Spotlight: Interview with Cinto Ajram, Professor at Johan Cruyff Institute

Spotlight: Interview with Cinto Ajram, Professor at Johan Cruyff Institute
In this week's exclusive Soccerex Spotlight, we interview Cinto Ajram, Professor at Johan Cruyff Institute, Founder of CA Sports Marketing and former Head of Partnerships with FC Barcelona, to discuss the past, present and future of sports sponsorship and the best ways to create value for football clubs, brands and agencies.

Q1: You work as Professor for Johan Cruyff Institute. What does your role entail and how would you describe Cruyff Institute in your own words?

Johan Cruyff Institute helps everyone who wants to develop a career in sports gain the necessary knowledge and, like Johan [Cruyff] said: “sometimes the best professionals are not those with a degree but well educated athletes who have experienced the sports as insiders”. In football, there are great examples of coaches and club directors that use to play the game.

As for my role with Johan Cruyff Institute, I work in two main areas:

  • institutional relationships, developing projects for public organisations and governing bodies such as football federations and presentations and panel discussions in sport conferences
  • lecturing and managing the sponsorship module in our HQ in Barcelona and as visiting professor to the many locations where Cruyff Institute has study centres

Johan Cruyff Institute students during a lesson

Q2: You have worked in sponsorship for a good number of years and you teach this topic which is becoming broader year after year. Which are your areas of expertise in this field?

I have experience working in sponsorship strategy, sponsorship activation and sports marketing, focusing on brand identity and brand development with a big focus on new media both from a club perspective and a brand perspective.

Q3: Johan Cruyff Institute was created because Johan Cruyff was a true believer in having athletes involved in the management of sports organisations. How is this reflected at Johan Cruyff Institute nowadays?

We educate the next generation of leaders in sport management; a lot of our students are (former)athletes who have gone through the experience of having a sports career, enabling them to know the ins and outs of our industry. At this moment, we have three types of students mainly:

  • recent graduates who want to gain specific knowledge to work in the sports industry
  • professionals that are working in other sectors who want to make a transition and work in sports
  • current or former athletes or players who want to make a transition to business or administration in sports

Q4: What qualities does a good leader need to have to succeed in a sports organization?

A good leader in sports must be passionate about a sport or multiple sports.

Someone that pursues a career in sports must know that working in sports implies in most cases being available to work on weekends and holidays because in today’s world there are sports events every single day of the year.

In addition to that, big sports organisations need to be connected 24/ 7 because they have fans from all over the world to attend to and engage with.

Q5: Since 2017, you are also the Founder & CEO of CA Sports Marketing, a company that works with brands such as Atletico de Madrid, car makers Hyundai, and an insurance group, Zurich. When did you decide to create your own business and how do your roles complement each other?

I decided to create my own company when I left FC Barcelona. I was the Head of Partnership Activation for Barça which was a very demanding at many levels, especially because I was travelling most weeks, and I needed a change to be able to spend more time with my wife and children.

Before I joined FC Barcelona, I had thought about the idea of opening my own sports marketing agency so a part of the plan was already in my mind. Thanks to my role with one of the biggest clubs in the world, I had developed an excellent network. These two facts combined made me not hesitate for a second that it was the right idea.                    

Regarding Johan Cruyff Institute, having my own business is an asset for the students and the organisation itself. In addition to my experience working with a brand like Zurich, which I represented for nine years, and a clubs like FC Barcelona which is known in all four corners of the world, now I can provide my views and experience as a sports business entrepreneur from an agency perspective too. This is particularly useful when I meet with all kinds of organisations representing Johan Cruyff Institute. 

Children at Atletico de Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano in a pre-match activation for sponsors Hyundai

Q6: Prior to your current roles, you worked as Head of Partnerships with FC Barcelona, not only in Barcelona but also in Hong Kong and New York. How was your experience working with a worldwide renowned club and icons such as Messi and Iniesta? What was your biggest achievement with Barça?

