Advertisers dive into an Olympic-sized pool of uncertainty

The road to Tokyo hasn’t been easy and nothing is guaranteed.

After much debate, the 2020 Summer Olympics will kick off in Tokyo next week with a ban on spectators and limited on-the-ground opportunities for brands. 

Advertisers, who have lined up to participate, may have learned the lessons of the past year as they enter this year’s Olympic village. 

NBCUniversal, which holds the exclusive broadcast rights to the games, is programming an unprecedented 7,000 hours of content across all of its platforms, including more live coverage of the games, giving ample opportunity for brands who can’t be on the ground to show up on the small screen. The network has already sold more than $1.2 billion worth of inventory, and CEO Jeff Shell said recently he is expecting what could be the company’s most profitable Olympics broadcast in history.

Despite the absence of an in-person audience, the production value will be high. According to NBCUniversal Olympics production president Molly Solomon, NBCU plans to deliver “the most comprehensive — and accessible — coverage for any sports event in history,” and promises deep and broad coverage of “once-in-a-generation athletes and storylines that will capture the incredible uniqueness of these games and our times.” 

For advertisers, the Olympics still draws an unparalleled global audience, despite ratings declines in recent years. So media buyers tell me their clients haven’t paused or pulled ad buys. Quite the contrary: From a media investment standpoint, levels are on par with, and may exceed, 2020 commitments. 

But getting there wasn’t easy. Clients may have postponed their budgets, but agencies had to scrap their 2020 plans and adapt to new market dynamics, business realities and consumer culture. Some clients’ frequency requirements have changed; others had a new product launch tied to the games.

For agencies, that meant a huge amount of scenario planning (I’ve heard some clients built more than 100 plans based on various postponement and cancellation scenarios), as well as negotiating flexible contracts with strong force majeure clauses. All the while, navigating rules from the International Olympic Committee, the city of Tokyo and the United States Olympic Committee was a game of whack-a-mole.

An Olympics without fans adds another wrinkle. As for experiential campaigns and athlete sponsorships, brands are trying to adapt to virtual experiences, such as at-home viewing parties and promotions, but most brands have pulled their on-the-ground activity, a huge part of the appeal of sponsoring the games.

Shadowing all of this uncertainty is the looming threat of COVID-19, which could create a public health disaster, and with it, a PR disaster for brands funding and participating in the games. Because we’re not out of the woods yet. 

Just this morning (Wednesday), Axios reported that health experts fear the Olympics don’t have proper ventilation or protocols for testing within the Olympic village and in competition venues. Japan has just a 19% vaccination rate, and cases are on the rise, including those caused by the fast-spreading Delta variant. With brand safety and purpose top-of-mind for advertisers, I can only imagine how real the concern of funding a superspreader event is. 

The Olympics always involves heavy politics (there’s already been much reported on the implications of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022). But the past year has taught us all that anything can happen. 

For brands and agencies, planning for this year’s Olympics has been yet another lesson in expecting the unexpected and being prepared to face disruption pivot on a dime — even for a major tentpole such as the Olympics. 

The only thing certain is uncertainty. Advertisers, plan accordingly.

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