The revival of Adidas

When Adidas centralised its marketing and appointed Leagas Delaney as its first global shop, advertising assumed a new importance. Michele Martin reports

When Adidas centralised its marketing and appointed Leagas Delaney as

its first global shop, advertising assumed a new importance. Michele

Martin reports

Leagas Delaney was never meant to win the Adidas account - just ask the

man who masterminded the European pitch in 1992. ‘I knew that I wanted

to give the business to Bartle Bogle Hegarty,’ Tom Harrington, Adidas’s

director of communications, admits.

Two things happened to soften Harrington’s attitude. The first was a

pleading phone call from Leagas Delaney’s new-business director, which

caught him off-guard because it was on a number he thought only his

daughter had. The second was the arrival of a fax from a friend at MTV

suggesting that Leagas Delaney would be good for the job.

‘When Leagas Delaney phoned me back the next day, I ended up saying that

I would give the agency an hour of my time for a briefing, provided

someone could fly down to Barcelona, where I was staying on business,’

Harrington recalls.

Twenty four hours later, an immaculately besuited Tim Delaney stepped

off a plane into the July heat to meet him. It was to mark the beginning

of one of the most intriguing relationships to be forged in advertising

this decade.

The story of Leagas Delaney and Adidas is not remarkable for the usual

reasons that mark client and agency relationships. It cannot be noted

for its longevity because they have been together for little more than

three years. And although the creative work has been good, Leagas

Delaney has failed to produce the kind of classic campaigns associated

with Adidas’s arch-rival, Nike.

What makes the pairing special is the obvious mutual benefit one has

drawn from the other. As with BBH and Levi’s, Adidas has helped Leagas

Delaney grow from a small agency to a medium-sized one with

international credentials.

From 60 staff and declared billings of pounds 65 million in 1993, last

year Leagas Delaney had grown to 95 staff and a pounds 70 million

turnover, according to Campaign’s Top 300 agencies table.

On 4 March, the agency opened its first overseas office in San

Francisco, after last year becoming Adidas’s US agency and de facto

global shop, adding to its status as the client’s European agency and

global below-the-line outfit.

For Adidas, the association has helped to pull the world’s former number

one sportswear company back from the brink. Having appointed the agency

in the same year as posting a DM152 million (pounds 68 million) loss,

Adidas has seen its profits soar to DM245 million. The brand had slipped

to number four behind Nike, Reebok and Mizuno in terms of turnover - it

now stands at number two or three. Harrington clearly believes there is

a link between advertising and turnover: ‘Leagas Delaney has undoubtedly

made a contribution to our turnaround.’

When the agency took control, Adidas was an old-fashioned name that had

lost much of its kudos in the 80s because of the deteriorating quality

of its products and scant marketing support. Worse still, the sector had

become dominated by Nike, thanks largely to Wieden and Kennedy’s

advertising. Steve Dunn, Tim Delaney’s former art director who is now

head of art at Lowe Howard-Spink, remembers: ‘We watched the Nike reel

one day. Nobody spoke for ten minutes afterwards. It was so good, we

just wondered what on earth we could do next.’

Fortunately, there was some good news. There was a resurgence of

interest in Adidas, fuelled by its new popularity among rappers and rock

bands, and the company itself had also recently made ‘marketing’ its new

buzzword in an attempt to turn around its fortunes.

Rival manufacturers had also reinvented themselves. Reebok, for example,

changed strategy in 1994 from promoting an overall brand proposition to

the declining fashion-trainer sector to targeting specific markets such

as football and womenswear - a market that has also been crucial to

Adidas’s success.

At the beginning of the 90s, Adidas restructured into business units,

handing power to centralised communications under Harrington. In 1993,

it increased its communications spend from 6 per cent of its annual

turnover to 11.4 per cent after being bought by a group of investors led

by the former Saatchi and Saatchi group chief executive, Robert Louis-

Dreyfus. Both moves were to benefit an agency with global aspirations.

‘If we were going to turn ourselves around, we would have to do ads that

focused on the 12- to 18-year-old market and would work on MTV,’

Harrington explains.

The first commercials, in spring 1993, featured the line, ‘earn them’,

referring to the three stripes in the Adidas logo. The TV work was

particularly high-profile, thanks to trendy directors such as David

Lynch of Twin Peaks fame. Lynch’s commercial dramatised a runner pushing

through the ‘wall of pain’. ‘He liked the script, but he was bloody

expensive,’ Dunn recalls.

The second stage of the strategy emerged in 1995. It focused on the one

area where Adidas had a usp over Nike - a heritage stretching back to

1928 and a history of celebrity wearers. The first ad starred a young

Mohammed Ali in the true story of how his brother threw rocks at him to

help him train to duck and dive. The second featured the Czech runner,

Emil Zatopek, in a spot revealing his double life as a runner and


This nostalgic strategy has continued. Last month’s Olympic work

included a commercial telling the story of Adidas’s founding father, Adi

Dassler, with the line, ‘We knew then. We know now.’

The new campaign also reveals how far the business has come in a short

space of time, thanks to separate ads for the German, French and Italian

markets featuring national players and teams. The ads hint at the fact

that the agency now produces work for 20 countries - individual tactical

work as well as its central strategies - which explains why the number

of print ads rose from 300 in 1993 to 1,000 in 1995, and TV commercials

from ten to 45.

