Interview | Carsten Thode: Never do something just because you can

Author: Dragan Perendija | read time: 7-8 min

The topics of quality content creation and the challenges of effective content distribution to target audiences were discussed with Carsten Thode, Chief Strategy Officer at Synergy, one of the leading sports and entertainment marketing agencies with offices in London and New York. Carsten Thode is also the editor of “Now New Next,” an annual paper offering insights into marketing trends that use people’s passions to reach target audiences. Thode encourages rights holders and brands to rethink the need for a direct relationship with their fans and opt for meaningful sponsorship activations and more integrated campaigns.

SPORTO: In the SB Weekly’s podcast you said that creativity and content creation in sponsorship is only ‘half of the story’ and that one of the main challenges is optimisation and distribution of content to the right people at the right time. How do leading sponsor brands in general cope with that challenge in your opinion?
CARSTEN THODE: Great content and great distribution needs to be two sides of the same coin. It is like that famous philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the middle of the forest where no one can see it, has it fallen at all?” With content it is exactly the same. You can make the best film in the world, you can write the best song, but if no one sees it or listens to it, then no one is moved by it. And that is the ultimate challenge for our industry: to connect with people, to move people, to tell them stories – because that is how you get them to care about you and influence their behaviour. Of course, this has always been a key issue for the marketing industry and, historically, there was a strong move to decouple creative agencies from media agencies to prevent one agency from owning the whole value chain. But, when you are dealing with people’s passions, it is hard to decouple the idea from the distribution of that idea. The key questions of who they are, where they are and what they want, is more connected than ever. There is definitely still a lot of work that we need to do as an industry to improve and measure the performance of our campaigns. In fact, I think it is one of the biggest challenges of the time.

To answer your question, I think at the moment it is down to the agencies to help sponsors cope with that challenge. We have invested a lot into that capability at Synergy and we never create campaigns anymore without the distribution strategy being baked in from the very beginning.

In your paper “Now New Next 2018,” you focus on the question how marketing via people’s passions could effectively drive their purchase decisions. Your premise is ‘passion-powered marketing,’ i.e. driving brand value by helping brands ‘show up’ in people’s lives, which creates biases towards those brands and drives growth. What changed most within sports marketing and sponsorship world from the 2017 edition of “Now New Next?”
I would say that all the trends we saw in the 2017 edition of “Now New Next” are still very much in play. But one trend that I think has really accelerated is the complete change in audience behaviour with respect to consuming sports-related content. People do not want to spend two hours in front of the TV anymore, watching the whole match in linear form. They want more control over how and where they watch it: delayed feeds, condensed formats, highlights only, on any device – and there are more and more platforms offering this choice.

“If a tree falls in the middle of the forest where no one can see it, has it fallen at all? With content it is exactly the same.”

In addition, there are different expectations sur­rounding the nature of the content surrounding the sport, with authenticity trumping production values. There is more interest in the individual players rather than the teams they play for. There is an increasing demand for interaction and self-creation. And, by the way, this is not just a generational thing. People in my generation want all the same things. This is just driven by the new possibilities that the digital ecosystem has enabled, so it is not going to go away. I think that the more progressive rights holders will be the ones that understand this and proactively work to change their models accordingly. And this is also where ‘passion-powered marketing’ comes in as we try to help brands capitalise on this shifting behaviour and ‘show up’ in the right places.

Due to the attention span and content clutter, there is less viral effects and ‘earned media’ via sponsorship content, posts are sponsored and promoted … What is your take on the ‘content is king’ through sponsorship perspective nowadays? Could you elaborate on your insights?
When we talk about passion-powered marketing, we are thinking about two specific reasons why reaching people via their passions is highly efficient. The first reason is because the audience you are trying to reach has something in common. If you want to reach them through football, chess, gardening, yoga or triathlon, you have that extra piece of information about their behaviours, values, rituals, current conversation topics and shared history. That extra information gives you a better chance to find the audience insight that will lead to a great campaign.

The other benefit of marketing through passions is that those people congregate around certain ‘temples’: they attend the same events, follow the same influencers, read the same media publications and are in the same groups on the same social networks. So you can find and reach them easier by showing up in those congregations. I agree that there is less opportunity to go viral and all the social media platforms are making it harder to reach an audience without paying for it – by the way, influencers fall into the same category – but you can still do it more efficiently by using people’s passions and focusing on the relevant congregations where people who share that passion are gathering.

If we touch on personalization and fan engagement, like the use of Twitter DM, Facebook Messenger and tools such as chatbots offering a direct contact with the users (via digital channels) not just to rights hold­ers but also to brands, where are the limits and what is the next step?
Another one of the big challenges facing our industry is getting ‘actionable audience’ data. Because the fact is that most rights holders do not know who their audiences are and have no ability to connect with them directly. Of course, they have a lot of fans, but they are disintermediated by TV companies, social media platforms and even ticketing platforms. The problem for rights holders is that unless they can show exactly how they will help a brand reach their fans in a targeted, personalized and measurable way, marketing investment will flow away from them towards the platforms that can.

So, it is not surprising that brands and rights holders are embracing all this new fan-engagement technology because it helps them to establish the ‘actionable audience’ that they need. And by the way, I think that this is one of the key benefits of establishing an OTT platform. So, to answer your question directly, I think personalization and fan engagement will, quite rightly, remain a huge priority for rights holders and brands and that they will continue to invest in new products and solutions that help establish ‘actionable audiences’. If I were an angel investor, I would be spending a lot of my time looking at that space.

