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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

April 9, 2024 | 5 min read

We catch up with the New York creative shop to hear all about what went into its celebrated work for Michelob Ultra, which placed highly in The Drum’s World Creative Rankings report.

John McEnroe’s reputation for being tough on the court precedes him. Known for his intense demeanor, one of his most memorable outbursts during a match at Wimbledon birthed a catchphrase that transcended the sport itself: “You cannot be serious!” Yet despite his achievements, the former number one has often expressed that he didn’t quite enjoy his successes as much as he should have.

Back in early 2021, FCB New York had an out-of-the-box idea for its client Michelob Ultra to get McEnroe back on to the court and face his toughest opponent to date: himself. With the tagline “It’s only worth it if you enjoy it,” the light lager brand wanted to get the tennis great behind that sentiment and face five virtual versions of himself that were built using AI.

Hitting a sweet spot with the timing, the campaign started to come to fruition when many athletes were beginning to question whether the win-at-all-costs mentality was worth it – something the Wimbledon champion had obviously struggled with.

The agency’s chief creative officer, Michael Aimette, says the pitching process for this project was quite informal because the client has the same passion for fame-driving ideas. “It’s not a classic sell job; it’s an enthusiasm moment,” he explains. ”Michelob was as excited as we were when we had the idea and John was such a perfect fit for the brand. That was the easy part; making it was the challenge.”

When something is the first of its kind, there are always going to be hurdles to overcome. In this case, there had never been a tennis match between a real and virtual player before and the team had to figure out exactly how the technology would work. In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error involved. Executive creative director Alexandre Abrantes jokes: “I think our greatest advantage is we don’t know any better. Ignorance is bliss.

“An idea like this takes courage and bold clients, not only in wanting to do creative work but also in believing that we can figure it out. And we always say that it’s not if we can pull this off, but how can we pull this off?”

He says that choosing your partners on a project that hasn’t been done before is the most important thing, because it’s not a matter of ‘if’ you’ll find problems; it’s ‘when.’ For example, one stress at the beginning was that there was a screen in the middle of the court, which meant that the ball couldn’t travel through it. They turned that solid screen into a curtain, which meant the ball could travel freely between the robot and McEnroe. The one stipulation that the entire team had was that it had to be a real match; it could not be staged.

And the retired tennis pro was more than up for the challenge, too. “It was great! John McEnroe yelled at me,” Abrantes says. “No, seriously, John was amazing. A true bro. I mean, he’s been doing this for a long time.”

There was always the stress of how he would react if things didn’t go perfectly, the team admits, but he loved the idea of looking back on his career and almost getting a second chance to enjoy himself a bit more.

During the match, which was broadcast on ESPN, the tennis legend played virtual versions of himself from the 1970s and 80s, powered by AR MetaHuman technology, and on a specially built tennis court – the first-ever half-real, half-virtual one. On the virtual half of the court, McEnroe’s avatar was projected on to a particle-mist screen, and on the physical half, there was a custom-built surface with acrylic fiber to resemble his favorite courts.

“AI for the sake of AI is nothing at the end of the day; you need a powerful idea,” adds Abrantes. “If we were just creating AI versus AI, it would be like, ‘OK, it’s AI,’ but you need an idea, you need a reason.”

What the creatives found interesting about using AI in this project was the intersection between the digital and the tangible which made it more interesting rather than just a passive experience. It’s what made the campaign so difficult but also why it was so satisfying.

Abrantes affirms that the project was so exciting because, often, when you make an ad, you’re trying to get in the way of people’s content. But in this case, the ad was the show and it continues to live on YouTube with over 100,000 views there alone. “People wanted to watch it and be entertained by it,” he continues. “And to me, proof of that is the recognition that it got with the Emmys afterward. It was broadcast in 52 countries, which is insane.”

As one of the most awarded campaigns in the world, the team recognizes that awards are important. “They’re not the goal. If they become the goal, I think that becomes very self-serving,” concludes Aimette. “If you’re chasing awards, I think that’s a fool’s errand. If you’re doing great work and it wins awards, then it’s a happy result.“

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