Herculean Job: Buffing the Olympics

Agencies Vie for an Image Task as Politicians Mull Sponsor Curbs
NEW YORK–The International Olympic Committee met with five to six agencies last week regarding what sources said is a $150 million global branding assignment. Agencies will be given six weeks to digest the IOC’s brief before final presentations in June, said Terrence Burns, senior vice president for marketing resources at Meridian Management in Atlanta, which is handling the review.
While details of the assignment could not be determined, the review comes as the IOC struggles with the aftershocks of a bribery scandal stemming from the site selection process for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
An IOC representative said the review process has been underway for more than a year and has nothing to do with the IOC’s recent problems. Rather, it is intended to reinforce the image of the games as an event that transcends athletics. Even so, the winning shop will face the huge challenge of restoring a tarnished brand. The IOC hopes to have work on the air by the fall, sources said.
The Lausanne, Switzerland-based committee started with a list of more than 20 agencies earlier this year, Burns said. Meridian spent last week visiting shops in New York and Chicago, though Burns declined to identify them. He did not rule out another cut before the search is concluded. Burns declined to comment on budget estimates for the effort.
While Meridian visited agencies, Congress debated legislation that would curb U.S. corporate Olympic sponsorships. Limiting such deals would be a blow to the IOC, which raises a substantial portion of its operating revenue from U.S.
Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., introduced a bill that would prevent U.S. corporations and individuals from “providing any financial support” to the IOC unless the committee adopts reforms recommended by an independent panel of investigators.
Nine American companies–Coca-Cola, John Hancock, United Parcel Service, Sports Illustrated, Visa, Xerox, IBM, Kodak and
McDonald’s–each pay $10 million or more a year for the right to be a sponsor. NBC paid $3.5 billion for TV rights to the next five Olympics.
“I had hoped that the IOC would adopt the necessary reforms on its own accord,” Waxman said in a statement. “Perhaps the only thing that will get the IOC’s attention is if American corporate money is cut off.”
A Xerox represenative said the company agrees the scandal must be cleaned up, but was unwilling to comment on specific legislative proposals. Representatives from John Hancock, IBM and Coca-Cola could not be reached.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would introduce a bill declaring the IOC a public international organization, which would make bribery of its members subject to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch declined an invitation to testify at the hearing.
Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, also a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, has already drafted a bill to remove the IOC’s tax exempt status, a move that would limit sponsor deductions.
Advertising lobby groups worry that such efforts could end up destroying the Olympics. “Congress is giving a clear signal that either the IOC is going to end the abusive practices or they will not have the tax protection and tax benefits,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “We are hopeful there will not be a need for legislation.”
–with Jim Osterman