Axel Springer boss used tabloid Bild to campaign against Adidas

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The chief executive of Axel Springer used his best-selling tabloid to campaign against Adidas’ decision to stop paying rent during the pandemic, without revealing he owned the business.

Mathias Döpfner, who owns a 22% stake in Springer, worth more than a billion euros, has become one of the most powerful publishers in the world, acquiring American media such as Politico and Business Insider as he attempts to build “the democratic world’s leading digital media company”.

In March and April 2020, Springer’s flagship tabloid Bild ran more than 20 articles berating Adidas for a planned rent freeze during the first lockdown. Other retailers with similar policies, including H&M, Ceconomy, Deichmann and Puma, received far less attention. The coverage sparked a national outcry which culminated in an MP burning an Adidas shirt and posting a clip on social media.

During his campaign, Bild did not reveal that his group’s CEO was an affected owner of Adidas and the source of the initial story. Land registry data reviewed by the FT shows that Döpfner co-owns a period building on Münzstrasse in the historic center of Berlin in which Adidas rented a store that operated over two floors.

When Döpfner was informed of Adidas’ decision to freeze rents, he was furious, according to people familiar with the matter. He contacted Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt and suggested that the newspaper orchestrate a public outcry on the grounds that Adidas was a highly profitable company and that the non-payment violated fundamental principles of free economies.

Hours later, Bild broke the news of Adidas’ rent freeze. In his first article, he predicted the move would “cause a big stir”. Over the next few days, the newspaper published a series of articles accusing the sportswear brand of “breaking a taboo”, behaving “ruthlessly” and betraying the legacy of its legendary founder Adi Dassler.

In news and opinion pieces over the next few days, Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted was portrayed as a greedy capitalist who lacked character and undermined the fundamentals of trust.

The Bild campaign plunged Adidas into a public relations crisis, as customers and politicians threatened to boycott and German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil suggested Adidas could be sued. Florian Post, then a Social Democrat MP, even burned an Adidas shirt and posted the video on Twitter, saying “I won’t be wearing the Adidas kit anymore and I want to make a point.”

At the time, two out of three Adidas stores worldwide were closed, with sales and profits falling sharply. Adidas suspended its share buyback program and dividend, then applied for a government-backed €3 billion emergency loan.

As the furore continued, Adidas eventually backtracked, buying full-page advertisements in German newspapers, including Bild, to apologize for its “mistake”.

Springer’s code of conduct, updated last year, states that “journalistic publications must not be influenced by the personal or commercial interests of third parties, the commercial interests of the company itself outside the journalistic activity or the personal financial interests of the editors themselves”. The guidelines also state that journalists “shall not use their reporting to obtain benefits for themselves or others”.

In a statement to the FT, Axel Springer denied there was a potential conflict of interest, calling the notion “absurd”. The publisher said Döpfner passed the information to Bild because he “knew immediately that it was a matter of overriding public interest” that should be revealed.

“It’s the job of an editor. From today’s perspective, he would and will do the exact same thing,” the company said, adding that Adidas was not expected to reverse its decision.

The publisher said Döpfner had “of course” disclosed his personal interest to then-Bild editor Julian Reichelt, but added that it would have been “absolutely unreasonable to release the source” in print. Moreover, he argued that the report “did not concern a single outlet in Berlin” but potentially affected thousands of Adidas stores around the world.

“The story . . . was a mega scoop for Bild and was picked up by many other international journalists, including the FT,” Axel Springer said, adding that Döpfner “acted in full accordance with our guidelines.” company described him as “a CEO who understands journalism” and frequently shared advice with the editorial staff: “It is not up to him to decide if and how this information is covered or not; the editorial staff decides and acts in complete independence.

Reichelt said, “As a matter of principle, I do not discuss or confirm sources, not even sources that may or may not identify themselves. As an editor, it was
my decision to direct the story.

Döpfner resigned as president of the German publishing association this year after being questioned about his handling of a compliance investigation into allegations of abuse of power by Reichelt, who was fired in October for denying any wrongdoing.

Adidas declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Silke Richter in Berlin.

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