It has been many years since IEG has become one of the most used sources of information about sponsorships for me. At this year’s IEG sponsorship conference in Chicago, I had a great opportunity to interview Lesa Ukman, the Chairman of IEG. Since the interview I believe there were only a few days that I haven’t thought about at least one of the quotes or inspirations she shared with me.
How would you explain a CEO or CMO that they are throwing their money through the windows if they don’t activate their sponsorships?
Maybe you’ve heard that expression before, but sponsorship without activation is like buying an electric toy and not getting a battery. All you’ve got is a vehicle. If you don’t build anything around it, it’s not going to have any effect at all. It is not about the spot that you get with a sponsorship, or the name on a jersey, or the signage, or the ID on a program book. It is about deepening relationships with the fans. By doing that, you enhance their experiences. Activation is the only thing that will engage somebody enough to notice, care or act.
How did you start with sponsorships? How did people understand sponsorships about 30 years ago?
30 years ago Chicago elected a first woman mayor and I just graduated from a colleague and during the campaign I was her volunteer speechwriter. And she took me with her to the city hall. Very quickly her policies brought about changes. There was somebody who said: “You should take over the office for special events”. That’s whenI started with jazz fest, blues fest etc. I started making calls to corporations and saying: “I am calling from the Chicago Mayor’s Office … will you sponsor?” And they said: “Yes”. So I thought: Oh, I invented a new form of marketing! I didn’t realize at all it was because of “the Mayor’s Office”! (smiling) When I left, I began writing a publication about it. I started without a plan. I had a political philosophy major, I didn’t know anything about marketing.
What have been the most significant changes since you started with sponsorships?
I think it went from being niche – involving really cool, funky, creative companies, or sin industry (that’s being abandoned by TV industry) like tobacco and beer industry, or entrepreneurial companies – to something we have today where sponsors are Procter&Gamble, Unilever etc. It is now mainstream. It used to be a business for a PR person in the company, now it’s CMO’s job. It has become a lot more strategic, focused and mainstream.
Which type of sponsorship property has made the biggest step forward in the last decade in your opinion?
No question about it: non-profits. At the end of the day, a sport is still about eyeballs and a man selling sponsorships to a man. There is still a belief: if I am engaged, everybody else will be. Non-profits have been showing us that you really can change the behaviour – especially among women. They’ve gone from asking for money to becoming equal with their sponsors and partners – building each other’s growth. They’ve come much further than sports. Arts is going nowhere. Unfortunately.
Why do you think it is so?
I think it is a combination of a feeling among the donors that they are artists if they support artists and artists who believe they don’t get enough money from the donors for what they have to give them in return. It is a problem of creativity when they are working together. It is really tragic because they have such a great audience, great image. That’s the next big thing on my mind.
How does European sponsorships market differentiate itself from the US market? Aren’t we Europeans usually being rather followers of the US?
Europe has several great innovations in sponsorships like a collaboration between Unicef and Barcelona. Unfortunately, at this moment, this is not such a big innovation anymore. UEFA partnership with FARE (Football Against Racism Europe) is a really good idea. I think that in the US we are really good at activation and sales. We don’t say “Why we can’t”, but “Yes, we can”. But when it comes to big, creative ideas, Europe is a step further. Think about all of the Olympic games initiatives. They all come from Europe, the whole programme for FIFA comes from Europe. The difference is that we in the US don’t look at Europe for ideas, we just do our things. We don’t have as many good ideas as Europe, but we do say: “We have enough money to try again and again” (smiling). In Europe decisions are taken on a CEO level rather than being part of a strategic approach. Great ideas don’t come from lower levels and cannot be adopted on upper levels or all over the place. That’s a big difference.
What do you think about Superbowl and all the advertising drama?
I see Super Bowl much more like FIFA World Cup or the Olympics. If you are smart and strategic you can build sponsorship activation up to or during the event even if you are not a sponsor. For example, look at the Bavaria Beer and what they did during FIFA World Cup. Super Bowl is not for every brand, but for someone like Frito Lay which made consumer-generated commercial for the last Super Bowl, it was absolutely fantastic. The main question is how you activate the property whether you are or you are not a sponsor. For me, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the World Cup are all driven by the media, not sponsorships. The biggest part of their rights fees are still TV rights. I see those as media events. NFL is incredibly smart about their brand and who uses it or wants to be their partner. But the ads they charge their sponsors never care much about that.
In the last 10 years, we can see a lot of US sports searching for new markets, especially in Europe, and vice-versa: European sports looking for new markets in the US and in other parts of the world. Who has more power around the world at the moment?
I think the biggest competition is among New York Mets and Manchester United. They are competing for the global market position. Once you get to a certain market size, you have to decide where you are going to get new revenue. If your plan is to grow, grow and grow, then you have to go for other markets. Soccer – or in the European space: football – is travelling very successful, as does basketball, too. Our football, American football, I do not believe we can sell in countries where they have rugby. It is also a very expensive sport. Baseball, basketball, European football are the most potential sports for growth. I would like to see more table tennis, more tennis and less macho team sports. There are beautiful sports seeing growth. Selling sponsorship rights is also about how you see opportunities for sponsorship activation. Just look for instance at Jao Ming, Chinese basketball player. He played in the US all the time, but there are a lot of Chinese companies who want to be his sponsors.
What can US sponsorship experts learn from Europe and what can Europeans learn from the US?
I think Europe has great ideas. The US work great on the day-to-day basis, continually trying something new, changing right away if it doesn’t bring results. In the US, I like working together with non-profits to make things bigger. One plus one has to be three in the US. It is not just about buying sponsorship properties, but what you do with them.
How can smaller right-holders gain popularity to compete with the biggest and consequently become equal competitors as much as possible?
You can be an unknown NGO, but if you understand how to build your brand and connect with an audience you can compete with the big guys anytime. Rethink Breast Cancer, for example, they have deliberated audience with passion and understood the technique of branding. Red Cross has no clue about branding and no integrity and they only turn to where the money comes from. Organisations should be wide opened and looking for the right partner. I think social media level is a playing field. And social media are driven by social activism for new and small non-profits. All you need is to understand the concept of branding and audience.