RUSSIA 2018: The Octagon guide to effective FIFA World cup sponsorship

Octagon Worldwide has become the go-to Fifa World Cup sponsorship agency. In Brazil in 2014, the international sports marketing company worked on behalf of six official partner clients, hosting more than 28,000 hospitality guests and leading 1,600 activation hours across 500 individual events.
For Russia 2018, Octagon’s workload is no less demanding. Its client portfolio spans every tier of the World Cup commercial programme, comprising five of the 13 official tournament partners – more than any other agency. In addition to Fifa global partners Gazprom and Kia Motors, the company is running experience-led campaigns and handling activations for World Cup beer sponsor Budweiser – owned by brewing giant ABInBev (ABI) – official timekeeper Hublot, and Alfa Bank, one of five companies to have acquired regional supporter rights, Fifa’s newly expanded third-tier World Cup sponsorship category.
Here, three Octagon executives explain the company’s approach to World Cup sponsorship and what it takes to operate an effective, attention-grabbing marketing campaign.
                          Creating the campaign
Such is the magnitude of soccer’s flagship international tournament, Octagon’s planning phase with each of its clients begins years out from the start of the World Cup. Given that those companies invariably have differing rights and objectives, however, the approach to creating the campaign is bespoke to the individual client.
“The uniqueness of the World Cup is that it’s such a huge event that you have to approach every client in different ways,” says Joel Seymour-Hyde, the head of Octagon UK. “For each of the big partners, a lot of the work is around the on-the-ground delivery of their sponsorship campaign – so everything from tickets, hospitality and on-site experiential, to guest management, approvals and communications. It’s what we’d refer to as the bread and butter of sponsorship activation.”
From a creative standpoint, Seymour-Hyde explains that the process of devising a World Cup marketing campaign begins by taking a broad view of a company’s wider objectives. “For a big campaign, there are three key pillars,” he says. “There’s what you’re going to develop as your overarching global campaign message and framework, and that is the fundamental piece because ultimately everything needs to drive from there. What’s your campaign idea or story? What’s your visual identity? What are the visual assets you’re going to create around it?”
Once the client’s overall message has been clearly defined, the next step in the campaign development process is to commission the production of creative assets and determine the local market roll-out. That, says Seymour-Hyde, often comes down to certain market variables such as the level of local interest in soccer, the brand’s specific business objectives and its broader creative ambitions in the market.
Some of the bigger multinationals with broader reach will promote their World Cup sponsorships in dozens of countries around the world – Budweiser, for example, is activating its Russia 2018 association in 83 markets. Yet others will choose to limit the scope of their campaigns to target specific territories or perhaps a particular consumer demographic within those territories.
“For most brands who sponsor the World Cup, part of the reason you do it is because it’s a wonderful platform to build local market campaigns as well as building something globally,” says Seymour-Hyde. “If you are a global partner, you have the rights to activate that in all of your local markets, so it’s then a case of inspiring your local markets to get behind it, give them some guidance and toolkits to start thinking about their own activation ideas for their market.
“For every client, that varies slightly in terms of how much you’re going to develop as a turnkey solution – i.e. here is everything you need, you literally just need to plug in some media budget and you go, versus here’s a broad tapestry of creative you can work from and you’re free to adapt this to your local market requirements.”
The next step, says Seymour-Hyde, is to come up with specific elements that tie into the overall theme of the campaign. Social media plays an important role in amplifying the digital or video content assets that have been created, while accompanying experiential activities can help create touch points in the local market.
Seymour-Hyde points to the Bud Boat, a Budweiser-branded vessel that will host watch parties whilst travelling up and down London’s River Thames during the tournament, as one example of an Octagon-devised experiential campaign specifically designed to generate excitement among consumers in the UK.
“For our big global clients like Budweiser and Hublot, we are trying to earn attention through marketing and communications and make sure that the content and experiential work that we put out does that,” he says. “At its heart, really it’s just about supporting brilliant creativity, and if you have that creativity right, then the attention should follow.
