Czech Advertising Business Lacks a Footbridge to the Future

Prague Marketing Chiefs Favor Bland and Non-Intrusive Creative

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We flew into Prague eager to "Czech it out" as the T-shirts there invited, and we found the citizens of this normally tranquil Eastern European capital ready to storm the barricades.
The Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River in the middle of Prague, is the city's most popular gathering place. The top photo shows the statues that line the stone span; the lower photo shows an aerial view of the bridge during a light snow last winter.
The Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River in the middle of Prague, is the city's most popular gathering place. The top photo shows the statues that line the stone span; the lower photo shows an aerial view of the bridge during a light snow last winter. Credit: AP

Madonna tour
Causing the uproar wasn't age-old tensions with Hungary or Austria, but a promotional event staged by Louis Vuitton for Madonna as part of her European tour.

Not only had the company rented the most popular gathering place in Prague, the Charles Bridge, for a $55,000 pittance to film a documentary, it was also closing the bridge for an exclusive party after Madonna's gig.

Historic bridge
The Charles Bridge, as my wife, Merrilee, and I can attest, is not your ordinary bridge. It's the oldest in Prague, dating to the 14th century, and there are 30 statues adorning it, one of which is said to grant your wish when you touch it. It's devoted solely to pedestrians, and when we strolled along it on a warm September day, vendors offered us photos and watercolors of the bridge named after King Charles IV. We were stopped in our tracks by a group of Dixieland jazz musicians playing the sweetest music this side of New Orleans.

The flap wasn't the only thing that had Czechs upset. Sparta Praha, the soccer club that has won nine of the past 12 league titles, lost its sponsor Eurotel and has been playing without any commercial logo. And the team's crosstown rival, Slovia, had to replace its main sponsors when gas-station chain Benzina and Czech Airlines dropped out.

Declining sports sponsorships
Daniel Köppl, editor in chief of Marketing & Media magazine, told the Prague Post, "Attendance is going down, so their sponsorship does not have adequate impact on people." The Sparta team got 10% of its $13.7 million revenue from its main sponsor, and smaller teams derive as much as 25% of total revenue from sponsors.

I called Mr. Köppl to talk about the ad business in Prague and the Czech Republic. Over coffee he said the effects of communism still linger with consumers. "People have good training from communism. The communists said, 'We are the best, most famous, look how good we are.' Look at Coca-Cola, Nike. They say only one thing: 'We are so good, buy us.' In communism it was the same," he said. "Same diction, same style. So our people are very well prepared" for the blandishments of advertising.

Consumers like advertising as an information source but they don't trust it, he told me. "People trust the product but not the brand."

'Not so much creativity'
So, Mr. Köppl, said "there's not so much creativity" in Czech advertising, which is "realistic and pragmatic." Consumers, he said, "don't like direction -- do this, don't smoke. People need a reason. They don't like it when you tell them what they should do."

Czech advertising doesn't do well at Cannes "because we're too defensive. Because we have mortgages, we don't want to do something that would be dangerous."

Mr. Köppl believes that a "marketing ghetto" in Prague keeps ad people from getting close to consumers. "Marketing people are closed; they go to the pubs to entertain one another. They don't speak to normal people. They don't know their problems."

Mr. Köppl, who is 34 and has a 6-year-old son, said that Czech ad business "is full of young people, but a very big problem is they don't have experience with life, with children. What should we do in 10 years?"

What to do now is evidently not a problem. We left Prague before the big bash, but Mr. Köppl later told me Vuitton bowed to protests. The party was moved 200 meters, and the bridge -- in all its splendor-remained open to the people.
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