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A harder look at sports stars

The perils of hiring a celebrity endorser to pitch a product are

well known. If the celebrity's image is tarnished, so is the brand's. In the sports world, however, marketers in the last few years have, puzzlingly, embraced some pro athletes despite their reputations as loose cannons. Now a welcome reassessment may be under way.

It was only a decade or so ago when sports endorsers won contracts based on such factors as clean-cut looks and role-model behavior. Somewhere along

the line, probably to stand out from the crowd, some marketer decided to grab the attention of consumers by putting the loutish likes of an antihero, such as the National Basketball Association's Dennis "The Worm" Rodman, in their ads. Of course, competitors followed suit and pretty soon all of those commercials started to look alike. A clean-cut athlete is today a point of differentiation.

As we reported last week, the public backlash against the on- and off-field transgressions of pro athletes is causing marketers of athletic footwear -- among the heaviest users of athlete-endorsers, for obvious reasons -- to rethink the role of sports stars in their marketing campaigns. While pro players continue to play a vital role for footwear marketers -- primarily by validating the shoes' performance stories -- more sneaker companies are turning the spotlight in their ads on brand heritage, technology and everyday athletes. Even when pro athletes are used, some of the sports shoe industry's biggest players are expected to focus less on the athletes' antics and more on their abilities.

We don't expect the tide to turn too quickly. While Converse, for example, dumped the NBA's Latrell Sprewell, it will still use Mr. Rodman in ads. Nevertheless, this reexamination of the athlete endorser is an encouraging trend that could lead to a major shift in the marketing of athletic footwear. It also sends strong signals that outrageous behavior will no longer be quietly tolerated by marketers, and that consumer concerns will remain foremost in marketers' minds.

Smart buying

Given that 1997 closed with the news Leo Burnett Co. had taken an ownership stake in the hot British agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and that 1998 opened with word Interpublic Group of Cos. was about to snare Minneapolis-based agency Carmichael Lynch, the unanimous opinion on Madison Avenue is that the pace of agency acquisitions, partial acquisitions and public stock offerings will continue unabated as the new year unfolds.

The general thinking is that the publicly traded agency holding companies, such as Interpublic, need to buy other agencies or related businesses to produce attractive rates of growth in revenues and profits for investors. Moreover, there are plenty of "For Sale" signs for the acquisition-minded shopper to peruse. Many of the principals at targeted companies just happen to be of an age when they're eager to cash out. If they don't grab the brass ring now, it may forever slip from their reach. Or so the thinking goes.

But caveat emptor. The trap that awaits the unwary is buying merely for the sake of boosting the bottom line. The holding companies, and others, that are doing the acquiring should not lose sight of the fact that sound acquisition strategies demand more from a purchase than simply obtaining a new revenue stream. Most important is where that purchase will fit. An acquisition that does not offer a strong strategic fit is most probably not a good buy in the long run -- no matter what it adds to revenues in the short run.

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