Sponsorship, Agencies, Global

Opinion | Five things we must implement to affect positive change in the sports marketing industry

Stephen Hutchison, managing director at marketing agency Fuse, details how the sector can shake up its approach and modernise partnerships.

by Stephen Hutchison
Opinion | Five things we must implement to affect positive change in the sports marketing industry

My prize for the millionth piece on 'what we can learn from lockdown' is probably in the post. Despite the lack of originality, it is vital that we, as an industry, analyse our past and evolve to guarantee that we thrive in the future.


1. A vital update to our measurement capability is needed

We have deferred the update too many times. I believe this is fundamental to our long-term success. We risk being left behind.

Right now, we deal in outputs not impact. We celebrate 'increased year-on-year media value' and 'percentage of fans aware of Brand X as a sponsor'.

What do those things actually mean for brands? We are selling ourselves short and inviting more scepticism and scrutiny in comparison to other marketing channels.

For example, digital marketers can talk about reducing cost per action through more efficient targeting which drives savings and increased business impact. We do not speak that language but increasingly this is the only language brands will want to talk – and the impact of Covid-19 will likely accelerate this.

The good news is we can change, and this was a big focus at Fuse’s Perspectives on Partnerships events. The benchmarks and techniques are already available – and partnerships tend to perform well. We must act on this now.


2. From analogue to digital

More than 50 per cent of global advertising spend is being spent on digital channels. However, analysis we conducted shows that less than 25 per cent of partnership rights can be categorised as digital.

Rights holders are currently not supplying the demand. As an industry, we need an overhaul of our skillset and attitudes, and I am talking revolution rather than evolution. Serious innovation is needed in what assets we create and activations we recommend.


3. Ditch some outdated legacy ways of operating

Prior to Covid-19 there were certain ways of working we accepted as 'the way things are done'. I believe we must challenge everything now.

The world is going more performance driven and so should we. All of the other bits, unless serving a specific purpose, should be challenged.

For example, when meeting a potential partner for the first time it is generally accepted that the content is 'a general overview because we don’t know you yet'. Why? Invariably the outcome is an exchange of pleasantries and some vague next steps – which rarely materialise.

Why do not we ask questions in advance or do our own research to go in with something more pointed and performance focused? It means more work ahead of the initial meeting but might shortcut the process.

My example is a simple one to demonstrate a wider point which is we should look at everything we do that does not have a high success rate and try and find a better way.


4. Contracts need to be more flexible

Linked to my point about legacy, we need to challenge our approach to contracts. They are too rigid. We ask brands to sign three to five year contracts yet give them limited wiggle room for change in that period. The average life cycle of a chief marketing officer is less than three years so we need to show more flexibility so we can adapt to the speed of change, partner side.

Can we insert more specific clauses or side letters than genuinely allow a discussion on a reshaping of assets each year?

Are we brave enough to offer shorter contract terms? It might benefit both sides. Brands may be looking for shorter, more topical and exciting opportunities. As things stand, I do not believe the industry is set up to deliver in that way.

Can we get more on the front foot and listen to what will drive the most impact and propose change to them? Flexibility may be key to getting agreements signed in the short to medium-term.

I understand the need for certain clauses to be watertight but on the whole, I believe that inflexible, long-term contracts are a negative.


5. Rights holders should never be sold out

A major rights holder's chief executive said those words to me, and I could not agree more. Like in many industries, we accept that when we have identified our inventory and sold it, job done.

New technology, innovative ideas and a constant review of our infrastructures should result in a situation where we are never 'sold out'. Whether we choose to sell everything or not is a different question, but we should know what the opportunity is and constantly review and evolve it. Covid-19 has shown us that we are capable of brilliant innovation – we need to keep this up and for the long-term to ensure we thrive as an industry.