Charting Sponsorship’s Progress and Where the Industry Goes from Here
In conversation with podcast host Jim Andrews, Tony draws on his successful career to assess the state of sponsorship today, including the importance of integrating DEI efforts into partnerships and some of the biggest challenges to success facing both brands and rights holders. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Let’s talk about something that I know is important to you and that’s the idea of creating and executing partnerships through a DEI lens. For a long time partnerships and DEI efforts ran on parallel tracks without intersecting, but you say that needs to change and I agree. So how does that happen? What steps should those in sponsorship positions take to integrate partnerships and DEI?
Tony: You’re right, Jim, I am very passionate about this topic, which I know in today’s world is also very polarizing. I subscribe to the thought that a rising tide lifts all boats. When you look at where the demographics are headed in the U.S. and you look at all the studies that have been done around how a more inclusive approach to business drives outcomes, I continue to be surprised that there is such concern and people who are against the idea.
That aside, the role of a marketer is to skate where the puck is going and ensure a brand stays relevant. When you don’t approach your sponsorship portfolio through a DEI lens, you risk losing a lot of your audience.
You need to look at it from a messaging standpoint, a creative standpoint, a media perspective and ensure that the communication around whatever property you have takes those into consideration.
I also believe that when you look internally to what is happening inside your company, you need to look at this from a supply chain perspective. In terms of talent, who is in front of the camera? Who is behind the camera? Is there a diverse set of folks at the table for the conversation about activating a property? When you don’t have that, you risk your communication being off target.
When you spend this type of money you want to ensure you get the full exposure, the full benefit and the ROI. I don’t know any property that doesn’t have an audience that is made up of people with different perspectives. What resonates with a Hispanic NFL fan is very different from an African-American fan.
Jim: As I mentioned in the introduction, you have vast experience with partnerships, starting early in your career. For those listeners who are in the beginning phase of their careers, I’m sure they would be interested to know whether, as you moved up in responsibility there were certain moments where you said, “I wish I knew that” when you were first starting out?
Tony: I would say there are three things. One, integrated marketing is one hundred times more difficult than we talk about or are prepared to execute against. It is just very hard to bring a whole organization together. For example, if you look at a brand that spends on the NFL, the way that you want to activate that is to bring the sales organization in, HR for the employee benefit, frontline folks—taking it all the way to retail—having it show up in media. There are thousands of touchpoints and brands are often not spending enough time to bring these things to life and really integrate it around a core message that crosses all these channels.
You spend all this money on rights fees and you don’t really bring it to bear, so learning how to be a good integrated marketer and seeking to contribute in a way that brings your functional expertise to the table is super important.
Two is the three-to-one ratio. Brands are spending on rights fees but they don’t have sufficient dollars to amplify the message. Three, I wish I knew early on that you have to level set all of your internal stakeholders around what the property is, and the consumer insights around fans, viewers and spectators.
Jim: I’d like to dig into the first one of those a bit more. I can see how integrated marketing and all of those thousands of pieces you mentioned—especially at a national or global company—could present a nearly insurmountable challenge. But is it more than just the sheer scale of the effort that prevents a mandate from the top of the organization from being able to filter down through all those constituent parts?
Tony: Everyone is not always aligned. There are people who don’t believe in sponsorship. A business leader may decide they have more important priorities at the moment. The big thing is to get that alignment across stakeholders and leave yourself sufficient time to do the work. Often what happens is you have a short fuse, you are moving quickly and there are so many demands on the business that you don’t have time to do the work and ensure everyone is working off the same insight.
Truly integrated marketing takes time and takes commitment. It’s like the old saying, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” I think sometimes the “together” gets lost in corporate America.
Jim: You had longer than average tenure in your CMO and other marketing leadership roles, but typically there is a great deal of turnover in those positions, which has an impact on those in day-to-day sponsorship roles. Any advice for partnership practitioners when it comes to navigating changes at the top?
Tony: It is really important to build a body of work, including documented measurement, ROI and results, so that you can merchandise that throughout the organization and key stakeholders can see the results. Sometimes marketers aren’t good at marketing internally! Folks have to know: We spent $X, here are the results we got. Here are the things we did well. Here are the things we need to improve upon.
When a new marketing leader comes into the organization, it’s very important to get to them early to show them how something is being activated and how we are bringing it to life. Mainly because for CMOs now, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to demonstrate results quickly. They are on the shot clock, which is one of the challenges with the role right now, along with the fact that everyone thinks they know marketing, but that’s mostly just opinions rather than data.
So let the data lead. Sponsorship is meant to evoke emotion and people feel strongly, one way or the other, about whether this is the right property for the brand, so be data led.
Also, demonstrating the alignment we discussed earlier across the organization, whether it’s sales, operations, technology, HR, etc. and how everyone has the opportunity to participate and achieve business objectives
Jim: What do you see as the biggest challenges to the success of brand partnerships?
Tony: With any sponsorship, you have to find ways to amplify and scale the message, so what’s happening in the media space in terms of streaming, fragmentation and duplication of audience is a challenge. It ties back to the cost and the execution difficulty. When I started out there were only four networks! You could get to the vast majority of the country through those networks.
Looking at the NFL, you now have a streaming partner with Amazon and there are all these different ways the sport can be consumed, so how does a brand carry its message? The escalating cost and fragmentation of media will continue to be a real concern.
Another challenge is having exclusive categories further bifurcated, such as having domestic versus import auto partners, or wireless and broadband partners. When you slice these categories like that, the question becomes who can really earn value? Can my brand get a point of difference versus others and how do I continue to make the economics work?
Jim: Where can brands and/or sports/entertainment rights holders do a better job as partners?
Tony: That’s a real hot button for me, Jim! I’m pretty hard on properties. Over time, the sophistication and understanding of brand needs has not grown comparably to the rights fees being charged.
The value I see from the sales teams at many properties is not evident, from proposals showing up with another company’s name on them to not fully understanding the category I am in to not having a true justification for how they priced the proposal. There are ways to gauge value, but I’m finding more and more that it’s a matter of seeing what the market will bear. There is something to that, but as a property owner you should have some justification for how you arrived at this number.
When you see something like that, you often also find there is a lack of knowledge about the category, of what my market share is, of how many wireless consumers there are in the market and how many of them I own, of how the property indexes among wireless consumers, etc.
I was talking to someone who works for a property recently, and they said they take a category like telecommunications and spread who calls on brands in the category across the sales team. Selling against each other creates internal competition.
I would take the opposite approach and build category experts on the team and let them run the whole category. That would allow a salesperson to dig deep, understand the components, read the trade publications from that industry and know what’s happening. Sometimes properties leave money on the table without that understanding.
If you take automotive, you have OEM’s, dealer groups, individual dealers, mega dealer groups, etc. If you were selling to me at Verizon, you need to know how Verizon is positioned against T-Mobile, AT&T and the virtual network providers in order to do the best job.
These categories are very complicated. If 10 people on your team all have to understand the automotive category as well as other categories, they can’t be as expert as they would be if they specialized. My recommendation would be to have specialists, especially for the core categories of financial services, telecommunications, automotive and the other big players that drive the revenue.