Sports idol Simon Fuller

Every industry has its mavericks, and an increasingly interesting one on the marketing scene is Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment.

19 began life in 1984 as a pop-star promoter: its name comes from the first single of the first artist (Paul Hardcastle’s no 1 hit) that Fuller signed. More famously, Fuller was behind the Spice Girls and has promoted Annie Lennox, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears. In fact, in the world of pop, you name it, he’s promoted it: 109 no 1 singles; and 87 no 1 albums, in the UK alone.

Diversification, when it came in 2001 with the development of Pop Idol, was entirely predictable and, less predictably, wildly successful. So far, the programme format has been exported to 32 countries and generated over $1bn in non-rights revenues alone.

Sporting chance

It is only in the last year, however, that we have seen a much more ambitious strategy emerge, as Fuller branches out into sport. There has been an attempt, possibly misguided, to restore lustre to the England football team, through a four-year deal. Much more significant, for sport as well as 19, is likely to be the tie-up with Formula 1 racing via Team Honda.

Fuller’s contribution to the sports industry is first and foremost to treat it as part of the entertainment world. F1 is the problem of sport incarnate. Though, unlike many sports, it has genuine global appeal, it is also viewed as excessively esoteric and technical by nearly all but the cognoscenti. In other words, the young people who could swell its audience and certainly provide tomorrow’s supporters simply find it too boring.

What Fuller has said, simply and sensibly enough, is that the excitement of F1 needs to be as easily presentable to the average 14-year-old as pop music, video games or snowboarding. That way, it can become ‘as big as the Olympics’.

Of course, that’s more easily said than done. But this week’s news that Honda is planning to turn its racing team ‘green’ is certainly an indication of his thinking. Whether this means the cars will physically turn green is unknown, although they are known to be ditching the white and red livery of former sponsor BAT. But tapping into an environmentally aware message makes a lot more sense than being dependent on a tobacco manufacturer if you are trying to create youth appeal. It’s also a message that has some credibility, given Honda’s public commitment to cleaner diesel engines and a pioneering hydrogen-cell research programme.

Meantime, Fuller is making waves in other ways. He has just signed up ex-Ford brand chief and board director Stuart Dyble to take charge of his burgeoning sports portfolio. And fashion doyenne Jo Phillips to manage the brand merchandising of Victoria Beckham and former supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

The McCormack of his day?

In fact the more 19 takes shape, the more it seems a challenge to traditional marketing services agencies – in sports marketing, fashion brand management and – who knows? – on a more general, experiential level. Although Fuller can be filed in no neat category, a comparison might be offered with Mike Ovitz and Creative Artists Agency. Branching out from his career as a Hollywood talent agent, Ovitz for a time gave McCann Erickson a ride for its money with a successful foray into Coca-Cola advertising.

But a more telling parallel may turn out to be that with the late Mark McCormack. McCormack started IMG in 1960 by signing a deal with legendary golf star Arnold Palmer and later branched out into showbiz. Fuller, it seems, has done the opposite – starting out in showbiz and moving into sport management.