Sponsorship is the magic dust for marketing activities

Author: Simona Kruhar Gaberšček | read time: 9 min

Andy Westlake was appointed as the Chairman of the European Sponsorship Association (ESA) a few months ago, replacing in this role Karen Earl who had occupied the position for the past ten years and left a big mark with her work. His biggest challenge is to continue reminding the sponsorship industry not to think of sponsorship as a channel isolated from other marketing and sales activities. He sees sponsorship as the magic dust that deepens the relationship between brand and fan/consumer.

SPORTO: What are the biggest challenges within the association that you will be trying to address? Which objectives within ESA will you follow during your term?
ANDY WESTLAKE: With such a rapidly evolving marketing landscape, I think our biggest challenge is to continue reminding the industry that sponsorship is not a channel that should be thought of in isolation, but rather a source of ‘magic dust’ that we can add to sponsors’ businesses – from marketing to customer relationship management and internal communications. Sponsorship can develop powerful connection between brand and consumer through shared passion that company CEO’s and marketing directors should be using to make all of their other investments more effective. So my objectives will be to continue to tell a broader marketing story – and we have kicked this off with a great partnership with The Marketing Academy on our ESA Leaders Programme – to raise ESA’s profile in the media, to surprise and delight through the events we stage and to raise the bar on the resources we provide to our members. As a European trade body, we will continue to foster the relationships we have already established while at the same time recognising that we have members and customers, especially on the ESA Diploma, around the world. We are at a really exciting time in the evolution of our industry and I want ESA to remain a key part of that evolution.

ESA members come from different countries and you have insight into different markets across Europe. Could we talk about bigger differences in the approach to sponsorship and its positioning within the marketing mix? In our region, sponsorship was traditionally seen as a platform for corporate social responsibility and only in recent years other aspects came to the forefront.
I have spent over twenty-five years in the sponsorship industry and have seen a significant change in the business over that time. Initially seen as a platform to drive awareness and brand visibility and to leverage hospitality assets, sponsorship is now seen as a versatile investment that can tackle any and all business challenges. Like you said, corporate social responsibility is still one of the key reasons for those investments – it allows really authentic connections to be built with the local community at a time when so many businesses are working hard to (re)gain trust from society at large.

Nelson Mandela once said that “Education is the most valuable weapon which you can use to change the world,” and we put the education programmes that we run at the heart of our community.

However, I think most people now see sponsorship as so much more than that. Sport, as the biggest contributor to our sector, still brings people together in vast numbers – it provides a platform for sponsors to be an authentic and credible part of the discussion, to drive awareness, improve reputation, sell more product, inspire their internal stakeholders, motive high performance and much more. I think most of the practitioners across Europe have the same view and judging by the quality of work on show at the ESA Awards this year – in the Best of Europe category especially – we are all beginning to see the amazing power that our sector has.

In the last decade, sports marketing and sponsorship industry in general has changed a lot. What do you think of this development if we consider the three perspectives: sports properties, brands and agencies?
Absolutely, the industry has changed a lot and will continue to change. Nelson Mandela once said that “Education is the most valuable weapon which you can use to change the world,” and we put the education programmes that we run at the heart of helping our community to take advantage of that change.

However, to answer the specific question linked to those three specific groups. Sports properties need to continue to focus on moving away from a traditional way of selling assets to sponsors. I am not sure many companies worry about where their brand is going to appear in the field of play any longer – they are much more focused on how this investment is going to help to tackle their core business objectives. Sports properties need to think creatively about how their property can be used to tackle very specific objectives and, more often than not, at the heart of that pitch will be an ability to provide great data, owned broadcast assets – with the rapid growth of OTT channels, engaging social channels and openness to innovation.

With brands I see real momentum. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is becoming increasingly challenging to reach big audiences quickly through traditional marketing investments. But sport still delivers! We are therefore seeing more brands, from more diverse sectors and wider geography, making investments in our sector. Brands are asking more detailed questions than ever before to their rights holder partners and activating more broadly and more creatively than they ever have.

The agency sector always feels very dynamic – over the years I have seen the industry switch from a situation where the big groups are in favour to a time when small boutique specialists are picking up very specific projects focused on a specific skill set. Whichever group you sit in, it is clear that bravery, innovation, great ideas and an ability to execute perfectly every time is still at the heart of great agency work. At the same time, an agency can only be as good as the clients it represents, so I would always want to work with ambitious and brave clients that allow the agency to showcase its creativity.

What would be your definition of sponsorship today, and what is your view on phrases that are frequently used by many brands, such as ‘Proud sponsor of’?
Sponsorship for me is a partnership between two organisations that delivers specific and measurable impact for both partners. I like to think of it as a critical supplement, the corporate Vitamin C that enhances the performance of all of your other marketing and business investments. Done well, sponsorship drives engagement and recall of your advertising, makes your social media work more engaging and relevant, inspires your staff and stakeholders to higher perfor­mance, makes you a better and more attractive employer brand and so on. If the expression of that partnership is to say ‘Proud sponsors of ’ then fine … but the brand must show us what that means! In what way are they a proud sponsor – how are they sharing the pride in their involvement with their customers, colleagues and future prospects and how else do they bring their association to life beyond the ‘Proud sponsor’ sign-off.

