Manchester City said they were not aware and did not authorise an influencer recruitment campaign that have labelled an "own goal" and "tactical disaster".
A source from the club told Campaign sister title PRWeek that the club is "disappointed" and "reviewing" its relationship with a local agency partner that it blames for running the contentious influencer campaign without the club's knowledge or approval.
On Tuesday, an ad on influencer marketing platform Tribe had called on influencers to build hype and create "FOMO" about watching football at the Etihad Stadium.
The ad said Man City needed to attract new fans to Champions League games against "relatively unknown" opposition, which includes the Atalanta team that Man City beat 5-1 on Tuesday night.
The source told PRWeek that the club became aware of the ad on Tuesday evening and immediately asked for it to be taken down.
They said: "We are clear that the views expressed [in the ad] are not ones shared by the club."
The source added that the club had never worked with Tribe previously and would not work with the influencer platform in the future.
Man City is also reviewing the relationship with the Manchester agency it said is responsible.
The club has run influencer campaigns before and said it wants to "engage with audiences in relevant ways". However, the Tribe ad is problematic due to the messaging, lack of approval and execution.
A 'relegation zone' play
PRWeek asked industry experts for their views about the Tribe ad, with several commenting before it emerged that Man City had not authorised it.
Most criticised the messaging and gender focus of it and how the campaign positioned a team that is widely regarded as having one of the best squads and styles of football.
"This whole approach is a tactical disaster for Manchester City," The Romans associate director and sports expert Paddy Hobbs said.
"By far the biggest own goal from these spectacular misses is the specific targeting of men in their influencer requirements. Do they believe women can’t be fans or do not represent how they want the club to be viewed?
"For a club that’s so forward-thinking and dominant on the pitch, they deserve to be in the relegation zone for this."
Chris Allen, director of campaigns at Pitch Marketing Group, described the concept of influencers to promote a stadium's atmosphere as a waste of time and money, because "you just can’t manufacture the passion of football fans".
"If City felt the need to try and drum up interest in their Champions League ties, with such assets at their disposal, an earned approach to influencer marketing would have been much more effective and certainly would have avoided the backlash we are now seeing," he said before learning that the club did not endorse the ad.
Allen believes a better approach would be to identify authentic fans and offer them free tickets, behind-the-scenes access and the chance to meet players. This would allow the club to create truly engaging content in an authentic environment.
Mischief head of strategy and insight Gemma Moroney said the campaign’s focus on men is a missed opportunity, although it's important to note that Man City has denied endorsing the messaging.
"Amidst fake followers and FOMO, there was one other ‘F’ not mentioned: females. The influencer brief seems to have only specified males," she told PRWeek, again prior to learning Man City had not authorised the ad.
"I get the argument that top-flight football is still in the majority attended by men," she added. "I’m sure some people will point out 'There’s also a Women’s Champions League', but for a club that will have plenty of ardent fans of all genders, a club that boasts England captain Steph Houghton and a club that was one of the first league clubs in north-west England to create an affiliated women's side, it seemed…an oversight."
'Influencers have their place'
Not all PR professionals thought the concept of an influencer campaign to reach new fans was flawed.
Hope & Glory founder and managing partner James Gordon-MacIntosh said the focus on influencers to bring to life the wider "social experience" of a trip to the Etihad "makes total sense when the club is recruiting from beyond its core fan base".
However, he questioned the campaign taking a media-first, rather than audience-led, approach – something that he said is not always the best way to achieve success.
"Rather than thinking about who their audience engages with and working with specific influencers, the club is recruiting based on the make-up of the influencers themselves," Gordon-MacIntosh explained.
"We’re firm believers that campaigns which work up from an audience will deliver substantially stronger results in the end."
Karmarama social and influencer lead Katie Hunter said using influencers is "a smart response to a potentially growing problem".
"It shows open-mindedness and self-awareness on the part of the club’s marketing team and a willingness to try something that perhaps might not have seemed in their league previously (pun intended)," she said.
"It’s easy to assume that fandom and advocacy come with the territory in team sports, particularly the big hitters with plenty of air time.
"But at a time when consumers are scrutinising what they spend their hard earned cash on and the quality of the experiences they do pay for, it makes sense to build further advocacy and attract new audiences."
Other industry pros took to Twitter to share their views. Here is a selection of the reactions:
Is this a real brief?— Steve Martin (@MCSaatchiSteveM) October 23, 2019
INFLUENCERS: make sure you're male too. We don't want people thinking there might be women at our games.— FoodTravelFootball (@FoodTravFoot) October 23, 2019
Man City calls on influencers to build hype for Champions League home games. Personally the most interesting piece for me here is about impressive number of fake followers of Nike & Man City https://t.co/O2xfk3zLkQ via @prweekuknews #sportsbiz #UEFA #digitalmarketing #ManCity— Olga Fedotova (@OlgaAtTheGames) October 23, 2019
This is the funniest and most embarrassing football marketing story I have ever read https://t.co/16IBSfgJbP— Jonathan Welsh (@JonWelsh) October 23, 2019
Influencers at the Emptyhad? They need to get more fans first.— jamescrawford (@jamescrawford) October 22, 2019
Strange story, reported with all the enthusiasm of a Liverpool fan I notice ??— Tim Fallon (@FallonTim) October 22, 2019
Shared experiences are said to boost engagement and reaction by as much as 40%, so if they have fans who can build a buzz and create a sense of anticipation (and participation through attendance) then they should utilise them. Man City is a brand à la many other consumer brands— Paul MacKenzie-Cummins (@PaulMacKenzie_C) October 23, 2019