Octagon’s Rick Dudley and John Shea speak out during a time of uncertainty — and opportunity
Predictions are as much a part of sports as sticks and balls, but in the age of COVID-19, any crystal ball is opaque, and besides, sportsbooks are shuttered. With no games since mid-March, fans and sponsors have been on the sidelines, while a documentary film has become the most-discussed event in sports.
Charting a new course across sports for brand clients including Allstate, Bank of America, BMW and Mastercard is IPG’s Octagon. I discussed the state of sports marketing during a pandemic earlier this month with Global Chairman/CEO Rick Dudley and John Shea, president of marketing and events.
These are times when clients lean on agencies. What are they asking?
■ DUDLEY: Lots of questions, to which there are no clear answers. It’s a time that’s very frustrating and heartbreaking. We remind them that it’s not our future. The [East and West] coasts will probably be the last to open up. … There’s a bit of competition among the leagues over who can do it safely, of course, but whichever league does it first will get the most attention.
How are you reading the industry’s mood at the moment?
■ DUDLEY: Even though there’s movement toward opening things up, things are perhaps at their darkest, as far as number of deaths, number of cases and the people wanting to get outside and see their favorite teams. Even games without fans will be a pretty big turning point.
Sports without fans will mean something different for sponsors.
■ DUDLEY: There’s unique value about being associated with any sport that’s returning, but they’ll be missing painted faces, fans going crazy and crowd shots. Sponsors will have to be really creative — what can you do with those empty seats? … These times probably give cover for sponsors to do things they couldn’t do before, whether that’s a [uniform] ad patch, or whatever.
When we can start laughing again is going to be an important marker. When we can start cheering again will also be huge; that George Bush first pitch of the  World Series at Yankee Stadium was so big. Can we find that sort of moment with all that cultural impact?
Health care is providing us with new heroes. How much has marketing there changed?
■ SHEA: I’d say that health care marketing probably has changed forever, but when we talk to any clients, the most important thing now is finding the right tonality for their messaging. When it comes back, our brand partners need to be authentic. We’re spending a lot of time on that. How does the sponsor enhance the participation of fans, physically or virtually? We need to understand how this crisis has or will change that.
Other than an event, like the NFL draft, how will you know the right time for that messaging?
■ SHEA: It’ll vary by sector, but if sports fans are looking to be entertained, in an appropriate way and people can opt in, you have a great chance for your messaging to be well received.
How are the psyches of consumers changing?
■ DUDLEY: There’s not a topic we have talked more about. Most of the research I’ve seen says the vast majority of people are not going back to games until there’s a vaccine. Is that going to change? I believe it will. When there’s better therapeutic ways of dealing with it, and if people under 40 are proved not to be as at risk, will they go to games? I think so.
What about you?
■ DUDLEY: That’s a good question. I’m in that “at-risk” sector, so I probably won’t be the first to go back. But I will be ready and very eager to get back.
Will the NFL play a normal season?
■ DUDLEY: I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say they will play at least 12 games. They might start late, but there’s flexibility there and maybe moving the Super Bowl later, but I think they’ll get 12 or maybe 16 games in.
How willing are the big sports properties to engage in discussions about make goods, before they know the fate of their seasons?
■ DUDLEY: Our models have gone from measuring the value of those assets to measuring their lost value. We’re applying good science to all of that. How that all applies, in terms of conversations with properties? We haven’t gotten there yet.
How much residual impact will Octagon or any agency feel from everyone working at home?
■ SHEA: We’ve learned to be more connected. This industry was used to working remotely, but we’ve taken it to another level. … The next challenge will be not slipping back. Work from home will be part of the new normal, but we also have people craving to get back together. There’s pent-up camaraderie.
■ DUDLEY: There are implications across [office/commercial] real estate. The push to get more people into a smaller office space was there. I’ve heard this word “densification.” Another is “hoteling” — you sit wherever there’s an empty office or desk. Who will want to do that now, and who will want to sit 3 feet from someone else?
Give us a reason to be optimistic …
■ DUDLEY: When I worked at the NFL in the 1980s, the commissioner was Pete Rozelle; he felt the league should go dark after the Super Bowl. His theory was that by going dark, you built tremendous anticipation and demand. That worked for him and the NFL. If you apply that to now, the return to sports after being dark this long should be incredible. We just have to get there.
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com.