“All of that has to happen two to three years out because planning cycles for the World Cup are quite long, local markets need to secure budget and get everything in place to actually deliver. Equally, from a local market point of view, there are timelines you’ve got to hit. If you imagine three years out is global planning, two years is local market planning and roll-out, and at the same time you’re also doing what we call host market planning.”
As preparations begin to ramp up 18 months to a year out from the start of the tournament, the campaign work then shifts into its next phase. In the host market, the Confederations Cup, traditionally held 12 months before the main event, is a crucial milestone. Not only does it serve as a vital test event, albeit on a far smaller scale, for host venues and logistical operations ahead of the main showpiece the following year, the eight-nation tournament also provides a valuable opportunity for sponsors to trial hospitality programming, run workshops and build engagement with local teams based there.
“From a host market point of view, once you’re one year out, it’s then into full delivery mode,” says Seymour-Hyde. “From the moment the Confederations Cup finishes, you’re then less than 365 days to go and, in this case, all roads lead to Russia.”
   Controlling the message  
Sometimes, even the best-laid plans go awry. It is no secret that the build-up to Russia 2018 has been beset by mounting geopolitical tensions and high-profile corruption and doping scandals involving both Fifa and the host nation. Together, those crises have conspired to cast a shadow over this summer’s World Cup, thereby exacerbating the job of promoting sponsors.
For agencies like Octagon – whose role is, by definition, to amplify a clients’ message whilst taking steps to mitigate the potential for any negative association with an event organiser – there is an obvious balance to be struck. Nevertheless, Seymour-Hyde’s advice to sponsors is to stay true to the overarching message determined at the outset of the campaign. By “celebrating the football story”, he says, sponsors can “transcend any local market concerns” and limit the potential for negative perceptions that might arise as a result of their association with the tournament and its organisers. 
“The World Cup is not about a market – it’s about a celebration of football,” he adds. Yet there are, of course, other ways of limiting any reputational damage.
“It starts with the contract,” says Phil Carling, Octagon’s managing director of football. “You need to have indemnities and exit clauses and all that sort of thing. I think the majority of brands these days are much more adept, shall we say, at building those things into contracts. That is as a direct result of the scandals that we’ve witnessed, not so much in football – we’ve got it in cycling, the Olympics, a whole range of sports where there’s been malfeasance.
“From an agency perspective, we would certainly be advising our clients to have rigorous protections from a legal prospective. Then, quite far from that, you do need to have very good protocols around communications so if there is a problem or an issue that emerges, you then have very clear guidelines about how you handle that, who does the communications and what messaging gets sent out as well, not only from the sponsor but also from the rights owner. It’s a question of being vigilant around that area.”
Interestingly, Seymour-Hyde says that while the World Cup in Russia has posed specific challenges for marketers activating in the country besides the recent scandals – challenges such as the sizeable logistical task of operating across such a large geographical area – the event has brought benefits for official partners that perhaps weren’t a factor in Brazil four years ago.
“Some of the challenges of Russia, which have been well-documented, have created an equal challenge around ambush marketing,” he notes. “In a funny way, it has benefited some of the incumbent sponsors.
“One of the challenges in Brazil was Brazil has such a rich iconography – whether it’s music or green and gold or the beach or samba. It just lends itself to association so easily that it was actually very easy for brands to ambush, whether they went for something music-based or beach-based or just colour-based.
“The positive sentiment Brazil has made for a very straightforward ambush opportunity. It was obviously quite frustrating for incumbent sponsors, whereas I think Russia has been a bigger challenge for other brands to solve. A lot of the work you’re starting to see come out is much more generic than it was in 2014 – very basic football campaigns which have much less of a link to the World Cup.”
