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Blog: What I learnt from Rio Ferdinand

In 2006 I had the privilege of working with English footballer Rio Ferdinand. At the time Rio was part of the England world cup team and was preparing for the 2006 championships and whilst he was a phenomenal player, playing for Manchester United and part of the starting lineup for the Worldcup, he was also looking to what the future could hold.

Engaged by his then commercial manager, my brief was to work on the development of Rio’s personal brand. Understanding the need for players to think beyond their football prime, Rio was keen to embark on a career into TV. Back then of course he wasn’t the star football presenter that we see now, he was a 27 year old player that understood the need to develop a personal brand and the power of strategic brand planning. My role was to help develop a TV programme entitled ‘Rio’s Worldcup Windups’ - a MTV ‘punked’ style program in which Rio did pranks on the other players in his team; David Beckham is picked up by a driver that takes a detour to make him late for his meeting.

Wayne Ronney thought he had accidentally killed a dog and Ashley Cole thought a music executive was going to sign him. The program was extremely funny and gave an insight into Rio’s world and his relationship with his teammates. It was a broadcasting commissioners dream, as such it was broadcasted on ITV just before the 2006 England v Paraguay worldcup game.

But what did I, as a then 27 year old learn from this experience? Working with one of the worlds most recognised faces and football talents, meeting Beckham and Rooney….what did I take away from it all? Here are my top three tips:

1. Prepare to pitch anywhere - when I received the call to meet Rio I was excited and of course took the time out to prepare a pitch that would make him scream yes! In my naivety I created a powerpoint and was ready to deliver the pitch, boardroom style. With no brief on how the pitch would be set up, I went ahead with what I thought would work. However, I found myself meeting Rio as he come off his private jet from London to Manchester and I had 15 minutes in the back of his Range Rover to pitch my ideas. The best part was that within that 15 minutes we stopped to say hi to fans whilst he signed autographs and we stopped for him to go to the local Caribbean take-away to get some food. So technically when you take all of that into account I probably had more like 5 minutes to convenience him to work with me. So, my first tip - prepare to pitch anywhere. Throw away the powerpoint, they are so old hat, and get creative. Ask for detailed briefs on where the pitch will take place and then be prepared for it to change.

Never rely on technology and know your stuff inside out, so if you end up in the middle of a Caribbean take-away with a star football player….you can still land the deal.

2. Just be you - one day we were on set and the production company was trying to come up with ideas on what Rio should say as the show’s tagline. They wanted something that would be rememberable and repeated at the end of each time he ‘punked’ his fellow team mates. I remember watching him read the script they had prepared for him and seeing his expression of uncertainty on the line that was on the paper. He said it a few times but as he did, it didn’t flow, it wasn’t sounding believable. I wanted to say something but at first I was extremely nervous; I was young, probably one of the most junior on set and it was my first time working with Rio. There were cameras and production crew, makeup, stylist, directors and of course the players all were there, I wanted to speak and give my idea but my heart was bonding. Never-the-less I plucked up the courage and said what was on my mind “Rio, you’re from where I am from (both South Londoner’s) maybe you should say something that reflects that. I mean (I went on to say as all eyes were firmly on me)…what would you say to your boys if you punched them?” He paused for a moment and then laughed “You got merked” In that moment it felt right, it sounded right, it was right. It was used on the program and ended up being the line that kids said in playgrounds all over the UK. My lesson here; in branding you have to always be authentic to you. Never run away from your background or history, use it, for it gives you the foundation for your truth. Don’t allow others to impose their versions of you onto you. You know what your truth is so use it and be it. People buy into people and your personal brand needs to be an extension, an exemplification of who you really are.

3. Life is like football divisions - by the end of the contract I was comfortable around Rio and really enjoyed being on set with him. He was funny and extremely wise. On this particular day, we got talking about life and business. I remember him saying something to me that has stuck with me to this day. He explained that football, like life, has divisions. When you start in the academy you start at the bottom of that division, then you work hard and make your way to the top of the academy division. But then, when you jump up to the next division, for example the under 18’s, you start at the bottom of that division. Then you work hard, you get to the top and jump again. This process happens continuously; each time you work your way up the divisions you start at the bottom every time. In so many ways that is life and it is most definitely the journey of building a brand. You always start at the bottom division and once you put in the work you end up at the top of that division, but to progress you have to step out of your comfort zone and jump up to the next division. But when you jump you are then at the bottom of that next division, you have to work again and once you get to the top of that division, once again you have to jump out of your comfort zone to the next division. Once at that division, just like when you get to the premiership in football, you start at the bottom of the division. The problem, Rio and I concluded, is that too many people are not prepared to jump to the next division. They remain comfortable where they are and if they do jump they expect to be at the top of the next division. But it never works that way. So my final tip is this; jump, and keep jumping. Once you are there, get comfortable at being at the bottom of your new division and enjoy the challenge of working your way up, remembering that each time you are growing, your brand is expanding even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. You are in a new league.

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