Friday, 4 April 2014

Ten Conclusions from the 2nd ESA Summit

We always knew that it would be an iterative process and whilst perhaps the second European Sponsorship Association Summit wasn’t epoch-changing, it was hugely successful in achieving its objectives of taking last year’s debate to the next stage, inviting our peer group to examine exactly what constitutes value and to broaden the debate to a wider marketing audience.  
The great thing about the Summit is that it’s an open debate with no agenda other than putting issues on the table, trying to find solutions and attempting to raise standards. If some of the feedback is that we are sometimes too hard on ourselves then I believe that’s a good thing: we’re always being told that acknowledging we may have a problem is the first – and vital – step and we’re never going to improve without that self-awareness.

ESA is sometimes dismissed as being no more than a talking shop but there is a huge difference between introspection and navel-gazing and as the industry body I believe it should be commended for taking the bull by the horns and trying to lead the thought agenda. What ESA now needs is the committed support of the industry it’s trying to represent as it is in all our interests to do so: a strong ESA should mean a strong sponsorship industry.

Below are ten things I took from the ESA Summit and whilst some of them may not necessarily be new ideas, it’s great to see them gaining more traction. Those that were present will be able to draw their own (and maybe slightly different) conclusions from the day. Those that weren’t should have a read of the Unofficial Partner blog or pick up the Twitter thread #ESASponSummit.

1.      The “old” ways must change. Regulation, legislation and the category-based model is hampering creativity and therefore dulling the customer experience. The fact that representatives of FIFA sponsors don’t seem to be able to refer to the World Cup as just “the World Cup” even in this company (sorry Paul, not having a go, I was the same when working on Philips’ 2006 World Cup sponsorship) is symptomatic of the fact we’ve lost sight of what we should actually be emphasising: it’s not about FIFA, it’s about the fans.

2.     Seriously, forget definitions. “Sponsorship”, “Partnership”, or even “Fusion” (offered by the entertaining and insightful Fru Hazlitt of ITV) don’t matter. The customer isn’t debating what it’s called, all they care about is how whatever it is we’re doing makes them feel.

3.    Beware the Emperor’s new clothes. Regardless of what anyone says, we’re still a little scared of technology but all it is doing is allowing us to do what we’ve always tried to do – connect with our target audiences – just in a slightly different way. Fru “detonated” a whole load of words in her presentation, one of which was “paradigm”: regardless of how exciting new ways and means may be, the end should remain the same.

4.    Get past the fluff. I think this is the first Sponsorship event I’ve been to where almost everyone was in agreement that media value is a dying, commoditised measurement. There were various other thoughts on what constitutes a valuable metric but Matt Rogan summed it up best: we ought to be focussing solely on number of customers, retention rates, average revenue per customer and when subtracting costs, that’s your profit. “The rest is just fluff”.

5.     Likes & RTs are the new global fan numbers. Evaluation needs to be taken in the context of wider, longer-term considerations. Back to point 3, Facebook likes and retweets don’t add up to a whole hill of beans.

6.    We all need to be more open with each other. Too few people believe in the power of sponsorship because we’ve been hopeless as an industry in shouting about our successes. A big reason for that is that outcomes are too often “client confidential”. We’re all in this together and we need to be more collaborative, open and honest. We also need to think longer-term: if we’re overselling something we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Sure, we might hit short-term targets but if that sponsor then fails to renew and worse, writes off sponsorship as a whole, where does that then leave our industry as a whole?

7.   There’s a trust deficit. Being more honest is a start and putting the customers first is a vital next step but to amplify the “success” message we need to build better relationships with the media. Whilst we all tear our hair out at the “how much can [INSERT LATEST STAR} earn from sponsorship of the back of his/her success?” question, we need to be proactive in ensuring the media are focussing on the real sponsorship stories. Perhaps we need to be better, as Owen Gibson suggested, at linking our agenda to the wider news agenda.

8.     Bland is a false economy. Brands and rightsholders alike are not helping us achieve this by over-training and thus sanitising said “stars”: it’s not just giving the media very little to play with, it is short changing the fans. Revisiting my first conclusion, if it’s not for them, then what’s it all about?

9.    Where’s sponsorship’s legacy? If we’re trying to think long-term, we’re being more honest, trying to relate to what our customers care about and we agree that the old model needs a rethink then we need to start putting our “sustainability” caps on. CSR considerations are often bolted onto sponsorship activities rather than being a core driver as commercial success and if doing the right thing are mutually-exclusive. Sally Hancock talked about the need to return the “integrity” to our industry: just think how much sponsorship could be advanced if we put legacy and sustainability right at the forefront of our strategies, rather than it being a “nice-to-have”.

10.   Let’s stop fishing in the same pond. Refreshing, again to hear how few people Matt Rogan has hired into Two Circles from the sports marketing (how I hate that term – it’s either marketing or it isn’t!) industry. To achieve all of the above we really need to widen our gene pool. Introspection is fine but insularity is not. The ESA Summit is designed to get us all thinking and the broader that debate the better it is for all of us.