ESA’s most recent webinar brought together industry experts from adidas, AEG, f1 Recruitment and Fuse to discuss the state of the sponsorship industry, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sports and entertainment career market and how sponsorship marketers can stay ahead of the curve in a fast-evolving industry. Here were the key takeaways from the discussion:
Nimble organisations can thrive in tough times
While all panelists conceded that 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges, Fuse CEO Louise Johnson highlighted at least one silver lining – organisations are now making strategic decisions at a much quicker rate, forcing agencies in the sports and entertainment space to be more agile and creative in their approaches.
She outlined the agency’s approach to lockdown as one of adaption, moving quickly from a crisis management-led approach for brands to one focused on pivoting client’s assets to a virtual world to maximise value and output within a few weeks. One major campaign for Sportsbet.io and their partnership of Premier League club Watford FC, was turned around within 48 hours, she said.
“In adapting to this new world, we had to be creative and flexible. We spend six months planning for an event like the UEFA Champions Leagues Final for our clients PepsiCo and Nissan, and the agility of the team to pivot these campaigns to a virtual world for online audiences in a matter of weeks was incredible – it’s been a positive learning for everybody.”
Other panelists agreed, with f1 Recruitment founder and CEO Amanda Fone noting that sponsorship marketers are well-equipped for agility: “the sponsorship sector is incredibly versatile, ambitious and tenacious – it’s full of driven and determined people, so if there’s any sector that can make change happen in a really short amount of time it’s without a doubt the sponsorship sector.”
Transferrable skills are great – the skills of the future are better
Leigh Hine, who leads global executive search at sportswear giant adidas, said that consumer behavior “changed overnight” when COVID hit. While adidas hasn’t been immune from a general retail downturn, Hine said that the “phenomenal” growth in direct-to-consumer business pointed the way forward.
All panellists discussed the need to be flexible and have a broader skillset beyond those traditionally found in sport and entertainment – there was a consensus that ecommerce, performance marketing, measurement and data and analytics would all come to the forefront in the near future.
From an agency perspective, Johnson said that Fuse was increasingly “being asked by clients questions like how can sponsorship enhance my ecommerce activities, how do I drive short-term sales, how do I improve outcomes for my partnerships… Based on those client needs we’ll be looking to enhance and upweight our existing digital, commerce and performance capabilities.”
“When you’re applying for a job with potentially hundreds of other candidates, you’ve got to think about the skills and presentation that will help you stand out. At AEG we do the same things when we’re selling – we’re competing against other companies out for the same sponsorship dollars, so it’s all about perseverance,” said Paul Samuels, AEG’s Executive Vice President of Global Partnerships.
Both Fone and Hine also made the point that the rapid evolution of the digital landscape offered clues as to where the next generation of sporting leaders would come from.
“15 years ago most Premier League club chiefs came from finance backgrounds, and if you skip forward another seven or eight years they were often commercial directors, people who could generate revenue streams. In the next three to five years, with the growth and emergence of digital, the most likely progression is that the next generation of leaders in sport will come from a digital marketing background – people who are really able to drive engagement,” Hine said.
Samuels advised all sponsorship professionals to be constantly honing their sales skills, and Fone agreed, saying: “it’s always important to hone sales and commercial experience – talking about KPIs and being able to measure business impact is going to be increasingly important, particularly agency side, it’s one of the first question we’re always asked.”
Sponsorship effectiveness will be under the microscope
One of the enduring trends in sponsorship is the move towards making sure that the industry is more accountable and effective – as demonstrated by recent ESA research which found that some 53% of rights holders and 50% of agencies report they are doing more to measure their partnership results during COVID-19.
Johnson and Samuels agreed that the Coronavirus-induced economic downturn would tighten sponsorship budgets and put downward pressure on marketers to demonstrate what really worked.
“Money will be tight next year, but clients are telling us that if you can demonstrate that activation will generate business growth you will be allocated budget, if not you will be left on the vine. Brands are really looking for people who can understand how sponsorship can drive a brand’s business and bring sales benefits,” said Johnson.
Johnson said that the sponsorship industry could also expect a shift towards performance marketing and sponsorship structures that rewarded specific KPIs: “in this new world more and more brands are realizing that they need to demonstrate the effectiveness of their partnerships so investing in data and insight will be crucial.”
From a recruitment perspective, Fone said that top-tier sporting organisations were already starting to look for candidates who can help them to more effectively measure sponsorship when hiring: “the Premier League clubs we work with have specifically asked us to find people who understand data, measurement and insight, and can translate that data into part of a pitch to brands.”
The industry can’t allow 2020 to be a “lost year” for diverse recruitment
Fone is a cofounder of BAME2020 No Turning Back, which aims to have 20% of people working in the sponsorship and sports marketing space from black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds, as well as retaining that talent until they are in the top senior roles. She urged organisations not to allow the pandemic to stand in the way of diversifying their workforce and instead use it as a catalyst for change.
“If we want to be able to communicate with diverse audiences, we need to have diversity within our own teams. The sponsorship and wider sports marketing sector is very underrepresented by people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities; there are a lot of organisations working hard to change this,” she said.
“What we are talking about is levelling the playing field and enabling more people from diverse backgrounds to come into the sector.”
Hine said adidas had come a long way but still had plenty to do: “inclusion is a continual focus for us and we’ve been very public about the commitments we’ve made and we’re half-way through the roll-out of our global cultural inclusion training programme.”
“73% of our senior leadership team is female, but we have a job to do when it comes to our multicultural and socioeconomic targets – we will be looking to increase these at all levels, including how to retain this talent by building on our inclusive culture. It’s a huge focus for us,” Johnson said of Fuse.
Don’t neglect the power of LinkedIn
Another recurring point was the importance of maximizing the potential of LinkedIn – with AEG’s Samuels even crediting the professional social network for helping AEG secure a naming rights deal between Uber and the Thames Clippers, one of the most significant partnerships signed during lockdown.
Fone suggested that all professionals spent half an hour a week cultivating their “personal brand” on LinkedIn, which is increasingly crucial not just for networking but for conveying candidates’ personalities.
“A lot of people forget that when they’re in jobs that LinkedIn is actually important, because they’re not actively looking for a role, but it’s an ongoing project. You can really see when people have developed their own individual brand… The truth is, the first thing a recruiter does is see how active someone is on LinkedIn – people should make sure they’ve got an up-to-date detailed profile, a decent photo or no photo and to be visible on LinkedIn posts and feeds,” she said.
Hine agreed, saying it should be a consideration: “your brand is online and who you follow, how you post and how you present yourself matters – the brand’s reputation is your own.”
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