Ramping up to delivery mode
As the executive director of Octagon’s Moscow office, Matthieu Fenaert is responsible for overseeing client sponsorship operations on the ground in the host market. The Frenchman has headed up the agency’s local operation for the past few years, having been seconded to the Russian capital after managing activities in Brazil for eight years leading up to and during the World Cup in 2014, and then in the run-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In the past few months, Fenaert’s Moscow-based team has swelled to around 60 people, with additional temporary staff set to be hired for the tournament itself. As he explains, Octagon always strives to match its clients’ in-house World Cup marketing teams man-for-man, providing day-to-day support and attending weekly planning meetings.
“In each case, we become the interface between the rights holder, which is Fifa, and the sponsor,” he adds. “We are the ones who will talk on behalf of the client to Fifa to get approvals, to make the most of the sponsorship contract and make sure that we take advantage of all the assets that are in the contract.”
While the assets differ depending on the specific rights package that has been negotiated with Fifa, every World Cup sponsorship contract does include the customary branding on LED perimeter boards in every match venue. Octagon does not handle the transportation and installation of those boards – that is carried out by Fifa’s marketing team – but it does oversee the delivery of other crucial elements. For Budweiser, for example, the company has facilitated the delivery of a huge quantity of equipment – including refrigerators, branded cups and, of course, beer – to every venue and fan zone.
Besides that, there is also the sizeable task of managing ticket requests, the demand for which depends on the needs of a given client. Fenaert explains that sponsors with more of a B2B focus, like Gazprom, are likely to require fewer complementary tickets than consumer-facing brands who want to create attention-grabbing activations or run large-scale promotional giveaways.
“For us, in terms of event management, usually the level of operational complexity grows little by little but with the World Cup it’s the opposite, actually,” says Fenaert. “You start with two weeks with non-stop games, sometimes four matches per day, so we have simultaneous operations in different cities. 
“Then we can breathe a bit. When you reach the knockout stage, there are less cities involved and less matches per day. We need to be super-prepared from day one – we cannot afford to start slow.”
In the interests of managing VIP guests effectively, Fenaert complements the Russian organisers for implementing the first-ever FanID programme, a security measure in which those travelling to Russia for the World Cup are required to apply for an official identity document online in order to gain visa-free entry into the country, attend matches, and access free travel between certain host cities.
“I really love FanID for two main reasons,” he says. “First, it prohibits hooligans and people with bad intentions getting into the stadiums, and secondly it makes the process of entering the country so much easier.”
For all the cultural differences between Brazil and Russia, Fenaert notes many similarities between the two host nations, the most obvious being the enormity of the markets, the number of the stadiums staging matches, and notable disparities in the size and infrastructural maturity of the host cities.
“When you get out of Rio and Sao Paulo, or Moscow and St Petersburg, it’s not exactly the same level when you go to the regions – the same level of infrastructure and staff,” he says. “But obviously the client is expecting you to deliver the same quality along the way, so this brings some difficulties. 
“Russia actually hosted a perfect Confederations Cup. That brings a lot of confidence to Fifa, to the sponsors, to everybody that they will host a great World Cup. That was not the case in Brazil in 2013, where the stadiums were delivered last-minute.”
Unlike in Brazil, where soccer borders on religion, supporters of the host nation this time round are not expecting their national team to challenge for the World Cup title. That suggests excitement levels might not be as high as they were in Brazil, but Fenaert says he is expecting the atmosphere to ramp up as the event draws on.
“One proof of this is the way the tickets sold out,” he says. “Out of these tickets, more than 50 per cent are Russian people, so people are engaged. Even if they are not following their national team like crazy, they will definitely follow the tournament. Fifa is expecting more than four million to the fan fests during the tournament, so more than the number of people attending the 64 matches together.
“If all the ingredients come together and the weather is great, if suddenly the Russian national team surprises and progress through the group stage, beats a big team, then it could maybe go to another level. But now the good news the success is not depending on the results of the national team.
“I came here with an open mind, with absolutely no prejudices about how Russian people could be. They’re really fantastic, welcoming people. Yes, they’re different from Brazilian people, but this is the beauty of the world, right?”