Man' Ben Pridmore, and e-sports professional Sherry Nhan.
Below, Neil Dawson, Co-Founder at Neil A Dawson & Company, discusses the genesis of the campaign, how it grew and why branded content takes courage.
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Above: The trailer for ASICS' Mind Games - The Experiement
How did the initial idea for Mind Games; The Experiment come about?
The initial idea came from the stars aligning; clients that understand the power of creativity and can recognise a great idea and an authentic, compelling brand story that isn’t universally known. I began working with Gary [Raucher, EVP, ASICS EMEA] back in 2007 when we led Philips to back-to-back Cannes Grands Prix [For 2009's Carousel and 2010's Parallel Lines]. Since 2019 I’ve worked with Gary and Fish [Caroline Fisher, Communications Director, ASICS EMEA] on a variety of brilliantly insightful projects. but this was something new and bigger; a big brand idea for Sound Mind, Sound Body to run across Europe. Something new, fresh, different, and outside conventional channels.
The initial idea came from the stars aligning; clients that understand the power of creativity and can recognise a great idea and an authentic, compelling brand story.
My company model means I can quickly bring in quality, experienced creative talent on projects. I assembled five freelance teams from across the globe and explained the scale of the opportunity: Great client. Great story. Best idea wins. After a couple of rounds of fantastic creative, Gary, Fish and I zeroed in on one idea from my old pals [creatives] Robert Rutherford and Darren Borrino. They had an idea called Body Theory. At the heart of it was the question that became Mind Games – The Experiment. The question being, ‘By moving their bodies, can mind gamers perform better at mind gaming?’
What we had, in advertising terms, was a good old fashioned ‘before and after’ but on a grand scale and on a subject that was untried and tested.
Above: Creative Director Neil Dawson, ASICS's Gary Raucher and Hamo Forsyth, Beyond Production's Creative Director of Factual.
The film centres around a scientific study that looks at 77 mind athletes and the impact of exercise on their mental capacities. It's an expansive - and expensive - approach; was there any trepidation from the client about committing to this?
No trepidation whatsoever. In fact, it was the opposite. It was Gary and Fish’s idea that we have a broader study to support the film; a real scientific study to provide accurate data that was a huge undertaking and masterminded brilliantly by Golin London. As an ad man, this was music to my ears.
As an ad man, this was music to my ears.
You want to dramatise a truth. But, seeing as this had never been done before, ASICS would have to do this themselves. It’s why we use the term ‘ground-breaking’... because it is.
Did you know from the beginning that this would be a globally launched, long form documentary project?
Initially it was an EMEA project, and the ambition was it would be long form or big and unconventional in some way. A few weeks after Gary and Fish had taken the Mind Games deck away to share, he called me. "Are you sitting down?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "In Costa Coffee, Milton Keynes Station." He said; "Our European idea is now a global idea. Everyone is behind it. We need to find a film company."
Above [Clockwise from top left]: Mahjong player Ryoei Hirano trains with his daughters; International Chess Master, Kassa Korley; 'Memory Man', Ben Pridmore, and E-Sports professional, Sherry Nhan.
The production was undertaken by a company more used to TV programming than commercial content; what did they bring to Mind Games - The Experiment that a more traditional commercial company may not have?
We talked to quite a few companies, as you might expect. Mostly production companies I know are from the ad world, but I wanted a contrast and, by chance, I happened to know Damon Pattison, Creative Director at Beyond Productions.
It was a global search, and not an easy one. We were looking for diversity across regions, gender and sports.
Their pitch was full of passion and they understood the importance of the broader study. They brought a wealth of experience in this type of content creation. We felt confident they would be able to find the right cast and cope with a global production. They also brought us Stephen Fry [as narrator], which was huge.
How did you cast the film and find the four main mind gamers, and what was it about them that stuck out?
It was a global search, and not an easy one. We were looking for diversity across regions, gender and sports. Getting exactly the right mix was hard, but Beyond did a great job and before too long we had our four stars.
The project was devised and shot over the course of the pandemic; how did that affect the approach and execution?
Covid was a massive concern going into this project. To negate this this we decided to have separate crews and shoots rather than one director and crew that would travel the globe.
Above: In the film, Ben Pridmore is dubious about the positive effects of exercise on his cognitive funstions.
While the athletes all wear ASICS kit, the film is not overt in its branding; was there much discussion about how far you could/should push the brand within the film?
There was a lot of discussion about this. But Gary and Fish were very mindful that this could not be heavily branded. They understood that if the viewer felt like they were being sold to, we would lose them. The beauty of this opportunity is that the brand philosophy is a human truth. If you dramatise that truth you are telling the brand story.
The documentary is being released on Prime Video today; was that always the plan, and how much input did Prime have into the content of the film?
The aim was always to release on a major streaming platform. Our media partner, Francesca Wallis [Business Unit Lead, Publicis Groupe NL], connected us with Amazon and then we had the invaluable support of Michael Dwan [Head of Media Customer Success (Int'l) & Custom Solutions (Int'l) at Amazon Advertising] and Paul Lazzara [Head of Sportswear at Amazon Advertising].
[Asics] were very mindful that this could not be heavily branded. They understood that if the viewer felt like they were being sold to, we would lose them.
Amazon were very clear about the type of content that will and will not work on Prime, in terms of the content itself, its length and branding. But, as I said, Michael and Paul really helped us navigate our way through that.
Above: Gary Raucher introduces Mind Games - The Experiment, which was premiered at BAFTA in London last week.
Can you tell us about the editing process; how challenging was it to bring everything together and were there many discussions about what was left in/taken out?
It was a big challenge, it took a while, and we had many, many discussions! The tricky thing for agency and client is we weren’t on the shoot. We didn’t know what had been shot. Having the right amount of back story is important so the viewer has empathy with the characters.
[Editing] was a big challenge, it took a while, and we had many, many discussions!
But we have a single, overall theme, a thread that needs to come through with a clear ‘before and after.’
Long form branded content is a goal for many brands, but few seem to achieve it successfully; why do you think that is?
A variety of reasons, I suspect. Perhaps being too heavy handed with brand? It takes courage to keep that touch light. Perhaps trying to tell a story that just isn’t compelling enough for long form?
What do you hope Mind Games - The Experiment achieves, and will there be any more similar campaigns in the future?
My hope is that it continues to push the truth that exercise really does positively affect your mental wellbeing in many ways, and that this is ASICS’ founding principle. A principle that is the DNA of the brand and even features in its name Anima Sana In Corpore Sano [A sound mind in a sound body]. Mind Games – The Experiment follows brilliant campaigns like Dramatic Transformation, Upliftford and Mind Race. I’m certain there will be lots more to come.