New Age Issues, Old School Solutions
Senior & Founding Partner of 5T Sports Group
Broken Networks, Blurred Corporate Budgets and Automated Submissions’ Impact on Creativity in Sponsorship Development
Once upon a time, I managed the national marketing for an international automaker. We sponsored sport and the arts and found our partners either by seeking them out or them contacting us, often with detailed proposals specific to our brand. Seriously old school, we used the phone. Or actually met. In any case, we definitely conversed.
I handled this among many other responsibilities, and built an appreciation for both the landscape of opportunities available as well as the professionals representing them, and they learned a good deal about our firm and our objectives in the market. While not always a match, each interaction brought the other side something – contact and intelligence.
I always enjoyed this aspect of my job because with each inquiry there was potential: to discover a way to tap a new demographic; to find an interesting new way to profile the product; to create a promotion in a region where sales numbers had us scratching our heads. My role was to discover, create and develop new ways to sell the product, and frankly I wasn’t going to be able to come up with 100 ideas of my own each year to arrive at the 4 or 5 that we ultimately deployed.
I now find myself on the other side of the equation, representing a few select properties a year. While I still love the nature of this work, the reality is that the matchmaking game has become much less enjoyable. Here I’ve outlined what I believe ails the industry and arrived at a few of the developments which have changed the “sponsorship game,” some for the better, some for worse – and what may help it return it to its former creative, collaborative and agile self.
Blurring of Internal Departments and Budgets
Not long ago, Marketing managed all partnerships and the straight up game was sales. Sometimes clothed as “brand awareness,” “profile building” or “customer engagement,” at the end of the day it was all about the “S-word”. Make no mistake, it still is.
Larger corporations also typically had/have a parallel Foundation, to which most philanthropic requests would be directed as these donations were largely viewed as gifts, leveraged for little aside from the obligatory giant check photo opp and relegated to a page of the annual report.
Until one day, along came “Corporate Social Responsibility.” And when it did, it became so important in the C-Suite, designated departments sprung up with their own C-Level leader, who of course, required budget to execute. Perhaps a little off the top in Marketing, a bit off the sides in the Foundation?
While I don’t want to be cynical in any sense and am a firm believer in CSR, we can all sanely agree that CSR is basically a form of restrained, altruistic profile building with regard to its commitment to the (fill in the blank here: health, the environment, community), because customers were demanding to know “What makes you better than your competitors?” Sound familiar? See paragraph above on Marketing.
With our shareholder hats on, we also began looking behind the curtain at the Foundations. Put on accountability notice (how much does it cost to make one of those giant checks anyway? How many media impressions did we get from that photo opp?), the corporate non-profit arms began to speak of "strategic philanthropy” and started sounding a lot more like (you guessed it), the Marketing department. In fact, in some companies’ current marketing campaigns, their actual product is conspicuously absent in favor of their latest beloved cause.
As a devoted capitalist, I have no issue whatsoever with this approach. I want to do business with an ethical company and I love a financially accountable non-profit as much as the next guy.
As someone trying to “place” a property with a partner however, I can tell you that the budget-wrestling, title-swapping and operational-morphing among these departments have made the identification of the right discussion partner difficult to impossible, and often a moving target.
Mash-Up of Sponsorable Assets
Sport teams and events, corporations in their own right, have also jumped on the CSR bandwagon, embracing their own and other causes as fans cast the same scrutinous eye toward them as they do with corporate interests. “You want my entertainment dollar? What have you done for (fill in the blank: health, the environment, community) lately?”
Cause marketing has been growing by leaps and bounds and in a more recent interesting twist, causes who once went hat-in-hand to sports properties asking for space in the stadium concourse for an info table have now become sponsors in their own right.
At the same time, nearly every sport organization, event and high profile athlete has adopted a social venture or cause, at times blurring the lines between the marketing and philanthropic spends of their partnerships.
Sponsorable assets are no longer quite so easily defined (is it sport? Is it cause?), and as noted above, the budgets they are looking to engage may be equally mixed bags.
That’s terrific isn’t it? The company wants both marketing and philanthropy elements, and the sponsorship-seeker offers both sport and cause promotion points – should be an easy conversation, right? For a human, yes, but it presents a challenge for a machine to sort out, which brings us to the next sponsorship industry “evolution” issue.
Advent of Sponsorship ‘Management Portals’
I stepped out of the “sponsorship room” for a few years between 1995 and 2004, when I stepped back in 2005 everyone had gone crazy for online sponsorship submission portals.
At their best, these electronic application processors allow for a relatively detailed submission, The ability to attach documents (detailed, custom proposals!), answer open-ended questions (“What else would you like to tell us?”) with a concise capture of the deal (200 words or less, please) in a consistent format can absolutely help a brand manager streamline their review.
