Emirates global account quandary as Strawberry Frog splits with Amsterdam

July 11, 2013

emirates46_460If what I hear is correct, Scott Goodson, chairman of micro-network Strawberry Frog, hasn’t been kissing enough princes lately.

The mercurial Goodson – famous for saying his agency wasn’t up for sale, while putting the finishing touches to a deal with PR group APCO – has had a bust-up with his Amsterdam agency, Media Catalyst. That’s Amsterdam agency number two. He also managed to alienate Amsterdam agency number one, headed by SF co-founder Brian Elliott, which now trades as Amsterdam Worldwide. And then he fell out with his Brazilian partner, Alexandre Peralta, of Peralta Sao Paulo – an agency that has gone on to rather greater achievement without him. So, there’s a bit of history to this kind of thing.

But I digress a little. The latest split is unusually serious, because SF Amsterdam/Media Catalyst is the lead agency for SF’s backbone client, Dubai-based Emirates Airline – one of the world’s largest. The Frogs won the account against considerable competition from the likes of BBDO and Grey, back in 2010. And what an account to win: lead agency for a global rebranding campaign worth (according to AdAge at any rate) $300m. This wasn’t just a feather in the cap, but full plumage for a small digitally-inspired creative boutique making its way in the world. Timely sticking plaster as well, given the above-mentioned ructions going on elsewhere in the organisation.

It’s important to point out that most of the credit for winning – and retaining – this account seems to have been down to Amsterdam CEO Hans Howarth, the majority shareholder in Media Catalyst. Goodson, with his habitual talent for self-publicity, owned about 30% of the agency from which he has now been ejected, but somehow managed to maximise most of the plaudits.

The Emirates brief was to turn the airline into an aspirant, lifestyle brand (isn’t one enough in the world?) and SF duly delivered with “Hello Tomorrow”, announced with great pizzazz last April by Sir Maurice Flanagan, executive vice chairman of Emirates Airline : “Our new corporate image and global marketing campaign both underline the confidence we have in our existing products and services, and the vision we have for the future growth of the airline. Emirates is not just offering a way to connect people from point A to point B but is the catalyst to connect people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.” What this boils down to is getting a younger “audience” hooked on the brand by dextrous use of social media.

Only last month, Omnicom – in the guise of BBDO New York and Atmosphere Proximity – won Emirates North American business, against competition from WPP’s Grey and JWT. At the time, we were assured that the pitch would not in any way affect Strawberry Frog’s tenure of the global branding account. But that was before news of the split with Amsterdam broke. It would be surprising if some of these agencies’ biggest guns are not, at this very moment, on a Boeing 777 heading for Dubai airport. An Emirates one, naturally.

Where all this leaves SF – apart from picking up the pieces – is anyone’s guess.

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FIFA sponsors are the only ones who can splatter Blatter

November 20, 2011

Well, what a week of wasted moral outrage that was, even if it did produce one of The Sun’s finest headlines for a very long time.

Make no mistake. “Splatter Blatter” may have sold extra copies of the red-top, but will do nothing to remove the Teflon Man, whose life’s achievement has been to carve himself an impregnable position as world football’s supremo.

In a way, you’ve got to admire him. Like Bernie Ecclestone, whom he resembles in a variety of ways, Blatter is a master tactician at the top of his own, very particular, game: not the administration of Formula One or FIFA, but the administration of power.

The secret of their supremacy is the same. It lies not (or very little) in formal status, but in a second-to-none understanding of how to manipulate an opaque global system that has no loyalty beyond its self-perpetuation.

To be sure, FIFA and F1 are, or have, venerable governing bodies guided by what appear to be democratically elected representatives acting in accordance with a constitution. In reality, the election of these officials is manipulated to suit insiders; and the workings of the institutions they represent are so complex and well-defended that they defy almost any outside attempt to hold them to account.

If there is any parallel to representative government, it is the quaint Rotten Borough system that existed in Britain before 1832. Boiled down to essentials, it involved the King and his chosen First Minister fixing a parliamentary majority by procuring the election of their chosen placemen in all the seats that actually mattered. For placemen read “men in blazers”, and you get the picture.

Corruption was the indispensable lubricant of this system. It involved greasing people’s palms, and not just at election time. The disbursement and retraction of patronage – primarily offices of state awarded on the basis of interest rather than merit – was key to successful management.

Recognise the parallel? Allegations of corruption have plagued Blatter’s 4 consecutive terms of office, culminating in the 2018 World Cup scandal that broke earlier this year. As for F1 scandals, need I enumerate them?

But what do Blatter or Ecclestone care about that? The same opacity which protects these organisations from outside investigation also insulates their ringmasters from public criticism – and any punitive measure that might result from it. Hence the stream of crass remarks that regularly issues from their mouths. For Bernie, Hitler was an OK bloke who built excellent roads even if he did later succumb to a power complex. For Blatter, racism on the pitch is a non-issue which can be settled with a handshake at the end of the match. Out of touch, clearly. But then, so what? They’re also out of reach, and they know it.

