It’s not where you start: Lionel Messi and Marketing

Here we explore the game-changing lessons of the football World Cup and Lionel Messi on the world of marketing.
Lionel Messi

What a spectacular culmination to a controversial World Cup.

It will certainly go down in history as one of the best finals ever played as Argentina broke down the French side in the final moments of pure scintillation.

Strategy, composure, fast breaks and being opportunistic all played a role in both sides, which came down to the final wire.

Ofcourse, we all know that this match was so much more for one man and his millions of fans; Lionel Messi 🦁 who is going down in a blaze of glory as he announces his retirement.

As he played his final few hours, what gave him the edge was acknowledging his strengths over his weaknesses. He conserved his energy, knew his couldn’t outpace the defence but rather he could outsmart them with his flicks, deception, the drop of his shoulder and the swivel of his hips.

He did the ultimate pivot on the field from the way he used to play and it’s his acumen to know the difference that actually won him the game, unlike his peer, Ronaldo.

What you may not know is that Messi had won just about every cup in the playbook, except one; the ultimate one. In fact, it’s the first time a South American team have won the World Cup in over 20 years.

There are a number of important lessons I think we all can take away from his side’s victory, which currently go against the grain of our current marketing model of quick wins and short-term results we all seek.

Success is won over time

Against a backdrop of Gen Z Tik Tokers and Youtube Stars, you would not be remiss for thinking that entrepreneurship and marketing success is for the young.

Well, that’s not true. In fact, according to HBR the average age of those who started the highest growth companies is 45!


It takes time to hone in the craft, understand the market need and importantly the gaps. Also, it takes a while to get the credibility to gather the resources you need to go big when you need to. Remember, that Messi waited till the very, very end of this career to peak.

Brands are built in decades not years

The famous Warren Buffet quote holds true in marketing as it does in football.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”

Brands are built over time because of the need for constant reinforcement, frequency, fame and consistency of delivery.

The Argentinian team used this long-game strategy in spades. Waiting their time. Gathering pace. Eventually executing with precision.

If we contrast Messi and Ronaldo’s performance we see the second part of Buffet’s quote playing out. Ronaldo’s shenanigans on and off the pitch in recent weeks will cask an eclipse over his career.

In his final hour in the tournament against Morocco, the phrase ‘to throw one’s toys out of the pram’ comes to mind and is a mild summary of his behaviour. He left the field in tears, without shaking hands with his opponents or consoling his teammates. And don’t get me started on the Man U, exit debacle.

Whilst, Messi held his reserve, became the humble showman that delivered through the tournament to the very end. It’s a real case and perhaps a rare one of ‘the good guys win’.

For us marketers, who either believe we can build our brands fast and brashly, take heed in the point. Build humbly and always go out with grace in every situation.

To win is to pivot

We need to constantly evolve in order to win. What separated Ronaldo and Messi in this tournament?

Ronaldo didn’t adapt to his own physical decline, still clinging to his ability to outperform his opponent in physical prowess, whilst Messi recognised he couldn’t keep up and adapted his game.

As marketers, we need to recognise the signs of our own vulnerability and not be rigid to adapt our strategies. It reminds me of the great need to have a vision, but be flexible how you achieve it.

Yesterday’s game was a brilliant testimony to the role of opportunism but more importantly the ability to recognise and capitalism on it. We as marketers must constantly be doing the same.

Giving up is for losers

At half time, it would have been easy to write off the French squad. In fact, this is exactly what they were hoping for and they showed us all what real fire power they had.

In marketing, we see this all the time. People giving up. For instance, 75% of podcasts don’t make it past one year and almost 50% of podcasts don’t make it past episode 3. Astonishing really.

Here are just two examples of the power of sticking with it;

  • It took the Sidemen 10 years to achieve a multiple million person following on Youtube
  • It took Steven Bartlett’s ‘Diary of a CEO’ around 5 years to become the leading podcast
Source: Steven Bartlett’s LinkedIn profile

If you give up, you have already lost. It reminds of wonderful advice from Sophie Neary of Meta, when she said, ‘Don’t self reject’. Giving up is the ultimate form of self rejection.

The Infinite Game

My final learning is actually that there are also key differences between football and marketing.

In football, the rules are set, the boundaries laid out, the timeline determined and ofcourse a mediator to ensure fair play.

Sport is a finite game. Marketing is played on an infinite field.

There are no clear boundaries, no rules of engagement, no timelines and the pathway to success undefined.

Often, we mistaken marketing to a game of football when it fact it differs in this fundamental way.

The game only ends when you pause that final budget, that final creative and that final campaign and not when the referee calls time. Until this point, when you call time, you have an opportunity at turning things around.

Thank you Lionel Messi for inspiring a generation and beyond. You will be missed.

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