At their worst, there are three fields of drop-down lists and a 50-word open text field to summarize your entry. You couldn’t do the FIFA World Cup justice with this kind of submission – and that, my friends, is an opportunity.
This formatting assumes an apples-to-apples comparison, which completely undermines the beauty of sponsorship as a marketing medium. Sponsorships are a platform, upon which a qualified brand marketer designs an “experience” and an identity.
It’s difficult to imagine how these terse intake models serve the brand manager, who may be tasked with finding a vehicle that offers product placement, customer interaction (this is the S-word again), key account hospitality, employee engagement, advertising impressions, measureable ROI and a dash of CSR thrown in. That was 14 words right there – 36 left!
Even the best, most detailed portal set-ups effectively disconnect the two creative individuals who work together to build on that platform. In the worst case scenario, we have reduced their jobs to a digital coin toss.
Are deals still getting done since the advent of the electronic gatekeeper? Yes, of course they are, but I would say they suffer in three ways:
Drinking the same Kool-Aid
Grandfathered in, existing relationships skirt the portal, basically setting up camp inside the fort. Remember the phrase – no one ever got fired for going with IBM (sorry IBM, hope I don’t need to approach you for sponsorship soon!). This keeps the familiar properties and brokers in place and likely a lot of new ideas outside the brand manager’s view. On a few occasions, I’ve been “escorted around the portal” since the brand manager knew without walking it in the project wouldn’t make it past the gate.
Fewer professionals representing novel, unproven or smaller clients
Matchmaking is now an expensive process in manpower navigating to a decision maker, who may have to wrestle with multiple budgets. As a “broker” we must turn away all but the slam-dunk properties. This results in these events, teams and causes representing themselves, reducing their chances even further of resonating with a corporate patron. As a result, I venture that the variety of opportunities the brand manager sees to create new, differentiated or regionally-targeted campaigns are fewer.
Rise of costly, hit-or-miss missions
In the past few years, my best bet for finding my way to decision makers has been to haul myself to large, multi-interest sponsorship conferences. Loads of nice side benefits (boondoggle, interesting topics and one or two contacts for undetermined future potential), but decidedly not efficient in terms of connecting me with whom I need, when I need them – and that seems fairly out of date, doesn’t it?
Which brings me to the last element of sponsorship evolution.
Reclaiming the Industry Network
Morphing departments, confusing internal budget lines, machine-based relationships….is it time to hang it up and leave it all to the IMGs and Octagons of the world to negotiate the Olympic-sized contracts? It’s tempting, but I see one last end-lit tunnel that allows me to say, “not just yet!”
The development and increasing sophistication of social networking has been proving effective in recreating the professional links and real-time inside intelligence that used to make this game so much fun.
Conversations happen, personalities emerge. Insights, details and visuals can be shared, and small and large, new and old opportunities alike have the chance to “work the same room.”
Brand managers may feel nervous about the potential onslaught if they “out themselves.” They can start slowly by doing a bit of lurking. But the real power of the social space allows them to say what they’d really like sponsorship-seekers to stop doing or to do more of, they also have a community they can turn to when they emerge from a strategy meeting where they’ve been told to “put us in the longboarding space in three months with no budget.”
Using select groups and seeking out contacts within broad-spectrum social media outlets such as LinkedIn has been quite effective (though there are many “rooms” to keep track of for different sport types), while Twitter offers me the serendipitous joy of unexpected connections.
SponsorPitch is looking to do this by combining conversation partners with a dedicated information exchange platform. So essentially creating both the room and the support structure for professionals to do what they might otherwise need to fly thousands of miles to try to do.
It looks like there’s still a bit of buildout to get there, but I’m intrigued by the chance to recreate the “professionals network” I’ve been missing and love the thought of going old school using new media. So look for me “at the bar” in SponsorPitch – I’ll be the one without luggage, but with a briefcase full of contacts and intelligence to share.
Aileen McManamon is Senior & Founding Partner of 5T Sports Group, a sport business management firm based in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Aileen has worked in Europe with automakers GM, FIAT and finally Alfa Romeo, where she headed up national marketing and advertising & managed sponsorships including the Tour de france, Giro d'Italia and Cycling World Cup events, as well as motor sports and hockey. Aileen has worked on promotional projects with the Torino (2006) and Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and had her 'cup of coffee' in baseball while managing a minor league franchise prior to founding 5T Sports.
Aileen holds a Bachelor's degree in Economics from Kent State University (Ohio) and a Master's of International Business from the University of South Carolina. #opinionstag