Blatter has deftly deflected calls for his departure from the likes of David Cameron, David Beckham and The Sun by portraying the outcry as a case of sour grapes. Only Britain has worked itself up into a national lather over racism on the pitch. Why? Because England lost out in the contest to become 2018 World Cup host, and is now conducting a vendetta against the man perceived to be its nemesis.

So, can he now blow the final whistle and move on? Not quite. If there’s one chink in Blatter’s armour, it’s money – or rather its threatened withdrawal. What if the sponsors – household brand names, with household reputations to maintain – deem he has gone too far and pull the plug on the hundreds of millions of pounds a year that FIFA depends upon for its survival?

Ordinarily, that simply wouldn’t happen. However much they may privately tut-tut about Bernie’s ex-wife spending £12m on their daughter’s nuptials, Max Mosley’s grubby sexual antics or Blatter’s moral insensitivity, the last thing they are going to do is scupper a strategic investment with a noble gesture. Their investment is, after all, in the global game, not the administating organisation and the people who lead it. And their justification for inaction the not unreasonable conjecture that most football and motor-racing aficionados have little knowledge and less interest in the shenanigans of sports administrators.

One sponsor’s uncharacteristic response to Blatter’s racism episode is what, in fact, makes this furore so interesting. True, most of FIFA’s six official partners have played entirely true to form. Coca-Cola has categorically rejected a review of its sponsorship; while Visa, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Adidas have contented themselves with more or less bland statements condemning racism in sport. But Emirates has broken ranks by taking the almost unprecedented step of reviewing its sponsorship.

Whatever next? Not Blatter’s resignation, for sure. But perhaps the beginning of the end of his reign.


FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and Max Mosley are two of a kind

June 1, 2011

Will the sky fall in on Sepp Blatter, much reviled president of FIFA, just because Coca-Cola and Adidas, Visa and Emirates Airline – 4 of football’s 6 biggest sponsors – have fired a shot across his bows?

Will the English and Scottish football associations’ vociferous appeals for a postponement to FIFA’s presidential election – which currently leaves Blatter dribbling up to an open goal – make an iota of difference?

No and no. The contest between FIFA and its critics is asymmetrical precisely because, unlike Coca-Cola and its fellow sponsors, FIFA is not a brand. It is not vulnerable, in the first degree, to public criticism – however merited or angry that criticism may be.

Indeed, as Matthew Patten recently pointed out, FIFA resembles nothing so much as a medieval guild. It owes allegiance to no one other than the 208 merchant adventurers who make up its membership. Nothing, culturally speaking, could be more removed from the modern corporation. There is no transparency in its business dealings, because the daylight of accountability is not an element in its constitution. The anonymous men in blazers ply their trade in a way that is endemic to all closed mercantile organisations: through mutual back-slapping, nepotism and, let’s face it, financially lubricated manila envelopes – if they think can get away with it. And lording it over them are the merchant prince oligarchs: men (they are always men) like Sepp Blatter and Mohamed Bin Hamman.

FIFA is part of a pattern which, if not peculiar to the administration of world sport, is certainly highly characteristic of it. Remember the cleansing of the Augean Stables at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after the corruption scandal that was the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bid came to light in 1998? That was a relatively benign outcome. Less satisfactory have been the consequences of the more recent shenanigans at Formula One. Despite the engulfing stench of scandal, and the twittering of vocal criticism, its twin ringmasters Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone managed to protect the integrity of their power base. Admittedly Mosley eventually went, but it was at a time of his own choosing and on his own terms. Ecclestone, meanwhile, continues to crack the whip without let or hindrance. He is currently said to be negotiating an exit deal with Rupert Murdoch.

Blatter, a man who once fronted an organisation dedicated to stopping women exchanging their suspender belts for pantyhoses, is more likely to draw his inspiration from Mosley than the aftermath of the Salt Lake City scandal. He will brazen the “crisis” out.

And there is little, in the last analysis, the sponsors can or will do about it. On the surface, that might seem a strange thing to say. After all, they are bankers to the organisation and provide its marketing pot. Each contributes between £100m and £300m to a FIFA revenue estimated at £2.4bn in the 4 years up to and including World Cup 2010. Surely that gives them more clout than most stakeholders in the struggle to wring reform from the World Cup organiser? Only up to a point. Let’s not forget that FIFA is less dependent upon sponsors these days to the extent that it can dip into billions of dollars worth of syndicated worldwide TV rights. Moreover, rather than presenting themselves as a united front, the sponsors perceive themselves as embattled and vulnerable competitors (rather like the constructors in the F1 equation). Blatter, like Ecclestone, is a supreme tactician in exploiting such weaknesses. There’s always someone else, he will say, to take their place if they don’t want to play ball. A Pepsi for a Coke, a Nike for an Adidas, a Delta for an Emirates, a Mastercard for a Visa.

And do you know what? He’s right. The only chance the sponsors have of effecting change is if they stand united. My suggestion is not that they threaten to defect, merely that they withhold some of their funding until tangible reforms, prime among them greater transparency and accountability, are in place.


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