Is sponsorship becoming more about the audience than assets? At the IEG 2018 conference in Chicago, one of the wrap-up quotes was that “brands are buying audiences rather than properties.”
I really like that quote. It comes back to my answer to the previous question. Rights holders definitely need to take that idea to heart because, until they do, the propositions they are offering to brands will be less attractive than the ones that do offer an ‘actionable audience.’

“The key questions of who our users are, where they are and what they want, is more connected than ever. There is definitely still a lot of work that we need to do as an industry to improve and measure the performance of our campaigns.”

On the topic of assets, you mentioned that one of the things you do not prefer in the sponsorship world is ‘micro assets,’ such as “Play of the Day,” that are often used as assets by sponsors. Is it time for new sponsorable ideas?
Ha! You have been reading the Synergy blog. But seriously, that blog was one of my favourites. The backstory is that I attended a NY Knicks game at Madison Square Garden and I was told to pick up my tickets at the ‘North Concierge Presented by Lenox Hill Hospital.’ That got me thinking about whether there were different naming rights partners for the South, East and West Concierges. So I decided to try and count all the different ‘assets within assets’ – micro assets – I could find. It turns out that I found 23 different micro assets for 16 different brands.

My problem with this is not on the rights holder side. Frankly, they are doing a great job of packaging their inventory and monetising their assets. My problem is with the brands who confuse this with meaningful activations and integrated campaigns. Basically, it allows brands to tick a ‘fan activation’ box but it is usually not connected to any broader campaign, it is not built on an interesting insight and, because of that, I do not think it delivers the kind of value that brands think (or hope) it does.

Synergy worked on some very interesting concepts and activations, one of them is Bose F1 Garage, 3D sound experience. Can you share some of the key learnings from the project?
Yeah – that was definitely one of the projects that we are most proud of. For those who are not fa­miliar with the experience, we captured and re­created a full audio soundscape of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Garage. The participant then had complete freedom to walk around the space, exploring all the things that were going on during the minutes before the race – from mechanics working on the car, to the drivers chat­ting strategy with their engineers and finally to the car being fired up and leaving the garage. All the while, our playback engine delivered exactly the right sound into each ear depending on where they were in the space, when they were there and which way they were facing. Basically, we created something we called ‘Virtual Aurality’ (virtual reality without the visual component). We used projection mapping to ‘visualise the sound’ but that was really only about helping people to orientate themselves in the space and find the source of the sounds rather than as a core component of the experience. What the audience discovered was the unique power of sound to stimulate the imagination. In fact, I am convinced that the stripped-back, sound-only experience was far more immersive than a VR experience.

But to get back to your question, what I think made this campaign so good – other than the fact that it really was, genuinely, an incredibly cool experience – was the fact that it was built on a series of strong brand, audience and product insights. The audience insight is obvious: F1 Team garage in the minutes before a race is something that only a tiny number of people get to experience, so making that experience available to a mass audience was pretty cool. Plus, it tied perfectly into Bose’s brand idea of “getting you closer to the things you love” while also creating a powerful demonstration of the two features of their new wireless headphones model (noise cancelling and ‘wirelessness’).

The insight is critical, though. Recently, I was presented two case studies that were meant to highlight sponsorship best practice. Both were virtual reality experiences. One of them was built on brilliant fan insight – as with the previously mentioned activation, it transported people to a place that they desperately wanted to go to but never could. The other transported people somewhere that they probably never thought about going and really was not a particularly interesting experience when they got there. It felt like they only created a VR experience because they could and because VR is so ubiquitous right now. That is never a good enough reason. So in terms of sharing the key learning: never do something just because you can, only do something because you should.

“If you want to reach people through football, chess, gardening, yoga or triathlon, you have that extra piece of information about their behaviours, values, rituals, current conversation topics and shared history.”

If we get back to content creation, could we say that ‘own media houses’ are becoming the new standard (set by Red Bull)? IOC launched Olympic Channel, Inter Milan has Inter Media House … And OTT platforms are on the rise.
As I said before, it is absolutely essential to build direct channels and relationships with your audience and new broadcasting models like OTT are certainly a really good way to do that. But, of course, it is not the solution for everyone and there is inevitably going to be a pretty messy transitional period before we settle in to the brave new world. There are so many possible models that it is hard to know how it will all play out. We have rights holders establishing direct models like NFL Gamepass or the Olympic Channel. There are traditional broadcasters creating digital offers like Eurosport Player or ESPN Plus. New entrants like DAZN or Eleven are aggressively buying up rights. And that is even before Amazon, Google and Facebook have completely shown their hands.

I think that it is an incredibly interesting part of our industry, precisely because there are so many opportunities in play – but it is going to be a pretty bumpy ride.

What is your view of the ‘modern rights holder’ who understands the needs of the ‘modern sponsor brand?’ Is there a team, a league or an event that you see as ‘the next’ in sports marketing approach?
We work with a lot of great rights holders and certainly, the most progressive ones are the ones who never stand still – who accept that these changes are coming down the pipe and are proactively looking to get ahead of the trends.

But to answer your question in an incredibly predictable way, I think that esports have a fascinating opportunity to re-write the playbook on a lot of these things. They do not have to renovate the old house; they can build a brand new one from the ground up, which means that they can decide what the rules are. Esports still have a long way to go in terms of commercialising their audience but they are in a perfect place to optimise for the changing consumer trends and consumption patterns that we are talking about. One thing is for sure: traditional sports will end up learning more from esports than the other way around.

The interview was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 11 (May 2018).