It was a unique experience for me. I really enjoyed with teams in different regions and getting to know different cultures while representing a great club. Having sponsors in all hour zones was equally challenging. FC Barcelona is a machine that never stops – activities are taking place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and all 365 days of the year.

Personally, I feel very lucky and grateful to have worked with FC Barcelona and having had the great visibility and rich experience of managing the relationships with 41 sponsors.

As for my greatest achievement, I must say I am extremely proud of launching the partnership with Rakuten. Designing and negotiating the agreement, working on the announcement and thinking about creative ways to activate the sponsorship was a superb experience and I have a great relationship with them. Nowadays, almost every partnership dear is leaked and appears on media outlets and, with Rakuten, we managed to keep the story secret until the very same day the announcement was made.

There is unquestionably a strong link between Johan Cruyff Institute and FC Barcelona through the figure of one of the greatest players and coaches of all time, Johan Cruyff, a visionary both on and off the pitch. Which values do both institutions share? Until what extent are the ‘14 rules of Johan Cruyff’ present in both workplaces?

They share many values such as honesty, team work and leadership. Johan had a direct impact on the club lifting trophies as a coach but his influence transcended his own time. His influence on Guardiola, for example, has led to so many more titles and the development of excellent players and a very successful and attractive style of play. Today’s successes are partly Johan’s. For these reasons, it does not come as a surprise that the new Mini Estadi [Barcelona B’s stadium and the first team’s training ground] will carry his name.

Johan completely changed the way football was understood. His values and rules are applied in the grassroots system with La Masia being at the forefront at many levels and the same goes for Johan Cruyff Institute.

At Soccerex, we have always admired Johan Cruyff. In 2017, we posthumously awarded Johan with the Duncan Revie Award in recognition for his great contribution to the beautiful game. Johan was, in fact, Duncan’s (our founder) favourite player of all time. Cruyff’s legacy is very visible in the football industry thanks to the World of Johan Cruyff which includes Johan Cruyff Institute, Cruyff Football and the Cruyff Foundation. How do these organisations interact with each other and how would you describe Cruyff’s legacy?

Honouring a legacy comes from celebrating the memories and improving the ideals of those who came before us. The World of Johan Cruyff is a tribute to Johan’s vision of football and of life. A tribute that we can always be better. That we can always do better.

The World of Johan Cruyff is the umbrella company that we all belong to. All initiatives work together and create synergies, going hand in hand and coordinating plans and strategies.

Johan Cruyff Institute professor and students during a site visit

Currently, Johan Cruyff Institute has its headquarters in Barcelona and delegations in Amsterdam, Mexico DF, Lima, Sao Paulo and Stockholm. What is your learning model and what key organisations do you work with in the different regions to deliver your courses?

Our academic programs have been designed by sport industry professionals enriched by personal experiences from faculty and students. Our programs are distinctive, and tailor made for the specific needs of athletes and sports professionals. The powerful learning experience, our students go through, is boosted by our learning model which is: 100% sports-oriented; student-centred; based on the principle of ‘Learning by doing ‘; flexible, diverse and using the latest technologies; motivational, communicative and participative and adapted to each individual’s workload and availability.

We work with institutions and companies that share our vision and our values: teamwork, the desire to succeed and respect. These values, typical in sport, are reflected in the personal and professional skills that are also essential for success in the business world. Together with our institutional, academic and client company partners, we create synergies for the mutual transfer of knowledge and talent, resulting in educational projects for the benefit of the company and the sports industry in general.

In an industry where sports organisations are increasingly competing with entertainment brands for the attention of young audiences, sponsorship plays a bigger role in the revenues that sports properties such as clubs, leagues and federations can generate. In this landscape, how can properties make their brand more appealing to potential sponsors and how can sponsoring brands leverage their investment? 

Sports properties must understand that brands expect a return on investment. The times when a sport property placed a sponsor logo somewhere and did nothing else with or for their sponsor are long gone.

