What’s your name and position within the organisation?
Claire Ritchie-Tomkins, Founder and Chief Executive of SQN.
Having been in the IT industry for 15 years working for HP and then Nortel, where I was in-house sponsorship manager looking after F1 and sailing, I set up SQN in 2001 with a specific vision of offering sponsorship and marketing services to companies in the ICT space.
Give us a brief overview of SQN as a company in general and your approach to sponsorship and partnerships specifically
Having been originally based in Marlow, SQN moved to Henley 10 years ago and enjoys an-out-of London location that benefits both employees and clients. SQN has grown organically over the past 18 years into an organisation that, whilst still small, is perfectly formed!
From the beginning, we realised that there were very few agencies out there which understood the drivers for technology companies to be involved in sport and entertainment, let alone spoke the same language. In addition, our experience of operating in the B2B environment made us quite different to agencies that have primarily B2C knowledge and experience.
We see that our clients have one or more of three challenges around what we call the 3 R’s: revenue, relationships and reputation. Our approach to partnerships and sponsorship has always been based on technology showcasing and storytelling which seems now to be coming into its own; in effect, when we started in 2001, we were way ahead of the game! In order to help us with content creation, we acquired Collumbell Communications in 2005, a boutique tech PR agency, and in 2016 we integrated Matchstick Design, our creative partner, into the company to become a real full-service integrated communications and sponsorship agency.
Our solutions focus on content, conversations, experiences, insights and partnerships. Our offering now not only covers sponsorship consulting and activation, but also content creation in all forms including written, video or audio via podcasts, as well as communications including traditional PR channels, social or digital. At the same time, our industry focus on tech has expanded to include sport and automotive.
What approach makes SQN’s strategy/model unique? What is your USP/differentiator?
Big brands tend to like to use big agencies, but we have been particularly successful in working with challenger brands by helping them to use sponsorship to punch above their weight and create stand-out content against their competitors with larger budgets. Because we come from the technology industry, we understand their business challenges and their business structure which enables us to offer a far more tailored proposition both in terms of the investment opportunity and activation.
Our foothold in sport has arisen by working with rights holders who wanted to attract technology brands on the sponsorship side but who then also realised by working with us that our marketing and communications services are second to none.
SQN was Williams F1’s first digital agency with the creation of a print and online version of their iGNITION magazine back in 2013. We have supported Toyota Motorsport from their days in F1 through to their current activities in the World Endurance Championship, and we have supported Hyundai Motorsport with PR and Marketing services since its inception in 2012 in both WRC and more recently in WTCR too.
How do you measure the effectiveness of your sponsorship campaigns? What metrics do you use – and how has your approach to this evolved in recent years?
From the beginning, we have built our measurement tools around industry norms from both IEG back in the day and the framework that was created by William Fenton and Pippa Collett for ESA. Obviously over 18 years, the industry has changed and moved on significantly with new elements, such as social media coming into play, that didn’t even exist back then. As a result, we have evolved those models to create our own framework which allows for the latest developments in the communications industry.
At the same time, and focusing on our technology specialism, we are in the process of building a proprietary tool that will enable technology companies to really project the uplift that engaging in sponsorship will give to their business. By asking CMO’s and VP’s of marketing around the world what they are measuring and reporting to the board, we are going to be able to demonstrate the tangible returns that sponsorship would give to such a brand on the metrics that are important to them.
What are some recent clients you’ve worked on campaigns for, and how do these campaigns speak to wider new and emerging trends in your business area?
For a number of years, we worked for Lexar in the World Rally Championship creating a full-blown programme from a simple request at the time for some USB sticks to share TV rushes among broadcasters. Envisioning the partnership, proposing assets and negotiating the deal, we helped Lexar to drive huge value across their business. By using the experiences offered around WRC, channel incentive programmes were run which directly impacted the bottom line. Anyone who attended a WRC weekend courtesy of Lexar, whether that was in Mexico, Argentina, Australia or Europe had overachieved on their sales number meaning the impact on revenue was trackable and measurable. Video content was taken from every WRC round and edited into social content that was shared in long and short form ways within hours of the end of events. Always on and instant information has changed the way sponsorships and partnerships are being set up and run. Logo placement is still important for some but co-creation of content and shared delivery over social and digital platforms is a key driver. Increasingly sponsors are being attracted to rights holders not just because of their worldwide scale and brand affinity but because of the ability to engage with the rights holders’ audience in a way and with a level of granularity that was just not possible before. Esports being a prime example.
What are the current trends within your business area, and how are they affecting how you work and how you deliver on strategy?
As esports starts to grow significantly, we are seeing it migrate from endemic-only sponsors into a platform that is attractive for brands from a number of sectors, but particularly those from the technology industry. SQN recently announced that it has partnered with Init Sports Management to create Init Esports focussed particularly on sim racing and encouraging more females to get involved in esports.
Although technology companies and the SQN team in their corporate lives have been doing it for years, ABM (Account Based Marketing) is one of the buzz words of the moment. SQN helped NetApp in their days of partnering with the then Lotus F1 Team to drive business into named accounts using their partnership with the team. Positioning sponsorship as a tool for growth and consciously focussing on leveraging ABM is a new approach for us and one that we believe will see us delivering different types of activations for clients going forward. Telling the story in a sponsorship context but relaying that into other industries to drive key account engagement.
In our book, employee engagement has always been a critical part of sponsorship activation, however, with the more philanthropic and purpose-driven approach to life this is going to become even more critical. Ensuring you are being seen to be doing the right thing and using sponsorship platforms to attract, retain and reward employees is going to play an even greater role for brands. Educating and engaging with employees around such partnerships is going to be as critical as outward facing communication. Imagine the impact and power of using twenty or thirty thousand employees as ambassadors and advocates of the company and its partnerships.
How has sponsorship changed in your industry over the past few years? And what predictions can you make about how it’s going to change in the next five years?
At SQN, we have always understood that sponsorship is about showcasing technology and services, but it seems to finally have been accepted as the norm for both rights holders and brands. Trying to sell a technology company a multi-million brand-led sponsorship deal is probably never going to happen. Give them a platform where they can bring their key customers and engage in co-content generation and now we’re talking. And that will only get deeper. When SQN started out, technology was really only in motorsport with Formula One leading the way. Technology is now in all sports and all sports need technology to be successful. Digital disruption in sport is changing the landscape be that for fans, the property or the media. It is most definitely not going to stand still that’s for sure. It’s only going to get more critical, more immersive, more prevalent.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you’re a technology company with limited budget wanting to differentiate yourself in a crowded market from your competitors, then SQN can definitely help. Everyone thinks of sponsorship as being a multi-million-dollar investment but that doesn’t always have to be the case. When planned and done well, activation often leverages existing marketing spend so thinking that sponsorship is always cost prohibitive is incorrect. Sponsorship should be the glue that holds marketing activities together and providing an umbrella theme under which many aspects can be linked intelligently to create emotional experiences that build brand affinity. The more pertinent question is about the opportunity cost of not doing sponsorship.