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WPP's Ronaldo 'Signing' Shows That Shift Happens

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Vic Davies, course leader, in the BA (Hons) Advertising degree at Buckinghamshire New University, argues that WPP's sign-up of legendary Brazilian football stars makes smart business sense.

Move over Roman Abramovich. Make way Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan. There is a new club buying up all the Brazilian football talent, namely the world's biggest marketing communication group, WPP.

Last year WPP's Mediacom agency announced that it had signed a four year deal with Pele covering the 2014 and 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Now WPP have announced that another Brazilian soccer legend, Ronaldo, is coming to London to be trained in marketing by WPP's chairman, Sir Martin Sorrell. So has Sir Martin, the cricket fan, suddenly been converted to soccer?

Well maybe, but more likely this is another sign of the way that Sorrell, and therefore WPP, see its market as being not just global, but being driven by the dynamics of the geo-economics of that global market place.

WPP were one of the first marketing service groups to recognised the implications behind the growth of the BRICs and have built a multilayered network of creative content and media agencies, underpinned by an array of research and data companies, all serving large global clients.

But these are not just static pins on the map, token embassies of the WPP Empire. 'Shift happens' and WPP know, like any good sports person, that anticipation and an ability to shift the weight and emphasis of your actions is key to spotting the opportunity and securing your goals.

This also means that in a world girdled by digital networks supplying the ability to mash up old siloed PR and advertising into new style content is the way to develop your client's brands. So signing sports stars extends what WPP can offer those global brands. If only the Brazilians played cricket!

And of course if only more people spoke Portuguese.

Brazil is a big market, but the dominate language in Latin America is Spanish and that is also the language of the biggest football star of today, Lionel Messi, who plays for Brazil's biggest South American rival, Argentina, and for one of the world's greatest club sides, Barcelona.

Thus WPP's soccer team building may have limitations on just how world-conquering it can be in terms of the rest of the world.

This is always an issue in using sports stars in that appeal is prefixed not just by the sport itself but by the nature of how that sport is followed around the world.

And as with any personality-based promotion, that very same well-known personality may have hidden depths that may look like great attributes for your brand one minute and then much less so the next. Just ask the sponsors of Lance Armstrong about that one. They will no doubt be watching his interview with Oprah Winfrey with interest next week.

You also have to take into account all sports stars enter a stage when the mind and the lifestyle are still willing but the body is not, and that creates a dilemma for both the star and organisations.

Brand Beckham is a case in point here. His iconic image took him beyond being just a footballer, but what kept him in that high earning stratosphere was the football. So as long as that was fuelling his image at the equivalent level then he was going to be of value to both soccer clubs and to sponsors.

But has his time at the top level as a player ended? His next move is critical. The risk is great for both him and for any club that might sign him.

His involvement in the Olympics has seen him move towards adopting the ambassadorial role, so maybe WPP might make him part of an all star international team for Brazil 2014.

How all this team might be used in what Martin Sorrell sees as a much more complex world remains to be seen. Gone are the days when brands simply used stars in TV ads or on billboards and miscreant behaviour could be kept hidden. Now Twitter and other social media sees and publicises all. Imbedded in all the work we do with students is the inherent truth that digital technologies make all brand activity transparent for all to see or hear. There is a growing recognition of this amongst clients in terms of their own brands.

This means that if you then attach a personality to that brand this heightens the risk, and several of my own students are currently researching what this means in terms of the impact of social media on sports brands and sports clubs as brands.

And I have no doubt that WPP too will be have conducted their own research and risk analysis because sport and business are both games where victory is sweet, but defeat can be bitter indeed.