I like to think of sponsorship as a critical supplement, the corporate Vitamin C that enhances the performance of all of your other marketing and business investments.

If we own the ability to sprinkle sponsorship magic dust on our relationships, we must ensure we sprinkle it liberally and not just rely on the designation we are given to signpost our association.

The value of the global sponsorship industry is increasing every year and sports accounts for the majority of this value. Why has sports sponsorship been, compared to some other marketing activities, so resistant and stable during the last decades despite the economic uncertainties?
The sport sector in Europe was worth over €18bn in 2016, and we have seen real stability in that number during the last few years. I think the nature of the transaction is critical in this stability – more brands see sport as playing a critical role in the growth of their business at a time when audiences are harder to reach in big numbers. Football, motor sport, rugby and many others continue to deliver major global events that bring the world together. We have also had a number of sports that have continued to grow quickly in some of the world’s most important emerging economies, with big investments from major brands in Asia into European football, for example. I only see the growth continuing positively for the foreseeable future.

The social media have almost eliminated intermediaries, i.e. traditional media, in the relationship between fans and athletes, clubs or sports organisations. What is your view of this change and the challenges it brings to traditional broadcasters?
I am not sure it is fair to say that traditional media has eliminated intermediaries like traditional media. It has just demanded that those traditional media outlets continue to evolve and innovate so they can be just as much part of the sporting ecosystem as the major social media platforms. I am not sure any of those traditional media outlets would think of themselves in those terms any longer.

Photo credit: Imagellan/Philipe Buissin

They are all looking at their contribution to the discussion on social media, they all have an active approach to content production and distribution and all see themselves as modern day digital platforms rather than traditional, print or analogue only broadcasters. It is certainly true that social media is asking harder questions than the traditional media, but I think they are mostly up for the challenge.

What would you say are some other effects of digital and social media on sponsorships that have most profoundly changed the sports landscape and activation possibilities?
The arrival of digital and social media had one of the most profound impacts on activation in sponsorship in the last decade or more. The rights holders have embraced these channels universally and it is the key way that clubs, leagues and athletes engage and communicate with their fans. Real Madrid have over 30 million followers on Twitter, so it is a massive own goal not to be an active part of their discussion as a sponsor of that club. Social media has given brands the ability to be ‘always on’ and more actively engaged in the sporting conversation than ever before. The nature of that relationship has given the industry an amazing ability to develop creative, relevant and impactful activation.

In this regard, what are the biggest challenges for brands? On the other hand, it seems that the power is in the hands of the rights holders who can make their rules of cooperation even stricter. What is your view of rights holders vs brands relationship today?
I see the relationship between brands and rights holders as a pretty positive one. There are a number of major global rights holders that have strict rules of cooperation but those rules are only in place to protect the relationships that the existing family of sponsors have with that event. There is still enough flexibility and creative freedom to develop engaging and compelling activation and the rights holders are still focused on how they can contribute to that campaign being a success.

Winning brands in our sector can confidently answer the question “what does success look like” before pen is put to paper on the agreement.

Rights holders in my experience are challenging themselves to be more creative, more in tune with their sponsors’ objectives and more adept at giving access to assets that will move the dial on their sponsors businesses than they ever have been before.

Before joining ESA, you were leading one of the biggest sports marketing agencies, Fast Track. What is your favourite example of a campaign created within the agency, and why was it successful? Ricky Hatton’s “Redemption” campaign was one of the first digital (Twitter) fan-engagement campaigns, for example.
I spent thirteen years at Fast Track and had an amazing time as part of a truly unique team. The Ricky Hatton work was something special – to win a Social Media Award in 2013, when all of the London 2012 work was up against us, was a great coup. It was a piece of work I am still really proud of and helped to move the way Twitter was used in sponsorship activation forward. Alongside, I would make mention of our work with G4S – a grassroots project called the G4S 4Teen – where we developed a team of sporting ambassadors around the world that delivered real brand impact for the business. It was a brave campaign, executed brilliantly by our team but also with the support and backing of a very brave and ambitious client. We also delivered some standout work for many brands, which are still clients of CSM Sport & Entertainment (owner of Fast Track) today, including HSBC, Land Rover and Lucozade Sport.

What do all successful campaigns have in common?
One simple thing – they all started with a remorseless focus on outcomes. Winning brands in our sector can confidently answer the ques­tion “what does success look like” before pen is put to paper on the agreement. Clarity early in the process gives the rights holder the ability to really focus on how they can provide the assets that deliver those outcomes, and it means that the sponsor can focus on developing a campaign where every pound spent delivers against those key objectives. It is then critical that measurement and tracking is put in place to allow all parties to learn and, if necessary, amend the way the partnership is activated. We must never lose sight of a sponsor’s contribution to sport – their role, as a sponsor, is to add value to their customers’ passions and so, once again, everything they do should be designed to achieve that.

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