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Off Panic Mode

One win, and the mood swings the other way. And advertisers and sponsors breathe easy. For now.

Off Panic Mode
K. Venkatesh
Off Panic Mode
Nothing succeeds like success. India's winning performance against Zimbabwe last Wednesday immediately appeased the rioting fans and made advertisers and sponsors breathe a little easier. After all, the stakes couldn't get higher. On the one side is the pride of the nation pumped up to unreal expectation levels by the unprecedented World Cup-related advertising blitzkrieg. On the other, the Rs 600-plus-crore funnelled in by the advertisers during the 45-day-long tourney.

In such a scenario, minor disappointments warrant larger-than-life reactions. When the Indian team crumbled before Australia, after a not-so-hot performance against minnows Holland, not only did it dash a billion hopes, it also brought sales of colour TVs tumbling. "After India were thrashed by Australia, sales were really bad for the next two days. (But) we expect sales to soar before the Indo-Pak match (on March 1)," says R. Zutshi, director, Samsung India.

Given this cricketing link between emotions and sales, colour television manufacturers are keeping their fingers crossed. For, India still has to beat England and Pakistan (or at least one of them) to enter the Super Six league stage. If it does, colour TV sales may well cross the two-million mark for the first quarter of 2003. If Team India fails to make the grade, the segment may lose revenues of over Rs 200 crore. Other sponsors too are waiting to see if their brand endorsement strategies will really work or not.

Publicly, the five global sponsors (and other advertisers) are putting up a brave front. Says a senior manager working for one of the global sponsors, "If you don't have the balls to stand by cricket, you should not be associated with it." What he means is that putting your money behind cricket is fraught with risks. After all, even the best teams like South Africa can perform badly. Adds Lokesh Sharma, managing director of sports management firm 21st Century Media, which represents several Indian cricketers, "Corporates are not as fickle as the fans. They don't take decisions based on a single loss, and contracts don't get altered in a matter of days."

What Sharma is not willing to admit is the panic that gripped advertisers and sponsors after the India-Australia match. According to a senior executive in a media buying house, several of his clients were thinking of taking a relook at their World Cup spends. They knew that unless India made it to the Super Six stage, they would be able to realise only 50 per cent of their advertising spend in terms of eyeballs. Another marketing head of a mid-sized firm based in Delhi was unusually happy since he had only committed a small percentage of his budget to the World Cup until then.

His was one of the firms that played it safe by hedging their bets and waiting for the cricketing air to clear before spending their money on the Indian team. Says Hiren Pandit, general manager of media buying house Mindshare, "I expected my audience delivery to be conservative right from the start. So whatever comes over this is a bonus." Adds Ravi Kiran, managing director, Starcom India (west & south), "I think most clients buffered against poor Indian performances by committing less resources upfront."

However, remember that the sponsors, who have invested huge amounts, cannot back out at the drop of a catch. Or after just one loss. Says a passionate Rohit Ohri, senior vice-president, jwt, which handles the Pepsi account, "Our team may not be performing too well now but they are still our team. We are not going to start cheering for some other country, are we?" Such is Pepsi's commitment to cricket that it didn't even withdraw the commercial that featured the now-discredited Shane Warne, who had to pull out of the tournament after he tested positive for a banned drug.

Nor is Samsung going to pull out its 'Team Samsung' or 'India First' campaigns. Its competitor, LG, seems to be on a better wicket, since its punchline, "Cricket First", works even if India doesn't do too well in the next few matches. "We sell our products in all the cricketing nations. Although we support India, our ads are not India-centric," says Ganesh Mahalingam, the head of sales and marketing, LG Electronics India.

Similarly, unlike Pepsi, Coke decided to continue with its Aamir Khan commercials due to ambush clauses imposed by the icc to protect the rights of the five official sponsors (including Pepsi). Prasoon Joshi, national creative director, McCann Erickson, which handles the Coke account, says that they decided not to use cricket half-heartedly: "If we could, we would have gone the whole hog in order to outshine Pepsi. But we were not going to look like poor cousins."

But what will these advertisers do in case India doesn't make the Super Six grade? And, more important, what will happen to Sony Max, the channel with the exclusive telecast rights? For the latter, an India debacle will not mean much in terms of money because it has already sold all ad spots three weeks prior to the start of the World Cup. "Cricket is sold differently; we sell the entire tournament and not individual matches. Of course, there are no exit clauses," explains Rohit Gupta, executive vice-president, Sony Entertainment Television.

According to Gupta, advertisers could not buy spots only for the India matches alone but had to spread their budgets over either all the 54 matches or a bunch of 37 matches. In case they wish to withdraw their ads, the only exit option available is an expensive one. Cancellations would imply that the advertiser forfeits any negotiated discount and ends up paying card rates for ads that have already appeared. Moreover, if India (hopes against hopes!) reaches the semis, Max will sell airtime at a premium to spot advertisers for those matches.

Thus, if India does badly in the World Cup, the advertisers who have already committed their money can only hope to air ads that don't feature cricketers. Could they dump the players as endorsers? Players' contracts are usually for a year and some of them may not get renewed when they come up for renewal. For example, as reported by the media, Saurav Ganguly's contract with Airtel did not get renewed. Besides, built into every contract is a clause that offers incentives to players if they perform superlatively and allows the sponsor to back out if they are dropped from the Indian team for a certain specified period.

Obviously, the players and their agents are aware of this. That explains why one of the major agents was on the next flight to South Africa after India beat Zimbabwe to cheer the boys. "They are in a better frame of mind now and I'm sure they'll start playing well." But as we know only too well, cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties.

Gauri Bhatia And Charubala Annunci

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