Wunderman UK’s executive creative director, Ian Haworth, reminisces about his time as a ballboy at Wimbledon, and compares like-for-like the tennis court trials to his role of creative director.
Watching this year’s revered and nail-biting tennis tournament kick off once again, I was reminded of the unsung similarities between being a ballboy and my job today – heading up a creative team. The need to always be ahead of the curve, knowing when to change balls, where the player’s serve would hit, anticipating their every want and need – these are all qualities I still use to stay one step ahead of expectant clients.
Practice makes perfect
The first lesson you’re taught as a ballboy/girl is that practice makes perfect. It all looks effortless and easy on the day, but the training is relentless and extremely regimented, starting months ahead of the competition. You’re trained to have your eye on the ball at all times. If you’re captain of the court, which I was, by the time the umpire said “change the balls please”, you should already be half way there. Then there’s practice sprinting across the court, catching and rolling balls, as well as keeping absolutely still during play. You’re nothing if not ready by the time your tennis hero or heroine steps onto the green.
The need to stay ahead of the game is key for me as a creative director. Clients need to have the confidence in your ability to come up with the goods and deliver on your promise of excellence. It’s up to the creative team to know when to make themselves heard and push an idea, and when to step back and give the client a voice. Experience as ballboy instils in you the ability to become a quick decision maker – a key trait in the creative industry.
The power of concentration
At the same time being a ballboy teaches you the power of concentration. I remember once becoming distracted and taking my eye of the ball. That was the moment Roscoe Tanner hit a 140 mile per hour serve, which struck me directly in the stomach and down I went, hitting the ground like a tonne of bricks. After scrambling to my feet and feigning instant recovery, play resumed.
The moral of this story is fairly straightforward… keep your eye on the ball. The same can be said of my day job. If you’re not listening in a briefing, you could miss some crucial information. The art of staying in touch and with so many people now trying to multi-task using multiple devices, means the levels of concentration can dip in some instances. But if you have the ability to concentrate, to ask the right questions and take note where necessary, then you’ll never miss a trick.
That said, it’s so easy to become distracted when you’re confronted with your tennis idols who will ask you for a drink or to hand them their towel. When you’re faced with tennis winner Chris Evert it’s difficult not to be in complete awe and start mumbling incoherently.
The same can often be said when you’re faced with a big client or a massive project. You need to keep your head above water and stay cool under pressure – another great lesson engrained in me from such a young age when a ball boy. Be confident. Be cool, calm and collected.
And the winner is…
Trophies can be important. As ballboys we often used to collect tennis players’ sweat bands after a match. Somewhere locked away in my possession are sweat bands from the tennis greats of the time, like five time Wimbledon champ Bjorn Borg, Romania’s former number one, Ilie Năstase and the then top-seeder, Jimmy Connors. These keepsakes were a huge part of your prize for being a ballboy/girl.
This collection of memorabilia can be likened to the sensation of doing great creative work… the result can be so rewarding and makes all that blood, sweat and tears worth the hours poured into meeting a client’s brief.
Equality on the court
When I first took to the centre court at Wimbledon as a ballboy, ballgirls were unheard of. It wasn’t until 1977 that Wimbledon realised the absurdity of this outdated rule and introduced ballgirls to the game, but it took them until 1985 to allow ballgirls onto the Centre Court.
The entire gender bias issue is something that we at Wunderman want to eliminate and recently became an active member of Creative Equals to promote diversity and a mix of talent in our industry. We see so many more women joining the creative sector and we at Wunderman are great advocates for gender equality.
Together we stand… united we fall
There’s a misconception out there that ballboys and girls work as individuals, fetching and swapping balls on a whim, but the truth is that team work is instrumental in delivering a clock-work like performance. Players are constantly swiping the ball and changing ends and afterwards a tie-breaker comes in. Then its ball swapping time so if you’re working together you know who can deliver what, when and where each ballboy and girls’ strengths lie.
This boils down to utilising different skill sets. You’ve got the court captain who’s in charge, you’ve got the smaller boys and girls who are at the net and then the taller ones at the back. It’s about being fit for purpose – having multiple skill sets that when combined run like a well-oiled machine.
This helped me recognise the absolute need for a diverse set of skill sets within a creative team. Throughout my career I’ve always believed in the importance of bringing together people from different backgrounds, with diverse talents and strengths to make a team even stronger.
Seeing the funny side
Wimbledon is known for its time-honoured traditions of humility, discipline, respect and values. But as with anything in life, one needs to maintain a sense of humour. Yes, being a ballboy/girl is rigorous, demanding, challenging and tough, however that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or enjoy some hilarious moments. Look at my encounter with Tanner’s serve.
The same is true of a creative team. We work hard, but we play hard too. If you can’t take a moment to laugh at yourself, or make light of a situation, then work and life are rendered pretty dull. That’s just one more thing – if not perhaps the most important one – that I learned from my ballboy trials at Wimbledon.