Authenticity, Not Exclusivity, Is Critical to Sports Partnerships’ Success
Elizabeth oversees Wasserman’s brands and properties business, leading a team of more than 600 professionals globally. Instrumental in the direction of Wasserman’s corporate strategy, she helps guide the agency’s decision-making around acquisition and international expansion, among other initiatives, and serves as a senior adviser to chairman and chief executive officer Casey Wasserman. She also is the senior leader overseeing The Collective, Wasserman’s platform for raising the profile of and opportunities for women in sports.
Elizabeth was senior vice president of OnSport when it was acquired by Wasserman in 2007. She also managed sports and entertainment relationships for the telecommunications firm Nortel for 10-plus years. She was named one of Adweek’s Most Powerful Women in Sports in 2018 and was a Sports Business Journal Forty Under 40 honoree in 2010.
Elizabeth joined podcast host Jim Andrews to discuss a host of current issues in sponsorship, including how brands must remain true to themselves, the importance of understanding what consumers want and need, and whether there is a “right” way to sell women’s sports partnerships. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: I’d like to start by discussing the current landscape for agencies like Wasserman. On the one hand, sports marketing is a multibillion-dollar sector and growing, but on the other, it’s relatively concentrated in terms of the players, making it a pretty competitive environment. What makes Wasserman unique within the space?
Elizabeth: Oh wow, the breadth of the sports and entertainment industry is actually limitless. As Wasserman, we have tried to mirror our business and its reach, impact and diversification to the limitless possibilities that the industry itself offers, to reach every corner of the globe and be as ubiquitous as the sports and entertainment landscape itself, while keeping a laser focus on what makes us special, which is being one of, if not the, largest privately held companies left in our industry.
We are big enough to be broad and far-reaching, with the tools, resources, people, network and access to serve any client that comes our way, but we are still small enough, and private, to give boutique service.
Jim: Wasserman, unlike many other firms in the business, doesn’t sell sponsorships and partnerships; you have made a choice that you don’t represent your property clients in that way, is that correct?
Elizabeth: That is very correct. I take nothing from anyone who chooses to participate in the sales side of our business and represent third-party properties. For Wasserman, it wasn’t right. We wanted to have a completely unencumbered, agnostic perspective on the business and we wanted to give advice that was trusted and had nothing to do with the downstream implications of how much money we would get or not get based on the advice that we gave.
The breadth of the buy-side representation we have, with over 250 brands a year that we work with, there is no way to sit on both sides of the table without presenting a conflict of interest and without giving those brands reasons to distrust the work or the recommendations that we are giving them. We quite frankly weren’t comfortable with that. We get paid to consult with the brands and we get paid to help properties and we get no more or no less based on how much or how little you sell your asset for.
That gives us freedom to be completely honest and transparent with both buyer and seller on what an asset is worth in the marketplace.
Jim: There seem to be more and more “land mines” for brands these days—especially those in the spotlight as sports sponsors—including geopolitical and other social issues where there is an expectation for brands to take a stand. What advice are you offering to clients trying to navigate their way through this tricky landscape?
Elizabeth: It can be tricky, absolutely. There are two pieces of advice that I always give my clients. First, when you come to the table to negotiate a partnership, be the most prepared person sitting at that table. Know exactly what you are up against, exactly what’s going to happen and understand every angle. No matter how crazy this industry can get, nothing beats good preparation.
The second piece of advice I ripped straight from my 16-year-old son, which is that at the end of the day, you do you. The brands that get in trouble are not the brands that own who they are authentically. If you authentically invested in something and you do you really well, with a laser focus, everything else falls in line. When brands run afoul of that is when they step outside the lines. If I’m not a particularly political brand and I take a stance politically, that’s going to bite me. If I’m a brand that does not have a strong history of supporting women and I decide to launch something on International Women’s Day with nothing behind it, that’s going to bite me.
Jim: Perhaps a more prosaic, but nonetheless critical, issue facing sports and entertainment sponsors is maintaining relevance with fans to ensure their communications and activations have the desired impact and deliver results. What are you seeing in terms of how brands can be most effective in reaching today’s consumers and improving the performance of their partnerships?
Elizabeth: I’ll start with that phrase reaching today’s consumer and remind everybody of two critical things. For those sitting in the C-suite making decisions in corporate America, get it in your head that you are not always your target demographic. It’s human nature to lean into what you find compelling, but you have to ask yourself as a probably 40- or 50-plus CMO or CEO, are you your consumer demographic? Chances are you are not, so then you have to listen to the consumer.
