Mix Of Old, New Clients Take Chance On Big Game

A domain-name dot-com is playing. There’s a new drugmaker in the game. But there’ll be no Willie Nelson warbling for H&R Block. Procter & Gamble said it’ll be on the sidelines as well. And we’ll have a halftime show that buyers predicted will be—in the words of one agency pundit—”the safest place to advertise on television.”

As always, the starting sponsor lineup for the Super Bowl is shifting more than a defensive line on third and long.

One factor that is running true to form is the sales process. Fox, which will broadcast the 39th version of the Big Game from Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6, has sold at least 75 percent (or about 42 spots) of the 58 30-second in-game units and virtually all of its available time in the first half. That is slightly behind the 85 percent CBS claimed to have sold at this time last year [Adweek, Nov. 24, 2003], but buyers agreed the pace of sales is on par with most years.

Fox is asking for $2.4 million per unit—up from the $2.3 million that Super Bowl spots went for a year ago—and is “getting it,” said one buyer with several clients in the game. (Clients with package deals and longtime players such as Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo., which together own roughly 25 percent of all Super Bowl slots, aren’t forking up as much.)

Still, there’s more indecision and foot-dragging from clients than usual, with advertisers like Monster, Adidas and Volvo still mulling whether to participate. While such deliberations happen every year—the cost often keeps clients without a specific message that urgently needs to get out (or a new product to pitch) off the roster—advertisers also are waiting a bit longer to buy 2005 media that they didn’t buy in the upfront.

“The big client concern now, a recent phenomenon, is they don’t want to spend all their money and have the commercial rated poorly,” said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer of WPP Group’s Mediaedge:cia.

The most prominent nonreturnee is Procter & Gamble, which held a creative shootout last year won by Publicis New York. (Its Charmin spot was tapped for P&G’s first appearance in the game.) That “was kind of a test to see how consumers responded to our brand, and it also was part of an internal marketing competition,” said P&G rep Heather Valento. “It’s not something we need to do every year.”

Beyond the individual advertiser absences, there also are some noticeable categories missing—at least so far.

“The fact that there are no retail or telecommunications clients and only one pharmaceutical advertiser at this point is a little bit of a surprise,” said Tim Spengler, evp, director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group’s Initiative.

Careerbuilder.com, however, is in for the first time. And there’s even an early candidate for what Chris Wall, co-creative head at WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather in New York, called the game’s penchant for the “Hail Mary play for brands nobody has ever heard of.” GoDaddy.com, the world’s largest domain-name registrar, is in with one unit. The site—which hasn’t even had an ad agency before—will pick between two New York shops working on Super Bowl ideas, Adstore and Cliff Freeman and Partners, for the “huge exposure” the Big Game offers, said a rep for the Scottsdale, Ariz., company.

Then there are the perennials. The annual A-B shootout among roster shops for Super Bowl spots this year has grown by one, with newcomer Cannonball, a St. Louis independent that has produced several Bud Light spots this year, in the scrum with Omnicom Group’s DDB Chicago, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, and Downtown Partners, Toronto; and IPG’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, said Dan McHugh, senior director of Bud Light marketing. A-B, criticized last year for showing a flatulent horse in a spot by DDB Chicago, is expected to rein in the humor this year. “We’re much more cognizant of the environment we’ll be advertising in,” said McHugh.

As for Pepsi, look for another spot from Omnicom’s TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., for its iTunes initiative with Apple, and, in another shootout, a Diet Pepsi spot created by either lead agency BBDO in New York or Omnicom sibling DDB in New York. (Coke, as usual, is sitting out the Super Bowl, preferring to devote its resources and adspend to its American Idol sponsorship during the winter.)

One thing that almost certainly won’t repeat is a halftime malfunction. This year, the NFL is producing the intermission, which will feature the decidedly unmenacing Paul McCartney, who performed in 2002’s game.

“There’s not too much concern about Paul, unless there’s something about his nipples that I don’t know about,” said Scanzoni.