As a youngster, avid sports fan Neil Simpson would not be seen dead in anything but Adidas trainers and his favourite tight, bright yellow Adidas T-shirt.
Now, at the age of 30, he’s stepped into the newly-created role of Adidas’ global advertising director (MW July 31), and his excitement is obvious. He has swapped the T-shirt for a business suit, but Coca-Cola’s former European advertising director has found his place.
Simpson describes himself as a “real sports head”. Although he is an international traveller, he tries not to miss a match. “Wherever I’m staying, the first thing I do in the hotel room is find the sports channel”. The fact that he has supported the recently relegated Nottingham Forest from a very young age says something about his unwavering dedication to football, if not about his taste.
Surrey-born Simpson knew from the age of 16 that he wanted to go into advertising. After following his elders’ advice and completing a degree in English and Philosophy at Southampton University, he became a graduate trainee at Ogilvy & Mather.
He soon moved on to Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), where he stayed for four years. “I wanted to move to a more creative agency, and BBH is one of the best there is,” he says. An ulterior motive was that he didn’t want to join the O&M exodus to Docklands.
One of Simpson’s clients as BBH account director was Coke, and when he was sent to spend a few months getting to know his contact, vice-president and director of advertising David Wheldon, his career took an unexpected turn. Wheldon offered him a job as European advertising manager, and he took it in 1995.
Although his boss, BBH chairman John Hegarty, was “slightly surprised”, he saw the logic behind Coke’s thinking. “Once people get exposed to that kind of talent, [it doesn’t matter that] he did not have a great deal of experience. You can learn a lot of things but you can’t learn talent,” he says.
Simpson was promoted to director level within 12 months when Wheldon was replaced by Ian Rowden. Wheldon later jumped ship joining the BBDO network.
As well as overseeing the 300m advertising budget for the Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite brands in all European markets, he fuelled his enthusiasm for sport by taking responsibility for Coke’s worldwide sports sponsorship. The highlight of his career so far, he says, has been writing the advertising brief for the “Eat Football, Sleep Football, Drink Coca-Cola” campaign.
Just two years after accepting Wheldon’s offer, Simpson was head-hunted by Adidas. He still does not know who recommended that the company should ring him “out of the blue” while he was staying in an Amsterdam hotel.
He is the latest in a series of changes in Coke’s advertising and marketing departments, which have seen the arrival of Jeremy Schwartz as North-west Europe marketing director and Kester Fielding as advertising and media manager, and the departure of UK marketing manager David Glik.
Simpson argues that the high turnover can be explained by Coke’s position as a “very good head-hunting ground for other companies.”
Simpson is based at Adidas’ Amsterdam office. His prized collection of black and white photographs is still in transit from Atlanta, the home of Coke’s headquarters. And for the second time in his career Simpson admits that location played a part in his job change. Being based in Atlanta and travelling to the UK once a week to see his long-standing, “long-suffering” girlfriend, Simone Bunting (the National Magazine Company’s director of mail order) was proving a strain.
But the fact that Simpson flew into London especially for this interview, and then straight out to Greece as soon as it ended, suggests that he and Bunting are still not going to see much of each other.
John Hegarty is less surprised this time round about Simpson’s new job. “Dealing with a brand like Coke gives him a fantastic amount of experience. His great skills and sound creative judgement make him well suited to his new job.”
Hegarty describes his former colleague as one of the least pretentious people he has ever worked with. “I first worked with him on a Dunhill shoot in Venice when he was an account handler – literally. He was carrying all the baggage. Not only has he got a good sense of humour, but he’s good in a tricky situation,” he says.
Simpson has been brought in to expand Adidas’ advertising department. Although he will be recruiting more staff and “taking Adidas’s advertising to the next level”, he says he has no intention of reviewing the 20m account currently held by Leagas Delaney. “Tim Delaney is personally very passionate about the Adidas brand and there are not many clients who can actually say that.”
Simpson believes that Adidas is well on its way to regaining its number one status in the 8.6bn global trainer market, now dominated by US giants Nike and Reebok. He claims the very reason that his job was created, is that in the past few years, the brand has “grown sufficiently to merit a dedicated internal advertising resource to take it to that next level of growth”.
Despite now being the number three choice worldwide, Adidas is the original sports brand. It was German cobbler Adolf “Adi” Dassler who, in 1920, first invented what has become one of the world’s must-have fashion items.
Simpson says: “When I was little, I wouldn’t wear anything but Adidas. The next generation is now rediscovering Adidas and the company itself is rediscovering what first made it so successful.”
Yet he insists that Adidas, official sponsor of the 1998 World Cup, and endorsed by celebrity players like David Beckham, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne, has never lost its crown in the world of football.
Simpson wants to exploit the emotional bond people form with sport. “I want to help define what Adidas’ personality really is… and then build on the passion and emotion that surrounds sport, welding those things together with good creative ideas.”
Although Adidas clearly has faith in him to do this, Simpson is modest about the talent Hegarty and Wheldon recognised years ago. “I’ve been very lucky with the people I have worked with. I’ve learnt from people like Wheldon, Hegarty and Nigel Bogle…[but] I’m not the kind of person to count his chickens.”
Having sat on both sides of the fence has also given him a clear idea of how both sides work. “A lot of people make a great deal about the dividing line between agency and client. That line is blurring…and the more that line blurs, the more effective the creative work will be. The only difference with me is that I’m now a buyer rather than a seller of advertising,” he says.
When asked what his ultimate ambition is, Simpson ponders for a minute or two and then shrugs. “I don’t necessarily have one. When I was at an agency, I thought I would one day have one of my own. When I made the transition, I thought “I had that ambition and it didn’t work out that way”. There were few things which would have tempted me away from Coke…but I was offered a great job at Adidas. And I hope to stay there as long as it likes me.”
And if it doesn’t, at least he can say that he fulfilled a personal ambition and worked for the brand he proudly flaunted on that tight, bright yellow T-shirt all those years ago.