Delaney insists that the account has grown organically: ‘No-one is

forced to ditch local agencies.’ But its development has certainly been

helped by the newly empowered international marketing department and the

personal relationship between Harrington and Delaney. ‘I talk directly

to the guy writing my ads. That makes a very big difference to my

business,’ Harrington says.

It is a relationship that is felt at grass-roots level, too. Will Awdry,

the former head of copy at Leagas Delaney and now a copywriter at BBH,

says. ‘You didn’t have to go plunging through a level of people to get

the ads out because all points always went to Tim.’

But while this high-level decision-making is one of the account’s

greatest strengths, it is also potentially one of its biggest

weaknesses. Tom Noble, Adidas’s brand communications director and the

agency’s day-to-day client, summarises the situation - ‘If Tim got run

over by a bus tomorrow, we’d be in big trouble’ - which may explain why

informal talks have recently started to find a way of restructuring the

account. ‘We will probably start to see senior creatives running pieces

of the business, rather than Tim managing the whole process,’ Noble


Getting the structure right will be vital to Leagas Delaney’s future

with Adidas, not least because the business still has to prove that it

is being run at full-throttle. With the exception of Adidas’s excellent

print work, which Harrington says is only backed by 10 per cent of the

client’s media spend, the bulk of its advertising has not been able to

shake off unfavourable comparisons with Nike.

This year alone, Nike can boast a gold lion for its ‘the wall’

commercial and a silver D&AD for its ‘opera’ ads, among other awards.

Recent Adidas work might have done well at festivals such as the British

Television Advertising Awards and Creative Circle, but the brand has not

won prizes at D&AD or Cannes.

Yet Harrington remains a Leagas Delaney devotee and refuses to be

disheartened by Nike’s strength: ‘If we thought like that, we’d never go

to work in the mornings. We justÿ20have to keep going with better stuff.’

If Adidas sees as much improvement in the next three years as it has in

the last three, it may not be too long before it finds itself first off

the blocks again.

The key people

Tim Delaney, Leagas Delaney’s creative director

The man at the centre of Adidas’s advertising, both strategically and

creatively, Delaney is considered to be the steward of the brand by his

client and agency colleagues. ‘He’s passionate about Adidas and I

sometimes wonder if he shouldn’t quit the agency and go and work for it

instead,’ Steve Dunn comments, waspishly.

Robert Louis-Dreyfus, Adidas’s chief executive

As the man credited with bringing a new commitment to advertising when

he helped buy Adidas in 1993, Louis-Dreyfus was responsible for raising

the company’s communications spend from 6 per cent to 11.4 per cent of

its annual turnover. ‘We’re lucky to have Robert. He encourages us to do

interesting work, but doesn’t tell us what to do,’ Delaney says.

Tom Harrington, Adidas’s director of communications

Having worked as a worldwide account director on Adidas while at Young

and Rubicam in the 80s, Harrington became the senior client at Adidas in

1990. He was responsible for appointing Leagas Delaney and still has a

close relationship with the agency. ‘He’s practical about cultural

sensibilities and each country’s ability to run our work. I talk to him

once a day,’ Delaney comments.

Tom Noble, Leagas Delaney’s brand communications director for Adidas

Having been an account director at Wieden and Kennedy in Amsterdam on

the Nike account, Noble is now the day-to-day client under Harrington.

He is also responsible for expanding the agency’s remit. ‘He’s youthful

and enthusiastic and knows good ads when he sees them - which is

probably why he spends so much time in the creative department,’ Will

Awdry says.

Tim Little, Leagas Delaney’s group account director for Adidas until

January this year

As a popular and effective account director, Little was instrumental in

expanding the Adidas business during its formative years. He was seen by

many in the ad industry as a balance to Delaney’s passion, and a kind of

human cement keeping Adidas happy. His replacement is Paul Tredwell.

Peter Moore, Adidas’s creative director

Based in the US, Moore theoretically has the final say on all Adidas

design and communications issues, but he is respected by the agency for

not interfering too much. ‘He expresses ideas about ads and looks at

everything once a month. He’s someone I respect,’ Delaney says.

How is the account run?

Running a global account above and below the line, and without a

network, should have proved impossible for an agency of Leagas Delaney’s

size. However, Harrington says: ‘Leagas Delaney is certainly coping

better than its predecessor, Young and Rubicam.’

Although it will soon be helped by the US office it opened a few months

ago, Leagas Delaney in London remains responsible for overseeing,

creating, translating and adapting Adidas work for all other markets.

The fact that such a centralised approach works at all has been helped

by two factors. First, close co-operation between the client and the

agency - with local markets being involved in the early stages of

creative development. The second is the quality of the account

management - a ten-strong team led by the group account director, Paul

Tredwell, and three account directors, Colin Clarke, Axel Pfennigschmidt

and Andrea Carbonara, who are each responsible for a clutch of Adidas’s

ten-odd business units. On projects led by Adidas’s HQ, agency

responsibility is led by a business unit. The account is also split by

country, with some projects handled direct with individual marketing


Leagas Delaney produces work in-house using its sophisticated Apple

Macintosh facilities.

ISDN links to Adidas’s German headquarters and a handful of other key

markets speed up the production process. Finished campaigns are rolled

out with the help of local freelance translators, national marketing

departments and Initiative Media, which is responsible for European

media buying.

Adidas receives help from BBDO in Asia and in dependent local agencies

in Latin America to adapt its campaigns.

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