Bang to rights

Ever since Patrick Nally corralled the global TV and stadia signage rights together on Coke’s behalf for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, sponsorhip has been dominated by rights. And, with the IOC’s bullishly announcing it expects to reach the mythical figure of US$1 billion for its TOP programme, rights certainly aren’t going away.

Ultimately, the contractual relationship between a ‘sponsor’ and a ‘rights-holder’ will inevitably be described in terms of rights. But to understand, to conceive of sponsorship in the same terms – as comfortable as it might be – doesn’t begin to equip us to understand how brands are beginning to think – and act. More damagingly, the emphasis on rights restricts our ability to represent the real value sponsorship can bring to business. And, ultimately, it limits the value of sponsorship for both sponsors and rights-holders.

Patrick, speaking at Future Sponsorship this November took the audience back to the 1970s: ‘I watched the model we created continually being replicated – almost with disbelief. The ‘rights package’ was never intended to be the definitive answer – every brand’s needs are different.’ Patrick drew a distinction between agencies which activate and agencies which sell sponsorship: ‘The influence of the sales culture was incredibly formative on thinking of sponsorship at this early stage of development.’ The rights package was a sales package.

But although in print as saying the ‘rights package is dying’, Patrick still sees rights as fundamental, the cornerstone of the sponsorship edifice.

Not so Lucien Boyer, CEO of Havas Sport and Entertainment. For Lucien, the rights are just the beginning: ‘The rights often don’t represent the real value for the sponsor. What is important is the creativity. A smart brand – or smart agency – can build a campaign out of almost nothing if it successfully identifies a powerful emotional insight.’

Nike and Red Bull of course are everyone’s favourite paradigm busters. Although Simon Pestridge, now Global Brand Director of Sportswear, claims not to think in terms of sponsorship, Nike follows the classic athlete endorsement route: testing, product development, endorsement; and sweats its assets ATL. But in Nike’s most memorable campaigns – Scorpion, Joga Bonita – the talent is simply the supporting cast for Nike’s vision. These are activations in the classic sense: multi-channel, multiple touch-point, driving sales.

Now look at T-Mobile’s recent ‘Life’s for sharing’ spots. Multi-channel, multiple touchpoint, driving sales. With Pink the backing singer to TMO’s world brandview. Now the difference is obvious: for TMO, the spot did not sit in the centre of a web of endorsements and team sponsorships. But it could have done. Some fancier footwork by Saatchi & Saatchi. And TMO was in the process of building a 3 year sponsorship campaign, driven by the same brand vision, when … well, s*** happens.

Is this all abstract waffle? Exactly what is the relevance in the face of the pragmatic argument that sponsorship, also, happens.

Firstly, as Lucien Boyer so persuasively argued, the ability of a business to derive value from sponsorship demands, amongst many other things, immense creativity. But for as long as rights remain the dominant framework for this industry, sponsorship’s ability to demonstrate its full potential will be restricted to the few brands comfortable thinking outside of the rights box.

Giles Morgan, HSBC’s Group Head of Sponsorship, made the point very forcefully: in the financial meltdown of last year, sponsorship was left undefended – and negative perceptions of sponsorship not only affect the industry directly, they affect the value of sponsorship to sponsors. But, once again, a definition which revolves around rights leaves unsaid more than it in fact says. It fails to begin to communicate the power of sponsorship to drive business. We simply have to find a way to express the fact that sponsorship is more than logo exposure + hospitality.

The relationship between advertising and sponsorship has never been warm, and the creative world showed little real interest in sponsorship in its traditional format. But increasingly, driven by the pressures of media fragmentation, the experiential movement – led convincingly by Jack Morton, and the viral nature of social media, the agency world is beginning to awaken to the potential to create brand platforms which integrate and make sense of multiple media landscape. We all know it: the law can never be protection enough for creative ambush.

And finally, Lesa Ukman, Chair of IEG, surely the absolute guru of sponsorship (and, if the global industry ever needed a voice, who better?) summed up exactly the issue. She pointed the whole audience at Future to tck tck tck, a climate change campaign: ‘My heart loves this campaign – my head tells me it could be the death of sponsorship.’ At first sight, it’s hard to see why: it’s an open campaign, with a popular central cause and assets freely available for partner organisations to use. The site currently lists 200 voluntary organisations – and no corporates. But it’s easy to see how the principle could be applied to corporates. It offers consumer relevance, it offers assets: it offers brands a creative platform to express their worldview.

As Helen Day, Vice President of ESA explained, the definition of sponsorship used by the International Chamber of Commerce was forced to enshrine the contractual nature of aponsorhip for a very good reason: ‘The ICC’s definitions are used by governments around the world as a foundation to underpin legislation. Sponsorship had to be defined as contractually, as an exchange.’

But is that any reason – or excuse – for sponsorship to stay there?