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22/11/2012 by

Ajax: Why ROI In Football Is Not ‘Ball Possession’?

Since day one of the internet, CMOs have chased the wrong KPIs and ROI. I guess some will never learn, but this ‘ball possession’ metaphor might help CMOs and football club Ajax Amsterdam?

Why Social Media ROI Is Not 'Ball Possession'?

Last night, I watched the football match in Group D of the Champions League: AFC Ajax vs. Borussia Dortmund. In Amsterdam, my favourite team Ajax was beaten by 1-4, and kicked out of the tournament. It was a horrific night for Ajax fans.

In the aftermath, 2 Dutch TV reporters and 2 Dutch top trainers had a discussion, which felt like the average marketing meeting. In almost the whole discussion they talked about Ajax’ superb ball possession during the whole match, it was close to 70%!

Big-Data & Marketing ROI?
Although I am a big fan of big-data and real-time analytics, the discussion annoyed me. A lot. Ball possession might be one of the KPIs, but it is never a brand or business objective. Certainly not a guarantee for a great ROI.

Yes indeed, Borussia Dortmund’s ball possession was low, slightly above 30%. The big difference however, was their extreme accuracy: In about 6 counters, Dortmund scored 4 goals. A brilliant showcase of effectiveness and true ROI. Not only they won the match, they also qualified for the next round in the tournament.

I do hope that CMOs at other listed companies will use big-data smarter in their marketing strategies. Set the right KPIs and focus on true ROI.

This Social Media Landscape Guide 2012 might offer the help to understand brand and business objectives within the social media arena, to set ROI objectives smart. Believe me, ball possession or the number of fans you bought are not your ROI objectives.

ROI is about achieving brand and business objectives, ball possession and the number of fans, that is just one of the KPIs and mostly an ego thing: Mine is bigger than yours. Funny to brag about at the golf course, but never serious proof of ROI.

The New CMO at Ajax Amsterdam

Why former Ajax and Man. UTD goalie Edwin van der Sar was recently appointed as CMO at Ajax, and is now part of the newly formed management team?

van der sar de nieuwe marketing directeur en straks directeur, zegt Hans Wijers

Johan Cruijff and graduate Edwin van der Sar

Van der Sar has no experience in this field, and had just finished a one year course International Master of Sports Management at the Johan Cruijff Institute. So this is a risky choice.

However, the very experienced Ajax chairman Hans Wijers stated: “That is normal within all listed companies. Big talents like van der Sar do get immediately appointed in positions like this”.

At leading and listed brands, “rookies” are not directly appointed to be the CMO and part of the management team. Mostly rookies become a trainee in the marketing team.

If they are extremely talented, they might even make it directly to the CMOs team. When they are experienced and skilled enough one day, they might even qualify to be the CMO.

But not at Ajax. So this makes me doubt if Ajax is going in the right direction on thought leadership and marketing wise?

On the pitch, Ajax is light years away from international success. And in my opinion Ajax will only have a chance to compete with Barcelona, Bayern, Dortmund, Chelsea and Real Madrid, if they start to think more disruptive, non linear and global.

Disruption, changing the rules of the football marketplace?
If Ajax ever wants to compete again in the Champions League, there is only one long term option in my opinion: Start an international program in which Ajax launches serious subsidiaries massive markets: China, South Korea, Japan and India.

Not in small regions, like Ajax Cape Town. That Ajax will probaly never show any decent ROI, and for that reason it should be closed in the near future.

disruption, changing the rules of the football marketplace

Only this way Ajax will be able to compete with the big boys over a period of 5 to 10 years. Launch Ajax in extremely large markets. This will create a much bigger choice in talented players.

The very best talents can be window dressed at Ajax Amsterdam. Play there for 2-3 years and next they should be sold for $10-20 million each to international clubs.

This is how Ajax might be able to win the Champions League one day again. This is how Ajax will finally build a powerful financial position to buy and pay great players.

These subsidiaries will make Ajax much more interesting as an international brand, which will finally attract big international sponsors. Now national sponsor AEGON has resigned, and rookie CMO van der Sar will have to find a new big sponsor for Ajax.

A few other benefits of popular Ajax subsidiaries in the large Asian markets? Selling shirts and other merchandise has great opportunities in a part of the world that counts over 2.5 billion people. I guess much bigger options than in the Dutch market with only 17 million inhabitants!

And if Ajax would become more popular over the years in these markets, think about the extra income from the TV rights, a truly massive commercial opportunity.

The Cruijff Consiglieres
Many Dutch journalists are clearly too scared to ask critical questions to Cruijff and his team.

Johan Cruijff, who is one of my favourite players of all times, is not only Mister Ajax, but also seems to be “Mister Legacy”. A man who might damage Ajax, with old skool ideas and approach.

Cruijff did already damage the Ajax reputation when he started a public catfight in 2011. The year in which he also got the whole board of directors fired, including the newly appointed CEO Louis van Gaal.

Van Gaal was the head coach at Ajax in 1995. The year that Ajax won both the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. Today van Gaal is the head coach of the Dutch national football team. So not definately not a rookie.

But Cruijff is convinced that the youth section at Ajax, will bring Ajax back to the international top pretty soon. And Cruijff doesn’t listen, he likes to talk about his opinion. His vision and opinion are clearly not pushing Ajax to the European top.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea about having a strong youth section. But having a youth section is simply not disruptive enough to be back at the top in no time.

A youth section alone? That might have worked in the 80’s or 90’s.

But in modern football, many clubs have extremely powerful global sponsors or billionaire owners. The clubs also get big, very big money from the TV rights. And they earn massive revenues in merchandising in large markets and from their global base of true fans.

So if Cruijff and his team are truly thinking that a youth section alone is enough to enable Ajax to compete with afore mentioned power clubs? That would could be a fairy-tale?

Only truly disruptive innovations can change the rules in the marketplace. So do I hope that Ajax is able to make the needed mental revolution top-down soon. Knowing Wijers, he can.

Will we ever see players like Leo Messi at Ajax Amsterdam?

Like a few players from the Ajax youth section can really compete with the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s of this world? Even the average players at Ajax have signed contracts at (average) international clubs the last 10 years. Simply because they can earn much, much higher salaries there.

Salaries that the current Ajax can never afford to pay. So if Ajax wants to get or keep the best players for a while, serious measures are needed to change the rules of the game.

I feel that the fans are entitled to see great players on the pitch. I might even be satisfied to see Leo Messi play. For example during Ajax vs. Barcelona, hopefully an upcoming match in the Champions League in the near future. But I’m afraid Ajax is not going to qualify for next season’s Champions League tournament.

Hopefully I am wrong. But I am convinced that the Ajax board needs to change the rules of the game. If they don’t, I will probably not live to see another Champions League trophy coming to Amsterdam. And that alone, is truly my worst nightmare.

My favourite ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky once stated: You have to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. I hope that the Ajax management will be able to show us similar thought leadership. And I hope to see that happen ‘any given Sunday’.

What About You?
How do you see your football club going to the global top? I look forward to read your opinion in the comments below.

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About the Author
Igor Beuker was CMO at 3 listed companies, chairman at the IAB, jury member at Webby, AMMA and Esprix awards, founder of 3 digital agencies (sold to WPP) and global chief social officer at Mindshare. Now he is ‘freejack’ consultant and a sought after keynote speaker.


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