Sponsorship heresy

I have to admit – I’ve never had much time for sponsorship.

Is this my very own Ratner moment? I hope not. It doesn’t make much sense for the CEO of a strategic sponsorship consultancy to own up to such distaste. It’s not blanket, but a dislike for the lack of honesty which, for me, has dogged sponsorship from its early days.

I remember my early days – the late 1980s. I was representing a rights-holder, trying to interest a fledgling industry in very homegrown packages – and realizing this was not a creative discipline. What frustrated most was the lack of response to the emotional value of the content on offer. As I did the rounds, only one agency looked beyond ‘rights’ to content. (James Burke, wherever you are, God bless you).

And I really don’t think sponsorship’s moved on much. It was – and is – fixated. At a critical developmental stage, the industry allowed its commercial model and intellectual integrity to rest on ‘rights’. Consider any definition of sponsorship. Despite our totem words – ‘passion’, ‘association’, ‘brand value transfer’ even – the defining element is the contractual relationship between sponsor and rights-holder. Everything else is fuzzy.

Sponsorship preens itself on its unique ability to ‘tap consumer passions’ – presupposing that advertising or direct mail can’t do the same, in their own way. Sponsorship proudly claims to shift brand consideration through value association, as though executional style, tone of voice, production values and participation mechanisms can’t have at least as much impact. The ‘sales’ definition of sponsorship implies (despite the corrective mantra of ‘activate your rights’, tagged on like a health warning) that every property giftwraps and delivers a specific target audience – assuming that every marketing communication doesn’t define

In truth, the contractual component itself is far from defining: how else would you express a licensing deal? Or a media buy for that matter? But it’s the exchange of the nigh magical ‘rights’ between sponsor and rights-holder which remains both the throne on which the industry sits, and the altar at which we sacrifice our integrity.And, I would argue, it’s this focus that’s kept sponsorship in a state of emotional and intellectual underdevelopment.

It saddens me that we – the industry – have failed so badly to communicate the real value of sponsorship that we’re forced to justify ourselves with EAV. Of course, we look down our noses, we roll our eyes, we bemoan the silliness – and then, by and large, we sell off the back of it. We construct flimsy valuation methodologies. And as our focus follows the money, we speculate about rights fees, and our energy is directed at rights, rather than creativity, or at the fascinating dialogue taking place between consumers and brands.

I recognise the huge challenges of communicating and quantifying the benefits of sponsorship. It is difficult to isolate its impact. It is hard to find the concepts, tools or language to describe the brand-consumer dynamic of sponsorship. But that is our collective challenge – and responsibility. The reason sponsorship impact is so difficult to isolate is largely because sponsorship objectives are so poorly defined in the first place. When objectives are clear and SMART – as they can be – evaluation is simple.

Similarly, the dialogue which sponsorship supports between consumers and brands and the emotional content of that dialogue, is extremely complex. But this is at the very heart of brand communications – and, on that basis, fertile ground for exploration. Here’s an example of how we can and must go beyond ‘rights’ thinking. If sponsorship (amongst other things) is a medium to enrich the emotional dialogue between brands and consumers, then how can we be so naïve as to assert that people’s emotional lives are solely oriented around the sports, arts and entertainment wrapped up in conventional ‘rights’ packages; and not around people’s broader social beliefs?

I was head of UK comms at The Body Shop back in the 1990s and one campaign stands out above all others – a global campaign around domestic violence. Totally taboo at the time, it attracted two million signatures, raised millions of pounds for under-funded voluntary organisations and placed the issue firmly on the political agenda.

With no sponsor, and no rights-holder, it falls clearly outside of our bandwidth. But as a campaign, it had greater emotional relevance than any sponsorship I’ve ever come across. This isn’t about semantics –  it’s about our fundamental proposition. When we look beyond mere rights to the richer territory of deep consumer insight, and how we connect with consumers, sponsorship offers immense promise,