What Marketers Can Learn from the Summer Olympics

With the closing ceremonies behind us, that’s a wrap for the 2021 (2020) Summer Olympic Games. There’s something special about this event. It brings the world together with athletes competing on behalf of their country and performing amazing physical feats they’ve trained their entire lives for, on the biggest international stage imaginable.

Naturally, we’ve spent a little “water cooler time” talking about the shared national experience of cheering Team USA to gold. But (as usual) our conversation has also drawn parallels between the traits that lead to success in sports and the ones that are evident in great marketing teams.

We wanted to share a few takeaways from the Summer Olympics that we think translate very well to our experiences as an agency marketing team, and our experience supporting in-house marketing teams.

Iron Sharpens Iron

In the women’s 400-meter hurdles, 2016 Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammed faced off against Sydney McLaughlin, a young runner who beat Dalilah’s previous world record just a few weeks prior. The two American hurdlers finished in first and second, with McLaughlin earning the gold and beating the new record she’d just recently set. These two hurdlers, both representing the same country, could easily be seen as rivals. But they don’t view themselves that way. They used the phrase “iron sharpens iron” to explain how their relationship is mutually beneficial and they each push each other to bring their best to the race.

We also noticed how Olympic gymnasts cheer for and congratulate their competitors, even if they’re not on the same team. A rising tide lifts all boats and surrounding yourself with talented people is a great way to improve as an athlete and raise the profile of your sport as a whole.

Iron sharpens iron is a great way to think about our relationship with the people we work with. At any given time, we’re surrounded by other talented marketers we can learn from and some we have the opportunity to teach. Our teams get stronger when we are helpful enough to reach out and lift someone else up, and humble enough to recognize when we need help ourselves.

Success Requires Everyone to Be On the Same Page

To the untrained eye (like mine), an Olympic rowing team doing their job simply looks like a boat full of people rowing in the same direction at the same time. What I didn’t realize until we talked about it as a team is that while they are definitely all rowing in the same direction, every person in the boat has a specific job to do to make sure the boat moves as fast as it can in a straight line.

Much like a rowing team, the success of any marketing initiative requires clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It’s important to know who is responsible for what and when they’re going to deliver on it. Accountability can only be achieved if every member of the team knows what they’re accountable for. This is especially true when you bring in agency support. Good marketing agencies want to be accountable for the work they do. So it’s important to work together to define their role and responsibilities early in the relationship.

Shut Out the Noise and Deliver

Plenty has been said about Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition early on in the 2021 Olympic Games. For the most part, the American public was supportive of her decisions and applauded the bravery it took to recognize it would be best for the team if she didn’t participate. But the decision wasn’t without its critics in the “court of social media opinion” who questioned her motives and called it a selfish move. We were especially inspired by Simone’s ability to shut out the noise of her detractors and deliver a triumphant return by earning a bronze medal in the individual balance beam final.

Marketing professionals also deal with a lot of critics and false perceptions. There are people who think marketing is easy. None of those people have ever sat in your seat and done the work that you do. But those of us in the trenches know the truth. This is a challenging career. Technology is changing the rules on us every day. Internal teams are not growing at the same rate your responsibilities are. Meanwhile we’re tasked with creating deep and meaningful relationships with an audience that knows we want to sell them something.

If there’s something we can learn from Simone Biles, it’s that our energy is best focused on shutting out the noise and putting ourselves and our teams in the best position to be successful.

Even Individual Success Requires a Team

While the Olympics has its share of team sports, individual events tend to steal a lot of the headlines. We’re drawn to stories with heroes who reach the pinnacle of their abilities and accomplishments, seemingly all on their own. It’s true that when it comes to the final competition, the athletes achieve glory based on how they perform by themselves. But nobody, despite having all the physical gifts in the world, is born an Olympian. There is an entire cast of coaches, competitors, friends, and family members along the way who’ve helped them get to where they are. And how about the alternates, whose names we often never learn, whose competition along the way helped the stars become who they are today? Nobody reaches the pinnacle of achievement completely on their own.

Marketers do their best work when they have support. Sometimes that support is just to have someone to talk through a crazy idea with. Sometimes, it’s leaning on someone who is better suited for a particular cast. Self-awareness as marketers is incredibly valuable. Knowing where your gaps are and recognizing when you need to hire someone or partner with an agency to overcome them is a strong suit of successful marketing leaders.

Whether you’re part of a large in-house department or running a team of one, we’re always looking to connect with, inspire, and learn from others in the marketing community. Follow us on Facebook or LinkedIn to join the conversation!