Established in 1856, the world-famous annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities had to be cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, leaving a void in the traditional sporting calendar. 

Having been approached by the charity Power2Inspire and advertising agency MCH.London with a rough concept, we accepted the challenge to bring their idea to life by creating an innovative first-ever virtual Boat Race event. The objective was to drive engagement for Power2Inspire – a charity that promotes inclusivity in sport, founded by former Cambridge cox, John Willis, who was born without fully-formed limbs. By raising the profile of such a worthy cause through this pioneering initiative, we sought to generate £10,000 of much-needed funds to help the charity in its operations so it could continue to deliver activities including its weekly virtual sporting programmes.

A total budget of £3,000 was agreed upon, reflecting our desire to offer a reduced, pro-bono project fee – the work would have otherwise cost £15,000. Production costs accounted for all of this, while George Hughes, Small Films Creative Director, donated his time and expertise to the campaign for free.

Our ultimate aim was to create an authentic, impactful video that closely simulated the actual race, and appealed to a broad target audience of sports enthusiasts and participants.

The strategy was to create an inspiring film that included live footage of real-life rowers from Oxford and Cambridge to simulate the actual Boat Race. We wanted to capture their individual rowing efforts, then combine them to produce a head-to-head race.

As an integral team within the wider project management that comprised advertising agency MCH.London, GingerMay PR (press outreach) and Underdog Sports Marketing (social media), we set out a clear strategy for maximising the campaign’s performance.

To reach a wide audience of sports fans and participants from all communities and of all ages, we planned to release a film live on both Power2Inspire’s website and on Facebook. We also partnered with Give As You Live to have the video broadcast on their popular fundraising website to an ever-growing user base, which enabled us to raise funds for free.

As well as aiming to have a national reach by seeding the story with the most influential media outlets, it was important for the campaign to get traction in both Oxford and Cambridge as these areas have a vested interest in the race’s outcome.

We also planned to target Power2Inspire’s social media channels with content creation in the build-up and aftermath of the race itself by, for example, introducing each rower, and providing fundraising updates.

To create an innovative film that would entertain, get viewers involved and gain interactions, we devised a creative solution:

  • Concept2 rowing machines were the chosen pieces of equipment, allowing participants to compete using a very similar technique when compared to rowing on water.
  • Due to restrictions around travel and social distancing, each rower was able to complete their effort from home – or a nearby location – making it possible for all 16 competitors to record an individual ‘homemade’ video on their smartphones to showcase their performance. To ensure the final footage was of the best possible standard, we coached each rower individually on how to record their own videos.
  • Their combined distance made up the length of the BBC Boat Race course on the River Thames.
  • We then recorded commentary via Zoom with the two regular BBC Boat Race commentators – and former Olympic rowing gold medalists – Garry Herbert MBE and Martin Cross, to recreate the ‘live’ look and feel of a major sporting event.
  • To complement the individual ‘virtual’ race clips and commentary, sections of historic footage were weaved into the film together with motion graphics, a virtual river and moving boats.
  • To illustrate the fantastic work that Power2Inspire does, we showcased examples of their community projects and included a clear fundraising call-to-action. 

The end result was a thoroughly emotive eight-minute video content piece that captured the imagination and successfully achieved our initial objectives.

Following the completion of our Virtual Boat Race – which included three-time Olympic gold medalist Pete Reed, and Paralympic Champion Grace Clough – we were delighted with the results achieved, confirming this campaign as a resounding success for all stakeholders involved:

  • We went considerably over and above our objective of raising £10,000 for Power2Inspire, by hitting 250% of this target with total donations exceeding £25,000 – this has enabled the charity to take on a Deputy CEO, and continue to run its weekly virtual sporting programmes. They now have the resources to engage with a total of 2,250 children through the delivery of 30 ‘PowerHouseGames’.
  • Working with Power2Inspire and MCH.London helped secure 22 pieces of digital and print coverage, including features in The Times, Metro, Time Out, Evening Standard, and BBC Sport, who reported the result as it came in.
  • Television interviews were facilitated with BBC local news.
  • The event attracted a superb uptake of 505,000 views on the Give As You Live website, and MCH.London calculated a potential reach of as many as 700 million people online.
  • Radio proved to be a major source of PR, with national support from BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio 2, Radio 4 plus interviews on a whole host of local and independent stations including those around Oxford and Cambridge.
  • There were 954 social media shares, while the overall campaign had an excellent average domain authority of 74 (out of 100) – illustrating that high quality, trusted sites were covering the story.

Small Films is a video production company in London. Our team of videographers, editors and animators create all sorts of videos, including awesome product videostestimonial videosexplainer videos and animations that can help bring your brand to life. Do get in touch; we’d love to hear from you!