SMG at The Dakar Rally: Delivering in the Desert
The Adventure of a Lifetime in the desert of Saudi Arabia
The Dakar Rally is one of the most iconic motorsport events in the world, offering the ultimate challenge for competitors, engineers, mechanics and journalists alike! Originally the Paris-Dakar rally, the endurance event has found a new home in Saudi Arabia, a nation that not only lives and breathes rally but has the terrain to match.
The SMG team played a critical role in the 2023 edition, supporting the event promoter, the Saudi Motorsport Company, with extensive social, digital and content management and PR and communications . Below, SMG’s Digital and Creative Lead, Ben Atkinson, and Senior Communications Manager, Martina Rathmann share how they helped tell the story of the adventure of a lifetime.
BA: The brief was to tell the story of the Dakar Rally, but specifically through the lens of its host Saudi Arabia, on the @dakarinsaudi social media accounts. As with all promoter events, there’s the rights holder, which in this case was Amaury Sports Organisation and then you have the promoter, the Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC), on whose behalf SMG was working.
The objective was to work in tandem with the Dakar Rally but to produce content that is unique to the event and Saudi Arabia and tell the story from the perspective of the host country. That meant being more in-depth about the different regions of the rally route and the supporters and fans who cheered on the competitors. It was more region-specific rather than just the best photos or what happened on each stage.
The second was to educate the client’s key audiences about the Dakar Rally. I think a lot of people assume the event still goes from France to Senegal, which it hasn’t done for several years, while also showing why this is a good partnership of location and race and why motorsport lovers in Saudi should embrace it.
MR: As far as PR is concerned, we were given four key aims and objectives by our client:
- Utilise the route of the Dakar Rally Saudi Arabia 2023 to showcase the diversity of landscapes and cultural landmarks
- Position the Kingdom as a travel destination for international motorsport fans and travellers interested in visiting the country.
- Raise awareness of Saudi Arabia’s rich heritage and traditions and the significant cultural transformation the Kingdom is undergoing
- Continue to position Saudi Arabia as a motorsport hub for prestigious world-class motorsport events that can continue to act as a catalyst for positive change.
BA: Winning this brief gave us the opportunity to grow our Digital & Creative team in our London office and we identified a need for people who could work quickly under pressure, who could understand a complex brief and be flexible in applying their skills in a variety of ways over the course of the project. We were lucky to have to have sourced those people in our team, who were fantastic from the very first day.
We also had the SMG MEA team – whose primary job was as a PR & Media Relations function with regional media – but ultimately, were a hugely valuable asset to the social media side of the brief in translation and localisation of the content we were creating.
This applies for any live event of course but we needed to produce English and Arabic content multiple times a day and then getting into the race period, we were posting over 50 times a day (across all channels). In those circumstances, you need the right people and the right structure to excel in delivering a brief with a huge number of moving parts.
MR: Together with the client, we decided to include international key media in the process from as early as possible, enabling them to experience not just the Dakar Rally but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in general to get a flavour of the rich variety of nature and culture that Saudi Arabia had to offer in the regions through which the Dakar Rally 2023 route passed.
It was also important to tell the story of what it takes to deliver one of the greatest motorsport endurance races with its operational challenges and immense work force behind the scenes to guarantee a successful event.
BA: The most obvious one here is the location. There was a reasonably long pre-event phase where we were building interest, making educational content, and explaining what the Dakar Rally was all about. This allowed us to create a workflow process (eg.inter-team brainstorms, creation, and sign off) that worked for both us and the client.
But then when the event starts, you are really relying on the workflow that you created beforehand to be able to continue when posting 50 times a day whilst also grappling with, among other things, poor internet connection. If someone, who is key to your workflow, isn’t in the room with an internet connection at that time, then you’re waiting for them to come back – you’re in the desert, not everyone can crack out a laptop. There were moments where the workflow creaked a little bit just because we needed everything to go perfectly to get something out quickly.
It is fair to say that the Dakar is not for the faint-hearted! Myself and the SMG team were in a sleeping bus which so can be quite daunting if you’re not used to it! In that context, you still have to be mentally ready to deliver your best work which everyone did to a remarkably high standard.
BA: The first couple of days were the toughest but then gradually, we got into the rhythm and started making some really, really great stuff. So the first challenge was being in a location that isn’t particularly conducive to work, not least digital work, where you’re posting content multiple times a day.
I think the other challenge would be the volume.
When you’re covering a live event, you obviously have a plan of what you’ll do every day but, there’ll be times where you go off the book. For example, the content creators come back with a clip of one of the locals helping a driver fix their car or getting them out of the sand and you think, “okay, well we obviously have to use this.” The volume that we needed to post in both languages and the rate at which new things were happening was a big challenge.
