TicketManager | Exploring Innovation, Engagement and Purpose in Partnerships with GMR Marketing

Exploring Innovation, Engagement and Purpose in Partnerships with GMR Marketing


Todd and podcast host Jim Andrews tackle some of the critical issues facing brands and properties in the quest to keep the sports marketing industry moving forward and delivering necessary results to all parties. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: I’d love to start with an update on GMR, which really is a pioneering organization in the area of experiential marketing. I know the company has expanded and diversified over the years, especially into your area of consulting with many leading brands, so maybe you could begin with that portion of the business that is involved with sports and entertainment partnerships, tell us a little bit about the work you are doing there and also what else is going on with the firm.

Todd: As you said, GMR has been a pioneer in the industry for 40-plus years. We try not to take that for granted and to keep building and creating anew. GMR’s reputation has always been trying to stay a step ahead of where consumers and the industry are pointed to.

We started with the foundation of experiential. What that means today versus 40 years ago is a very different thing! Complementary services have rounded out our mix, from digital and creative services to data science and how we think about memory-making through data and insights and even start to create that in a formulaic way.

As you said, one of the areas that has grown tremendously over the last decade has been our consulting practice. Sports and entertainment are at the core of passion points of both B2C and B2B opportunities for the clients we work with. We have to be on the forefront of being able to advise and lead a blue-chip client portfolio around how best to invest their marketing spend, but also how to optimize it.

We spend a lot of time looking at end-to-end solutions. That’s one of the beautiful things about the mix that GMR provides—from strategy, planning and consulting all the way through activation, experiential and hospitality. We are not thinking about it through one channel and bringing a singular solution back to a client. We are truly looking at their business in totality.

We continue to be blessed with a great blue-chip brand portfolio and at the same time we keep showing up for them we want to continue to grow as a business and keep pushing the industry as well, quite frankly.

Jim: What is your day-to-day role as EVP of client consulting? Is there a typical day in the life of Todd Fischer?

Todd: The typical day is about variety and diversification, and that’s what gets me excited every day—the fact that there isn’t a typical day!

The three stakeholder groups I service and am responsible for every day starts with clients. I spend a lot of time in senior client conversations around staying at the forefront of their business strategy and being able to translate that into partnership strategy and plans for their brands and businesses. That entails understanding the competitive landscape, keeping our finger on the pulse and bringing trends and insights to them before that crosses their desk from somewhere else.

Second is our teams internally. Our people are our greatest asset at GMR, especially in an agency/service type of business. The ability to stay connected, nurture, develop and grow people is a huge passion point of mine. The ability to put great solutions together cross-functionally takes time and effort—bringing teams together, getting everybody on the same page and having a unified vision of how we get to great work.

Third is our industry. That might mean partners we are working with in terms of sponsorship properties—leagues, teams, etc. that we want to have great relationships with on behalf of our clients—as well as new potential clients. We need to always be out there in the marketplace having conversations, understanding what challenges people are facing. A lot of brands feel like what they are facing is exclusive to them. One of the things I enjoy most in my role is connecting the dots between clients in terms of someone who may be going through something and how we can take the learning and experience from that and help accelerate someone else’s learning curve in addition to taking the experiences I’ve been fortunate to have in my career journey and apply those across different industries. That’s one of the most fun parts of the “day in the life of.”

Jim: Given your experience with so many aspects of our business, I thought I would throw out some issues that have been the topic of conversation on this podcast and elsewhere lately and get your expert take on them. To start, I’ve heard you speak a lot about the need for innovation in partnerships and activation, and you have certainly been involved with lots of innovative concepts in your various roles. Currently, when someone mentions innovation, it seems that most often the conversation goes to technology—mixed reality, DEDs, etc.—and while new tech can be great, is there a chance we’re getting caught up in tech for tech’s sake and letting go a bit of real engagement?

Todd: We could probably do an entire podcast series on that question, given the depth of it. You’re right, in the industry at large and in the business world, when we say innovation we typically think of technology innovation. That is very real and very prevalent.

We have a tech-centric portfolio of clients fortunate to be on the cutting edge of AI, streaming, consumer consumption habits and all of these things that are driving an innovation narrative within respective businesses. But to your point, if we stop there, we are doing ourselves a disservice–as businesses, an industry and as individuals—to say innovation equals tech and therefore if I’m not in those spaces maybe I can’t innovate. I don’t believe in that.

