The fate of the sponsorship industry?

The current model of the sponsorship industry was spawned by media sales, driven by the entrepreneurial realisation that the aggregated exposure available through major events had sizeable commercial value.

Everything else is post-rationalisation. I say this so clearly because of the huge absence of vision and any clear articulation by the sponsorship industry of what it represents.

The experiential movement, by comparison, comes from a vision which aspires a depth of engagement with consumers beyond what is achievable in 2D. And this vision is articulated passionately and intelligently by agencies, predominantly in the US, for which Jack Morton is rightfully the spokesperson.

Advertising has its theoreticians, its academics, its evangelists, its apologists. Criticising, expounding, enthusing, inventing, suggesting.

Sponsorship hasn’t. Our depth conversations are about rights inflation, the rights market, attempts to aggregate and leverage value, the potential implications of new technologies on … rights. Then tired conferences rehash the same themes.

Viewed from outside, a self-help, how to get rich quick clique, idealising the financial lions of our business.

And that part of our industry is solid, insulated, innovative even, in its own way. The IMG model – which CEO Rick Todd – refers to privately as TV sales (I’m told) – is a permanent feature of the marketing landscape.

But what a void remains around it, sucked bare by the sheer attraction of all that cash, sorry, rights fees.

And what we’ve lost, perhaps for ever, is the opportunity to understand and own the space of brands’ relationships with people. Not that we could own that exclusively, but a very deep, very important slice – the slice that gives us the authority to frame the argument. (Ultram)

But that’s gone for ever. The experiential movement, firstly, started to cut the ground out from under our feet. Then the product placement guys came in and worked product placement into a distinct space. Affinity marketing and strategic brand partnerships are reproducing the same model with brand partners. And the Corporate Responsibility boys are finally discovering their vision and realising that they often command more valuable assets than TV coverage.

None of this has passed by the advertising industry, which is astutely, retrospectively, cautiously absorbing the critical take-outs. How do we remain the dominant conversational partner with brand clients? How can we assimilate the new communications models these represent? How do we leverage what we do best – defining and articulating an emotional proposition – through other media?

And the advertising industry already knows more about sponsorship than the sponsorship industry. It’s a knowledge that dares not say its name because sponsorship’s perception is tacky, superficial and much, much closer to media sales than planning.

And the advertising industry is going to gobble up the essence of sponsorship. At the end of the day, who’s to complain: at least they’re beginning to have a sense for the true role of sponsorship. And we’re still talking about rights fees.