2015 Rugby World Cup: Banking on shared values – and the 3bn viewers for a great global event

John Inverdale
Jonny Wilkinson during the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final game against France (Source: Getty)

When a senior figure from the world of banking talks up his company’s major sponsorship deal with a particular sport, because it represents the “core values” of his business, there’s a tendency sometimes to roll the eyes in a “that’s so on-message” kind of a way. So when Ian Fisher, head of coverage and investment banking at Societe Generale, talks of the bank’s substantial sponsorship of this year’s Rugby World Cup, as a “business case that makes itself” because the “values of rugby are part of our DNA” the obvious first question is “you may know a lot about banking, but what do you really know about rugby?”

And it so happens, the answer is a considerable amount. He was educated at Barnard Castle School, alma mater to Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers, and at Nottingham University, where Brian Moore studied law. He was a wing-cum-full back whose memories of playing include being “totally intimidated” by the size of a Cambridge University team and sweeping a pitch of dangerous debris before playing at a club near Twickenham. When 15 of you have been down on your hands and knees prising shards of glass from a pitch before starting a match, then you probably get the concept of team spirit and esprit-de-corps. Which is a good phrase to use, because Societe Generale is a French company, even though these days nearly 60 per cent of its 140,000 employees are non-French, scattered across 70 countries.

Ian Fisher went to the same school as Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers

They’ve sponsored French rugby for 28 years and have been involved with successive Rugby World Cups since 1999, when France reached the final. Other sponsorship involvement includes the national Paralympic team, and various arts and music projects, including a spectacular concert in Paris last year to mark the bank’s 150th anniversary in which 50 members of staff joined a 250-strong orchestra to perform on stage. Staff involvement in the Rugby World Cup will stop short of actually playing in the event – not even a main sponsor can secure that – but according to Fisher, there is a complete buy-in from the bank’s employees to the company’s involvement. “Everyone is genuinely proud of our role in the competition,” he says. “We have reserved a significant number of tickets for our staff and their clients, and we have encouraged a number of them to be volunteers at the World Cup, something both we and they are very proud of.”
A lot of events are being organised in the run-up to the autumn to build a sense of awareness and excitement – he describes the Six Nations as a “nice appetiser” to the main course – and is savvy and semi-impartial enough to know that the better the World Cup, the greater the benefits for Societe Generale. “It is a great event that will markedly raise our profile, especially in England, but also globally via a three billion worldwide television audience. There was inevitably some internal debate as to whether we should undertake being the main financial sponsor, but our strong history with the sport meant there was a very quick convergence. It’s obviously always hard to assess the value of any marketing spend, but we are looking at this in the broadest business terms, with the added value to our branding and profile.” As far as future involvement with Rugby World Cup is concerned, Societe Generale will wait and see. Japan hosts the next competition in 2019 but for the moment, the focus “is totally on this year.”
Ian Fisher is an Anglo-Scot who married a French woman. He took his children to the World Cup semi-final in Sydney in 2003 when England played France, and realised which flag they had nailed their colours to, when they were dismayed by the victory secured by Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and the rest. So 12 years later, he’s under no illusions about who is supporting who, but not surprisingly, from a personal and business perspective, he’d love to see a repeat of that match in the final. “It would align with the majority of our staff. Our French headquarters would love it, and all the staff here in England too. And of course it would guarantee, whatever the result, that we had a winning team.”

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