Innovation is a mindset of doing things differently, or trying new things that haven’t been done in those spaces before. In that sense, innovation should be on all of our roadmaps, both as individuals as well as businesses. It’s about how are we staying ahead. You do that by drawing from different points of inspiration.

You and I share a passion and background having taught in academic settings. One of the things I encourage students to do—and which I have brought into our own practice at GMR—is looking outside of your current industry to bring ideas back to it. One of the double-edged swords we have in the sports industry is that we have some of the best publications, outlets and industry reporting sources available and they are so important to our industry. But if we stop there, we’re just resurfacing similar ideas even if we are borrowing ideas from different parts of the industry.

True acceleration comes from stepping outside of sports, stepping outside of sponsorship and going into other sectors, finding innovation and bringing it back in applicable ways to our own industry.

That’s another thing that gets me excited about what the opportunity is every day. We can learn from each other. By being a student of the industry and wanting to be curious and connect within our industry for the sake of learning—not necessarily for a “what can you do for me” transactional type of relationship—we all become better and that’s where innovation roadmaps start.

Jim: I equate that to international travel. As much as those of us in the U.S. have so much to see across our 50 states, traveling abroad opens us up to new cultures, new ideas, etc. that we would never be exposed to if we just stuck to the tried and true.

Todd: That’s a great analogy. Ideas are typically about a collection of experiences. Rarely is there one path to get to the destination. Another important factor that our industry needs to continue to talk about in the innovation space is diversity of thought, which comes from diverse perspectives and diverse experiences in all ways, shapes and forms.

I’m proud of what the industry has done, but we need to continue to push in those areas if we want to be the most influential industry in the world, which I truly believe sport is. Not necessarily monetarily, but the influence it has around passion, fandom, business and culture.

We have to have the best talent and the most diverse talent of any industry or we will lag behind others. That is a major focus of GMR’s business and where we spend a lot of time recruiting the best talent from all sorts of areas and backgrounds so that we can become a blend of perspectives in how we innovate and how we bring fresh ideas. Otherwise, if we just continue to do the same thing, we would be the GMR of 40 years ago, not the GMR we are today.

Jim: Activation around tentpole events, whether it’s the Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star Game, the NCAA Final Four, Olympic Games, US Open or countless others, are critical to many partnership programs. With so much activity across so many sports and events competing for attention, is it getting more difficult to sustain engagement with fans outside of those event weeks? And if so, is that a challenge to partnership success?

Todd: Yes, if there isn’t intentionality behind it. Intentionality is key. All of these questions are connected. We have to continue to evolve and innovate. Every property has an aspiration to be relevant year-round. Five to ten years ago, the events you just named were not the events they are now. When we think about what used to be “ancillary” events like the NFL Draft or WNBA Draft, they have become prominent events that have filled a calendar.

If we as an industry view that as anything less than glass half full, we have missed an opportunity. There are more opportunities for engagement, more opportunities for reach across a platform because we’re not just talking about a season or a window, but how it plays out across the calendar.

Because consumers are hopping from one event to the next, brands must be thoughtful in this space to find and create consistent platforms that work across their portfolio instead of within just one season or one property.

People are consuming differently. If you are coming in as an NBA partner, the ecosystem has expanded so much that the chance of somebody watching every NBA game start to finish—much less doing that on multiple networks, through multiple devices, attending games, etc.—is such that you are not going to be able to capture that attention completely. But you have to understand consumption habits as to what else your consumer is passionate about, what else they are watching and following and how do you bridge and bring those things together.

I look at a lot of the crossover work in the last few weeks alone from our client Comcast. During the NCAA basketball championships, they had an amazing campaign and engagement opportunity with Caitlin Clark. But they didn’t leave that just to the NCAA women’s tournament. They saw that the message would resonate across the men’s tournament and across social profiles.

Historically, a brand would say, “We are going to cut this message or this piece of creative that is relevant only to this audience.” Now we are seeing how that can reach into other areas.

Google is doing the same thing in the NBA/WNBA space. They are presenting sponsor of the NBA Playoffs right now. But they are able to take their message, their cultural influence and their products into other parts of the lifestyle that they understand their consumer base is interested in. NBA- and WNBA-centric messaging and creative doesn’t just live in those channels. It’s able to reach across other things.

The best brands are playing across platforms in a way that allows people to understand why they are there and what they stand for, and still show up in a relevant way and gain efficiencies by looking at things from a portfolio approach instead of a singular mindset.

Jim: You also have been a big proponent of integrating purpose into partnerships. What do you see as the key to making sure purpose is meaningful?