The third I’d say was it was a new event for our social media team. The Dakar Rally is completely different from anything I’ve personally ever experienced because a normal racing event for examples takes place over a weekend whereas the Dakar Rally is two and a half weeks long.
You don’t really understand it until you’re there when you can really learn the rules, the guidelines for each vehicle class, the penalties, and the overall racing experience. To do everything that we did at an event and competition that we hadn’t experienced before was a brilliant experience.
MR: The biggest challenge was probably that we worked within a very tight time schedule. Working with different entities and planning a trip for a selective media group around the end of year festive period when the majority of organisations scale down on their work force was probably one of the main challenges in the lead up to the Dakar.
On-site, due to the weather conditions and subsequent last minute stage changes we had to show flexibility and act quickly to adjust our organisation for those days accordingly.
Those changes involved but were not limited to logistics, accommodation and carefully selected and scheduled media trips to specific racing points and cultural points of interest along each of the stages.
BA: I think just taking this on and owning it was my personal highlight. We’ve done plenty of social media briefs before and I worked for two football clubs for five and a half years before joining SMG but this was a different kind of challenge altogether. This was a digital, social and creative brief that SMG was responsible for from end-to-end from the very beginning on a new sports property.
As a team, we were creating and developing the strategy, designing the content, designing how it looks, scheduling the race week content all with an excellent group of colleagues that we had assembled at short notice from videographers to photographers and designers.
The satisfaction of completing the Rally for the first time and seeing our team work so brilliantly under really difficult conditions was backed up by the figures: 500% YOY follower growth on Instagram and a 150% increase in engagement and video views across all channels.
MR: Seeing everything come together on-site and the realisation that the hard work and intense period in the lead up to the event had paid off – that was the main highlight for me.
Also, one of the journalists told me at the end of his Dakar journey, that this had been one of the best experiences in his career as a motorsport journalist (and this had neither been his first Dakar nor his first motorsport event!). He loved the entire Dakar in Saudi experience and knowing that I played a small part in making his experience so memorable is very rewarding.
The Dakar Rally is such an unparalleled, unique event and this years’ edition has shown again how flexible you have to be and how important it is to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in a proactive, solution-oriented and timely manner.
Experiencing how every involved party down to every single person adapts to changing conditions and shows resilience to overcome the challenges is very rewarding. Travelling with the Dakar Rally is a very unique experience and you probably only appreciate what it really means when you become a part of it. At the end of each Dakar Rally, you always think it may be your last one – until the next year!
BA: One piece of content I’m really proud of was the map tour video.
The idea was to show the rally route as it goes through lots of areas of Saudi Arabia that many people might not be familiar with and to show the Kingdom’s natural beauty. We presented it in a really interesting and engaging way and it was ultimately shared by the Ministry and Minister of Sport. I was proud of that one and especially since some drivers, including Saudi drivers, commented that they hadn’t realized how beautiful Saudi Arabia was after seeing the video and then experiencing it for themselves during the rally.
I’d say the other content highlight was the winners graphics we developed for each category because they were beautifully designed by Hannah, and the exciting bit was that every single one of our winners graphics were regularly and consistently shared by the winners themselves either on their stories or on their feeds.
It was incredibly satisfying to see the drivers and riders sharing what we had made and of course also by the resulting engagement being really high!
MR: A hugely positive post-event experience report by one of the journalists we invited about his Dakar trip and first time in Saudi Arabia was another big highlight for me. It proves the importance of bringing media to an event like Dakar in Saudi and to let them experience first-hand the amazing racing drama up close and in person as well as the cultural transformation the Kingdom is undergoing and how events like this can act as a catalyst for positive change.
(From Left to Right) Niall Atkinson (Sport-Informations-Dienst), Campbell Price (The Independent), Gerald Dirnbeck (Total/Motorsport Germany), Martina Rathmann (SMG), Jack Thomas-Richard (BBC Top Gear France), Omran & Badr (Saudi Motorsport Company Drivers), Timothé Lambert (BBC Top Gear France)
BA: Over two weeks, we took about eight or nine internal flights, they fed thousands of people every day, three meals a day and the next stage camp was being built ready for us to move in – it was incredible to see. There were plenty of utilities, there was a shop and some places even had laundry! The fact that they moved thousands of people nearly every day across the country and everything still worked and went to plan, I think that was remarkable.
MR: What I love is that teams and drivers are very approachable and that the most successful drivers are sometimes the most humble ones. Furthermore, although it was not my first time in Saudi Arabia I was stunned by the beauty and diversity of the landscape, heritage and rich culture of the Kingdom and how hospitable the local people were wherever we went.