Adidas' Christophe Bezu

Regional CEO competing for Asian youth spending

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HONG KONG--Christophe Bezu, the Hong Kong-based CEO of Adidas's marketing & sales division in Asia/Pacific, has an unusual problem for an advertiser in a fiercely competitive industry, Asia’s fast-growing sportswear market. The French native fears his ad agency is “too creative.”

He's joking...for the most part. TBWA Worldwide has come up with some of the most innovative marketing ideas ever produced in North Asia, contributing to Adidas' rising revenue performance and the brand's cool image. In its two largest Asian markets, Adidas is the No. 1 sportswear brand in Japan, ground zero for Asian youth trends. It is the No. 2 brand in China, where it narrowly trails Nike, the global market leader, but only by about five share points.

Unusual initiatives developed by TBWA that have helped Adidas win cool credibility with youth include vertical football billboards in Tokyo and Osaka, on which two players, suspended by ropes, played mini soccer matches at a 90 degree angle, 12 stories above the ground; an "Impossible Sprint" extreme sports contest in which forty athletes climbed 328-foot eight-lane vertical tracks on skyscrapers in Hong Kong and Osaka; and the transformation of Omote-sando Boulevard, known as the Champs Elysee of Toyko, into a 250-meter "sonic hedge," a ground-level living wall growing a variety of plants that showcased a gallery of football-related messages.

These ideas have helped elevate Adidas' standing in the marketing community. It has won 34 awards at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival over the past decade, many of which involved Asian executions, and this June, the festival will present Adidas with its Advertiser of The Year award.

"Asia/Pacific has played a big part [in our global success], we've done pretty well here," said Mr. Bezu, who has worked for Adidas since 1988, but he is far from resting on his laurels. "The agency has helped us come up with some great out-of-the-box-thinking, but now we need something new and inspiring, perhaps using traditional media or interactive, but no more vertical for a while."

Pushing his agency, and himself, is part of a management style honed during his stint as the captain of France's field hockey team from 1975-87, when he was also a marathon runner. Although the 48-year-old executive, whose second child was born late last month, no longer competes on the playing field, he is an aggressive rival in the sportswear arena.

"He's very demanding, and sets high standards for himself. Look at how he created a huge operation in Japan basically from scratch," said Keith Smith, TBWA's chairman, Asia/Pacific in Hong Kong.

Mr. Bezu arrived in Tokyo in 1991, revamped the German company's business there from a licensing deal to a subsidiary and by 1997, its revenue in Japan had grown from $8.5 million (1 billion yen) when he arrived to $407 million (48 billion yen).

"He's perfect for Asia. Culturally, he understands the region incredibly well, has lived here for a long time, and recognizes it's important for his business to succeed in this part of the world," added Mr. Smith. He's also very supportive of doing very disruptive things, and breaking the mold and it's a brave client that enables us to do that kind of thing."

Mr. Bezu's promotion almost four years ago to his current regional role in Hong Kong turned his focus towards another Asian giant. Adidas grew 90% in revenue in China last year, and he believes China will be Adidas' No. 1 market in the region by revenue by 2010 (a statistic he playfully uses to motivate his sales team in proud, patriotic Japan), in part through its sponsorship of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"I was lucky, however, besides having a good ad agency partner, I came to this role as China started to take off and we put the right management in place," he added. His team is led by Celine del Genes, communications manager for markets and sales in Hong Kong and in Shanghai, Paul Pi, VP, marketing, Greater China and Erica Kerner, director of the company's Beijing 2008 Olympics Program.

After the 2006 World Cup ends this summer, "we'll turn our eyes to the Olympics," he said. Adidas has already started online marketing around the event and is preparing trade merchandising activities to launch later this year.

"China is key. Just three years ago, Japan was the center of our attention, and it is still our largest market in Asia and the second-largest market globally after the U.S., but now China is the center of our attention.

"It will become a very big revenue center in the future as a consumer market and Beijing is becoming a trendy city. With India also coming up, you'll soon have three giants here. Asia willl become the region of the 21st century, in terms of innovation and money flowing in and creating richer consumers."

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