Todd: It’s challenging if you are not thoughtful about it. I go back to having intentional process and intentional structure to it.

For us, it starts with the brand and understanding what it is, what it stands for, and its role and benefit in society. To do anything purposeful, it has to be authentic. We’ve both seen examples of a brand trying to draft off of something else purposeful going on. Consumers today are savvy and expecting to understand the ideals and the values of why those brands are associated and even why properties and causes are allowing those brands to partner with them if it’s coming from an inauthentic place.

The brand DNA and purpose translates into how you show up. In terms of activation, are you adding to the experience or are you becoming a distraction away from the experience? There are ways to do purpose work meaningfully and also be additive to the experience.

That is what I have seen change the most. Fans are receptive now to the idea that sport in particular—and partnerships in general—can add to the fabric of society while still being fun, while still being monetized. All of those things can be true and the real magic happens when they start to overlap.

To use a real-world example, everybody wants to talk about women’s sports. GMR has been in the space, driving investment, having conversations with our clients for years. A lot of that was about not just showing up because it was a cause or the right thing to do but was the right place for those brands to impact their business.

One of those that we are most proud of, which was on the cutting edge of this momentum, was Google. Being a global brand and leader, it was important to Google—and to its audience—that it do things within its own business to create greater equity and also do something externally that would have real meaningful impact and be purposeful about it.

We identified the NBA and WNBA audience as a real target for Google in several of its product areas. We were intentional about leading with a WNBA partnership, not just rolling it into an NBA partnership the way a lot of others had done. That allowed the W and Google to make a statement about the power and importance of the W versus just a portfolio play within basketball.

And then Google said that that was not enough. They wanted to know what else they could do, especially as a Changemaker partner, and went to broadcast partners, including Disney/ESPN, and said, “We want to be part of the solution of putting more women’s content and games on air.” As part of the 25th anniversary of the W, Google used its investment spend to put 25 games on air that first season, which was more than ever. And that has opened up an entire ecosystem of opportunities.

That’s an example of when you take a step back and think about business strategy translating to partnership strategy and purpose feeding into that, it’s less about purpose for the sake of doing something charitable and more about how your brand can show up in a way that means something to your target audience instead of just showing up as a sponsor in traditional ways.

Jim: We have both been involved with teaching sports management students and mentoring and developing people who are new to the industry. Lately, I’ve spoken with an increasing number of young professionals who aren’t sure they want to stay on a sports marketing career path because they see greater opportunities elsewhere. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that, but what would you say to encourage young talent to stay involved in our field?

Todd: It’s our responsibility as we are having conversations with young people to create an understanding and expectation of what the sports business industry is.

One of the first things I try to ground folks in is that the sports business industry is business first, and big business. Managing expectations around the sophistication, the level of business innovation and the types of skills that are needed to be successful in this industry hopefully becomes inspiring. You want to be on the cutting edge of technology? No greater place to do that than sport. You want to be on the front edge of consumer psychology, fan understanding, etc.? No greater place to do that than sport.

You can go down the list. Every industry that they may be interested in probably has a sector within sport. It is up to us to create exposure to all of those things, rather than allowing folks to focus on the surface level stuff. Someone may think of working in the sports industry as working for a sports team. But there are so many businesses that are doing amazing things to support the overall sport ecosystem.

So a lot of it is education and awareness. But there is acumen as well. We have to train people to be able to be successful in what now is a cutting-edge industry, more so than it was 30 years ago. Preparing people for that, giving them the right skills, encouraging them to supplement their education with the right experiences and being open to drawing people in from other industries.

That becomes a two-way conversation. You posed a great challenge as to how we as an industry don’t lose our top talent to other industries. I would go back to an earlier part of our conversation and say how do we look at these other top industries and bring top talent into sport?

Some of that is evolving quickly with the injection of private equity money and other investment that is coming into sport. At the end of the day, if you can create value for the organization you are working for, there is going to be a tremendous growth track for you within your career. But understanding what that looks like and understanding the diverse paths within that is more important today than ever before because there are more opportunities within our industry that didn’t even exist three to five years ago.

And I’m excited about the things that will exist three to five years from now that you and I haven’t even started to think about! We all have to be students, we all have to be curious and learn regardless of age, stature or position within the industry. When we do that, when we help each other, when we offer curiosity to each other, we will end up in a great spot where we love who we work with, build great relationships and encourage each other to look beyond what has been done before.