With brands using a larger number of agencies and influencers to support their marketing activity, recent events at Manchester City highlight how easily these arrangements can go wrong and present a number of lessons that brands can learn from.

What went wrong for City?

City commissioned PHD Media Manchester, a media agency, to help improve attendance at City’s Champions League matches at the Etihad Stadium. The agency then placed an advert on Tribe, a platform which is used to connect brands to people with large social media followings i.e. ‘influencers’.

The ad solicited male-only 18-55 year old “Mancunians and/or Man City fans” to produce content that is "fan-centric which has an element of FOMO [fear of missing out] at its core" and that "showcases the electrifying atmosphere that only Champions League live football matches can deliver". The ad then went on to explain that because City’s Champions League group fixtures were against three “relatively unknown” teams in Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb, core fans would be less likely to attend and therefore, City wanted to showcase this “electrifying atmosphere” through influencers who could tell an “authentic and genuine story of what it's like to be at the game."

The ad became an issue for City for a number of reasons, namely that it asked for male-only influencers, disparaged City’s Champions League group opponents and implied poor attendance at these Champions League fixtures.

Whilst City had commissioned the agency on the project, it is understood that the specific ad was not seen or approved in advance by City. City took action to remove the ad as soon as they were made aware of it and despite the reportedly longstanding relationship between the parties, City have now terminated their agreement with the agency, showing how seriously it takes the protection of its reputation and brand.

What lessons can brands learn from this story?

There are a number of takeaway messages for brands here:

  1. Brands should retain control of the brief they have given an agency (including the use of third parties such as influencers or platforms similar to Tribe). Clear approval rights for published content should be reflected in the agreement between the parties, setting out exactly what the agency can do without approval and what requires approval. In City’s case, if prior approval was required for the agency to run the influencer campaign, City could have then advised the agency not to continue with the campaign. You can read further guidance by my colleague Caroline Swain here on this issue in the context of influencers.
  2. Brands may wish to produce guidelines which set out general wording, themes or references that are / are not deemed appropriate. This helps to “manage expectations” and avoids everyone’s time being wasted by the agency submitting materials for approval that are a complete non-starter for the brand.
  3. Under the terms of the agreement with the agency, brands should be able to terminate an agreement if there is a defined material breach, such as the publication of certain content without prior approval of the brand. Whilst we do not know the terms of the agreement, City’s action to terminate the agreement has drawn a swift and decisive line under the matter and arguably helped them to limit the damage caused.
  4. Proving damage or reputation loss is notoriously difficult, but including a right to damages for reputational loss (a head of damage which is often seen as a standard exclusion) can help to focus an agency on avoiding such issues.

Final comment

Specialist agencies and influencers are key tools in modern marketing strategy. However, as brands expand the number and variety of relationships they have, it is vital that they remain vigilant. As we have seen, a small error on the part of an agency can cause a significant amount of negative PR and brand damage. Ensuring you have included appropriate controls and remedies in your marketing services agreements is a key brand protection measure.