The first big clash of the 2010 World Cup finals has already kicked off, not in South Africa but alongside the grachts of Amsterdam where some of the best creative minds in advertising are involved in an intense struggle.
On one side of the contest, representing Adidas, is the Dutch agency 180. Lined up against it, on behalf of Nike, is the Amsterdam office of the free-thinking American advertising shop Wieden+Kennedy. Chris Mendola, the founder and CEO of 180, formerly ran the Nike account for W+K Amsterdam, before leaving to set up his own company and land Adidas as a client. "Adidas works on two-year cycles around the Olympics and the World Cup," he says. "But it's the World Cup that is the really big brand statement. It's Nike v Adidas, head to head."
The two agencies seek the best locations for the star players aligned with their brand. Andy Fackrell, chief creative officer at 180, says: "It becomes completely competitive in Amsterdam at this time. We pass each other at the airports, saying: 'Are you off to film in Rio?'"
The two rival sports brands have both come up with work that turns star players into action adventure cartoon characters – perfect for the gaming generation. W+K Amsterdam's new film for Nike shows the Arsenal and Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas, as he receives the ball, morphing into "Dr Evil", dressed in black and stroking a white cat, considering his options on a bank of TV screens before releasing the perfect pass.
Meanwhile Adidas has turned for inspiration to the graphic novel, the superhero genre that gave us Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Watchmen. Its campaign – online, television and hardback book – is called Every Team Needs, featuring Zinedine Zidane as a hooded traveller hunting the ingredients for the best team ever configured. "He's our talisman, he's our Yoda figure," says Fackrell. "He's like the failed hero because in the last World Cup, although he won the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament he also knocked out an Italian player and was sent off in the final. Zidane represents an unspeaking knowledge and he has the respect of everybody."
In reality, the strategies of the two sports companies are quite distinct. Fabregas as Dr Evil is part of a gritty new Nike campaign, called Make The Difference, which highlights the passion and endurance of the brand's stars such as Wayne Rooney and Andrei Arshavin. That's a clear departure from the message of previous World Cups, when its Joga Bonito (Beautiful Game) campaigns focused on the Brazilian flair of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Robinho, juggling the ball to a samba soundtrack.
"When Nike started we were about the amazing skills and the entertainment value in football," says Charlie Brooks, Nike's communications director for Europe. "Now we also want to stress that we can make people better players; whether that's showing the attitude of players who have made it or by delivering digital game improvement training solutions." That means that inside the box of a new pair of Fabregas's Nike CTR 360 boots comes a code number that can be used on the company website to unlock training advice given by FC Barcelona and others.
In contrast, Mendola says Adidas places a greater emphasis on "the formation of 11 amazing players into a team, as opposed to focusing on one or two individual players and their flash skills". So, at the 2006 World Cup, Adidas based its campaign on a "+10" symbol, highlighting the importance of playing collectively. "We were looking for a symbol that could go round the world without being mistranslated," says Fackrell.
The Adidas logo for the 2010 World Cup features 11 coloured threads in the shape of a basket, an image that Fackrell pulls up on his laptop in a London café. The design will be woven into the soles of Adidas boots and is featured on the "Jabulani" World Cup ball, which has 11 colours, one for every language spoken in South Africa.
Every Team Needs is being released as a hardback graphic novel called "The Ultimate Search", given out free to young buyers of Adidas football boots. The drawings have been done by three of America's most respected graphic artists, Jae Lee, JG Jones and Ryan Benjamin. Their work also appears as a series of animated films on the Adidas homepage and selected websites.
"The success of films such as Sin City and Watchmen, as well as the resurgence of comic books and graphic novels into mainstream consciousness, gave an indication of the popularity of this creative style," says an Adidas spokesman. "The true inspiration for the campaign came from the film 300 – a massively successful epic tale with the focus on a dark and engaging story. We wanted to create a campaign to make an impression on our key audience and the usage of our key sponsored footballers within this has treated football fans to something they've never seen before."
So "Zizou" Zidane scours the earth, tracking down superhuman figures such as Stevie "The Powerhouse" Gerrard who, according to the graphic novel, gained his inner strength from fighting off school bullies. Kaka is "The Maestro", Frank Lampard is "The Lionheart" and Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger is "The Illusionist". David Beckham is "The Marksman". Let's hope so, assuming he gets picked.
But for all the impact of the graphic hardback books and viral animated clips, Every Team Needs will only defeat Nike if it has greater impact in its advertising on primetime television. It has started well by screening the first film of the campaign (Zidane's discovery of Lionel "The Spark" Messi) on the night the Argentinean led Barcelona to victory in the Champions League final in Rome.
When Messi lost his Adidas boot in the act of scoring a goal, and then picked it up and kissed it, 180's digital team captured the clip, cleared its use with the lawyers, and posted it on adidas.com that same night. Nice skill. But in the game against Nike, it's not even half-time yet.