Arif Durrani: London 2012 ad blackout brings commercial Games into focus

The start of the official advertising 'blackout' around this summer's London 2012 Olympics today brings into focus the commercial nature of the modern Games, and with it a general misunderstanding.

Step outside of our marcoms confines and it soon becomes apparent that much of the public are, at best, apathetic to the multi-million pound investments sponsors of London 2012 have poured into the next month of sport.

Over commercial and a long way from its Athenian roots, is the common cry from those who rail against the Games, a view perpetuated by commentators like Mihir Bose, one of the UK’s most eminent sports writers, when he refers to the Olympics as "a McDonald’s franchise operation", driven by television and hosted by an IOC that acts "like the Vatican of sport".

Such negativity came to the fore again last week, when WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell was announced among the Torchbearers in Redbridge this Sunday (22 July). The Mail Online’s story "Millionaire at centre of 'fat cat' row will carry the Olympic torch", duly garnered more than 70 angry responses.

Sorrell’s biggest crime appeared to be not being a ‘real person’, instead a representative of Corporate UK. The sentiment is indicative of the anti-commercial backlash surrounding the Games, and singularly fails to recognise the role commercial deals have played.

Daniel Ritterband, marketing director of 2012 communications for the Mayor of London, said it straight when he told me earlier this month: "The Olympics would not happen without them. You can whinge and minge all you like, but the truth is if it wasn’t for the sponsors it really wouldn’t happen. No government is going to cough up that much cash for a sports day."

And cough up they have, in addition to IOC’s often criticised global partners like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Dow Chemical, London’s Olympic organisers have proved to be world class when it comes to securing sponsorships, exceeding all expectations.
 
Locog’s initial budget of £650m was smashed last year and revised to £700m, despite London 2012 coinciding with the most challenging economic climate of modern times. And only last month, Locog chairman Lord Coe revealed the team had now secured more than £750m from 44 key sponsors, and went on to praise the behind the scenes counsel of one Martin Sorrell.   

Michael Payne, the former marketing director of the IOC, will be attending his 16th Olympics in London, and brings a unique perspective to the commercialisation debate. He says current criticism in the media represents "business as usual" ahead of any Games.

Recalling the negativity surrounding Sydney 2000, including "Greenpeace beating up Coca-Cola", and the sponsor corruption allegations that surrounded Salt Lake 2002, he believes the magnifying nature of the Olympics will always provide oxygen for such debate.

Payne says Locog has done a better job than most at conveying the vital role business plays through its financing, although says they could have been clearer the Olympic Torch Relay was not soley for the public.

The IOC’s demands that much of London becomes a "clean city", free from any advertising outside of its own official partners, and talk of branding police, naturally play into the hands of the critics, but with so much at stake what option do they have?

Ultimately, the true success of this year’s Olympics will go beyond inspiring performances on the track or field this summer, or whether transport meltdown is avoided, or indeed if UK plc’s coffers have been boosted. The evaluation will rest on the success of its legacy programmes.

Coe confided to Marketing he has been urging all Locog sponsors to have a "compelling narrative" to tell their "extraordinary" legacy stories. He estimates as much as £6 billion has been pumped into British construction because of the Games, and that 40,000 people had been employed in and around the Olympic Park.

Locog sponsors, including British Airways, BT, EDF and Lloyds TSB, are directly responsible for three quarters of a million more children playing sport even before the first event, and nearly seven million youngsters are now involved in what Coe termed "life-enhancing activities".

Former Olympic gold medalist Coe does not argue with those who complain sport is no longer what it used to be, admitting it is true, because it has actually grown to become centre of the socio-economic and political agenda like never before.

He told Marketing that comments by Daily Mail's Stephen Glover, questioning why Lloyds TSB staff should take part in the Olympic torch relay, epitomised a "willful refusal to understand the nature of the Games' funding arrangements".

If we could put our cynicism to one side for the next four weeks, we’ll realise we have a ringside seat at the world’s greatest sporting event, thanks in no small part to its sponsors. It really is something to celebrate.

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