In order to reach a consumer, you have to know who they are, you have to have studied that audience, spending a lot of time looking at the data and the numbers, and at the end of the day, you have to just listen to them. It’s shocking to me that still to this day when someone in a meeting raises the question, “What does the consumer want?” and the answer comes back, “We don’t know. We haven’t asked.” There’s a start: Ask. Talk. And listen (more than you talk). Whether or not it appeals to you personally, recognize and appreciate that it appeals to them. That’s how you stay true to reaching today’s audience in a very cluttered marketplace.
Jim: You also believe that it’s time to part ways with some sacred cows in sports marketing, one of which is category exclusivity. In many ways, exclusivity has been a lynchpin and a key differentiator for sponsorship versus other forms of marketing, so why is it no longer important?
Elizabeth: I understand the concept of category exclusivity. When the industry started and you were being asked to spend substantial sums of money to procure partnerships, how would you protect that? You made sure you were the only brand that had the opportunity to do so. It had its time and place and from time to time it still does.
But in today’s reality, emerging technologies are uniting almost everything. Things that you never would have expected to be technologically based and never would have considered a “tech-based” category are being delivered through tech-based channels.
Take something as simple as a cell phone. Is it the handset? The service? The credit card that’s in the wallet? The apps? The map? It’s all of those and more.
So what categories do you protect? It’s easier to advise brands to quiet the noise of which category you are trying to protect and go back to you do you. Forget trying to make the target audience have to use your products and switch instead to making them want to. Use the cachet and the entree and the channels that you have through that partnership and activate them broadly and fully with your brand ethos. Provide really engaging opportunities for consumers to want to use your product. That will be a lot more impactful than forcing them to use your product.
Jim: Let me play devil’s advocate for just a second. I agree that there are so many things a brand can do to activate and carve out space that even if there are competitor brands “next door” they won’t diminish what the brand is doing. My biggest concern is that if there isn’t some form of exclusivity, do we get back to a stage where there is just a lot of clutter? If there are multiple brands involved, are we diluting things and making it confusing to the consumer when we say, “You should value this partnership and reward my brand with your loyalty.”
Elizabeth: I’m not advocating for no exclusivity. I’m advocating for lack of category exclusivity. Where I tend to lean instead is to platform exclusivity. What is it that you offer irrespective of your product category? What is it that you offer to the fan, the spectator or the viewer of a particular sport? You can be exclusive in that respect. It’s a different type of exclusivity but it still allows for creativity around and ownership of an idea.
And yes, it does rely on our property partners to have a certain amount of discipline and not go crazy, but that concept of complete and total clutter is a little bit of a thing of the past. We spend a lot of time working with properties around the world and I’m seeing a lot more of a trend to quality over quantity and the cleanliness of how they are presenting their brands, because they are realizing that they are not just a platform for other brands, but that they themselves are a brand and they have to protect that as well.
Those two things married together will guard against what you’re talking about.
Jim: You have been an enthusiastic advocate for women’s sports, as well as for women working in sports. There’s been some discussion recently around the marketing of women’s sports to brands and whether it’s wise to position partnering with women’s sports as the right thing to do versus selling it solely on the merits of the audience it delivers and the business results that can be achieved. Is there a danger that positioning women’s sports as a cause could mean brands will quickly move on to the next important social issue?
Elizabeth: I maintain that you can do good and do good business at the same time. And investing in women, whether they be women fans, spectators, consumers, prospects or employees, is both right and right for business.
Sometimes the industry needs a bit of a kickstart to get people on that path; that’s where “it’s the right thing to do” comes in. But once they are on that path, they will realize incredibly quickly that it’s right for business as well.
It’s no secret that women control the vast, vast majority of the spending wallet of the average American household. What’s a little bit of a secret that I wish the world knew a little bit more of, is that if you think it’s bad now, give it about five years. If you want to look at the power of the wallet and the consumer, look no further than Gen Z women. When they come up, they are going to control nearly all of it.
So you better pay attention to that audience. Today it might be the right thing to do. Five years from now, when they are controlling literally 90-plus percent of the wallet, it will be damn right for business!
I do believe there is a quality vs. quantity argument that comes into play as well. A lot of times, the industry tries to benchmark women’s sports in terms of sheer quantity of eyeballs. That becomes a chicken-and-an-egg thing. Does it not have the eyeballs because it’s not getting the coverage, or does it not get the coverage because it doesn’t have the eyeballs? At some point, you need to address that question.
My argument always is that if you want to change who gets through the gate, you need to change the gatekeeper. So I’m a big advocate for more women making the editorial decisions to put more women’s sports on TV, because then some of this problem will resolve itself.
But the advocacy you get from your consumers, the fandom you get from the audiences, the spending you get from your prospects, and the attention, the avidity and the appreciation that will come to your brand if you are a sponsor of women’s sports all speaks for itself and enables us to deliver against both of those objectives of doing good and doing good business at the same time.