To increase the sponsorship value of a property, the property do two things: increase their fanbase and, therefore, expand their reach, and think about new and creative ways to activate the sponsorship.

It is surprising that still today many clubs do not realise that if they come up with new ideas and experiences to offer their sponsors, they can close more and better deals or extend already existing partnerships. They should put on a marketing agency hut and have a more open mind about what can and cannot be done. They need to have more initiative when proposing activations to sponsors because it really pays off.

Sponsorship proposals need to be ad-hoc and football club marketers need to tailor their proposals. A proposal for a food company cannot look the same as a proposal for an insurance company. This may sound logical but, in many cases, clubs are sending the same proposals and item lists to everyone regardless of the industry they are in. This requires time and research, of course, but we need to know who we are talking to, what that brand wants and then come up with a plan that can be useful for them.

As for the role brand managers play, they need to realise that traditional advertising is declining. The younger generations do not consume as much TV and even on digital platforms like YouTube they are instinctively clicking on the button to skip ads so you need to create really attractive and engaging content. Brands need to pay attention to marketing activation and content generation so that they make the most out of the money they spend on sponsorship rights.

Hyundai's activation with Atletico's players Godin, Griezmann, Koke, Juanfran and Filipe Luis and DJ Carlos Jean as speaker

What about the role football players play in sponsorship agreements and activations?

You bring up a very important point. Clubs must be honest with sponsors and do not tell everyone that they can have the star of the team feature in their ad or attending their product launch. Managing the players’ agendas is not at all easy – we cannot predict if the team will be playing in the latest weeks of the season or if a player will be fit to run and jump for an ad or some activity outdoors. If you have a photoshoot after a training session, you must have a Plan B in case a player gets injured because this is something that can happen.

Clubs and sports properties must be realistic about the things they can offer sponsors and do everything they can to live up to their promises. When it comes to players, some items need to be specified in the player’s contract with the club. For instance, a club needs to have an updated list of brand ambassador agreements players – and ideally have a say in some categories - in order to avoid conflicts with between player and club sponsors.   

In recent times, sleeve sponsorship deals have become the norm and fans understand that lucrative sponsorship agreements such as stadium naming rights deals can give the team they support a competitive advantage against their rivals on the pitch if the money is well invested. What do you think will be the biggest trends in football sponsorship over the next few years?

Unluckily for most clubs, they have sponsors for all their major assets whether this is their stadium, their shirt or the sleeve in their shirt. Those in the elite have partners for multiple categories and in different countries too. Obviously, big properties can attract international sponsors and we have seen some interesting bids between potential sponsors. But even this has a limit.

Sport properties must use digital assets to create new sponsorship categories. In Spain for instance, Real Betis are doing an excellent job. Despite them not being one of the biggest clubs, they are creating very interesting, attractive and engaging content online and they have one of the football club YouTube channels with more views. This happens because they have good ideas and no fear so they have managed to produce raw content showing the players just as they are in a natural and authentic way. The general public love this, no special effects needed!

From left to right: Pedro Trengrouse (Fundacao Getulio Vargas), Cinto Ajram (Johan Cruyff Institute), David Hornby (Mailman) and Tiago Pinto (Gatorade), speakers at Soccerex USA

Finally, you recently spoke about sports sponsorship in football at Soccerex USA citing some case studies and trends alongside experts from brands such as Gatorade. What can you tell us about your experience as a speaker in Miami?

Soccerex USA was an amazing experience. Miami is an ideal location for a football business event. You have US soccer organisations which have a great experience in terms of sports marketing and sponsorship, the Mexican market which has a great influence in the US due to the demographics and Latin American clubs and leagues from countries that live and breathe football.

In terms of the way it was organised, being right on the pitch at Marlins Park was magical and I personally enjoyed networking and the rich inter-cultural exchange between Anglo Saxons and Latins and between Europeans and Americans.

I look forward to going to Soccerex again this year! 

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