Watch WhatsApp’s first-ever short film starring Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek-born NBA player describes forging connections to his Nigerian heritage, partially through the Meta-owned messaging platform.

Watch WhatsApp’s first-ever short film starring Giannis Antetokounmpo

Popular messaging app WhatsApp has entered the realm of original content with its first-ever short film, “Naija Odyssey.” Premiering today on Amazon Prime Video, it stars Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo telling the story of how he’s navigated his dual Greek and Nigerian identities, particularly since immigrating to the U.S.

Loosely based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey” by Homer, the 12-minute film marks the first original piece of branded content from Meta-owned WhatsApp. The app inked a brand ambassador deal with the six-time NBA all-star and regular WhatsApp user earlier this year.

Watch the trailer below:

“When we embarked on making this film, it was important to have a really authentic story,” said Ghada Soufan, global brand marketing manager for WhatsApp, which sees significant use overseas and among immigrant populations in the U.S.

And while “Naija Odyssey” isn’t specifically targeted at immigrants, it does underscore the company’s bottom-line message: WhatsApp keeps people around the world connected, a theme hinted at throughout the film that has also been front-and-center in many of its past ad campaigns.

The short film was created with agency Translation, which clinched the No. 3 spot on Ad Age’s 2022 Agency A-List. It was directed by the filmmaking duo Nono Ayuso and Rodrigo Inada via Partizan.

“As a creative agency, we were determined to make something that would connect with the universal experience of identity,” said Jason Campbell, head of creative at Translation. “As a brand that connects so many diasporic communities worldwide, WhatsApp was the right partner to spearhead this story, with this player, at this moment.” 

With the film, WhatsApp aimed to bring a fresh approach to telling Giannis' life story, “which has been told a million times,” Soufan said. For example, his life was recently chronicled in the Disney+ original biopic “Rise,” which debuted on the streaming platform this summer.

The WhatsApp film breaks his tale down into four chapters spanning Antetokounmpo’s childhood, familial ties and athletic career, it was filmed on location in Athens, Greece, where he grew up; Lagos, Nigeria, where both of his parents hail from; and Milwaukee, where he’s played professional basketball since 2013.

Family ties

The film is jointly narrated by the 27-year-old NBA champion and his mother, Veronica, highlighting the importance of his family connections. 

“You can’t talk about who he is without talking about his connection to his parents,” said Vivian Odior, WhatsApp’s head of marketing (and one of Ad Age’s 2022 40 Under 40 honorees). Antetokounmpo has spoken often of his parents and wears the jersey number 34 in recognition of his mother and father’s birth years of 1963 and 1964, respectively. In Odior's view, Antetokounmpo’s “connections came to the forefront” of the film.

WhatsApp and its production partners “didn’t go the traditional script route” when creating “Naija Odyssey,” explained Soufan. Instead, they opted to arrange a three-hour conversation in Milwaukee with the NBA star who’s been dubbed “The Greek Freak” by fans. They recorded the discussion and then adapted it into the film’s narrative using Antetokounmpo’s own words.

Along with Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, the film will also be distributed on social media, Soufan confirmed. This initial production “kicks off a platform we plan to have for many years with Giannis,” Soufan added, without going into specifics of future projects. The athlete’s long-term endorsement deal with WhatsApp has been in place since February’s NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland.

Global reach

“One of the challenges you have as a global brand is finding someone who resonates with global audiences,” added Odior, who also recently told Ad Age that working with the Bucks forward was a standout moment for the company this year.

WhatsApp will market the film internationally with features such as an in-app sticker pack consumers can use to show their reactions to the film and an out-of-home campaign in Nigeria. 

“It would have been limiting to have [“Naija Odyssey”] distributed in only one market,” Odior said.

The short film comes on the heels of WhatsApp’s first major U.S. campaign that kicked off earlier this year with a spot from BBDO San Francisco emphasizing privacy—a stumbling block for parent company Meta during much of last year—and cautioning viewers that they may be texting unsafely.