In the past few months, I’ve had a string of consulting jobs where I’ve been the second consultant hired in less than a year. Either the clients didn’t think they got the best advice or, upon implementation, they realised that the advice provided really wasn’t going to get them where they needed to go.
In every case, when they give me a copy of the strategic advice the former consultant provided, I immediately saw the problem: The consultant had either told them what they wanted to hear, or they had tailored their advice for maximum follow-on implementation revenues. My job ended up being about telling the sponsor what they really should have been told in the first place. Perhaps I should add “fixer” to my business card.
Looking back at this spate of jobs, there were some common themes for what the consultant really should have said, but didn’t. I anticipate I’m going to cop some grief for this, but here are the five things a lot of sponsorship consultants won’t tell you.
Most sponsors are spending more than they need to for leverage. They aren’t creative enough and, more importantly, don’t have the multi-departmental buy-in to get sponsorships leveraged across many already budgeted marketing activities. The best sponsors in the world spend the least amount on leverage – 10-25% of the rights fee, incrementally, for leverage. With few exceptions, that’s all it takes.
But why wouldn’t a sponsorship consultant tell you you’re overspending? Or even more common, advise you that you’re not spending enough? Because most sponsorship consultants make most of their money by implementing sponsorship leverage programs, not developing strategy for them, so it is in their best interest to recommend a strategy requiring heavy implementation and a big budget. If they show you how to be super-efficient with your money and internal resources, you will spend less money getting them to mount some bigger-than-Ben-Hur leverage program you don’t really need.
I fully understand that there are some sponsorships that do require those huge leverage programs, and commensurate budgets, but for most sponsors, this would be maybe one or two sponsorships every couple of years – often quadrennial-type events. And there are some ongoing sponsorships, particularly umbrella sponsorships, that will benefit from the development of some overarching marketing infrastructure that will provide a leverage platform over the course of years. Aside from those, spending up is generally not required.
For more on this, you might be interested in “How Much Should You Budget for Sponsorship Leverage“.
If your brand is in real trouble, sponsorship won’t fix it. If your new products are failing because they’re just not good or not right for the market, sponsorship won’t fix it. If pundits are predicting the demise of your company within 12 months, sponsorship won’t fix it. And it doesn’t matter how big the sponsorship is.
There is no question sponsorship is one of the most powerful of all marketing media. It has more personal relevance than any other marketing media besides maybe social media, but also provides the opportunity for a brand to connect with people through something they care about. That creates immense power. But in order to access that power, a brand has to have a critical mass of acceptability.
The brand could be new, in which case it’s an unknown, or a known brand, or a brand that is building up. But if it is a brand that is clearly functionally inferior to the competition, or is known to be on the verge of financial ruin, or has some other stench of failure around it, sponsorship won’t fix it. No marketing will. You need to get the basics of the brand and your company on the improve before sponsorship will have any impact.
I had a very memorable meeting a few years ago, when the MD of a company requested a meeting to discuss why I recommended exiting his pet sponsorship, on which the company was spending well into six-figures. He was on the front foot the moment I stepped into the office, demanding that I change my recommendation for the Executive Committee. My response was something along the lines of, “The sponsorship isn’t relevant to any of your target markets and isn’t a value or attribute match for any of your brands. It may be a great organisation, but it’s wrong for this company.” The guy started actually getting abusive in a how-dare-you sort of way, at which point I mentioned that his salary and bonuses have been well-reported in the newspaper, so if he wanted to personally support that organisation, he certainly had the means to do it, but that the brand marketing budget should not be used for his own personal slush fund.
If the bloke had one of those Dr Evil-style ejector chairs that emptied into a shark tank, I would have been a goner. But my recommendations were presented to, and accepted by, the Executive Committee.
I have lost track of the number of people who have contacted me wanting retroactive measurement of some major sponsorship. That isn’t ideal, but it is possible to get a pretty good picture, even if measurement wasn’t planned alongside leverage. Unfortunately, the conversation usually goes like this:
Me: What objectives were you trying to achieve?
Them: Awareness of the sponsorship.
(It must be said that investing in a sponsorship with the objective of getting awareness of the sponsorship falls into the category of weird, stupid circular logic and should be a huge red flag to anyone in the industry.)
Me (soldiering on): Okay, let’s say you got “high awareness” how does that change how people feel about your brand?
Them (puzzled): Oh, umm… it would make people more positive toward our brand and want to try it and buy it more.
Me: So, increasing preference and propensity to buy and positive attitudes toward your brand?
Me: Do you track those things on an ongoing basis? Or do you have reasonably recent research about those questions?
Me: Sorry, I can’t help you. You can’t measure changes in perceptions – or anything else – if you don’t have ambient numbers to know where you started.
Them: I just want a report on how much exposure we got for the senior execs.
Me: That’s measuring outputs. It has nothing to do with the outcomes for your brand.
Them: I don’t care.
Me: Well, there are lots of logo-counting companies who will charge you lots of money for a meaningless report. Maybe one of them could help.
Them: Can you recommend anyone?
Me: No. And I don’t recommend people shoot themselves in the foot, either.
Whether the real objectives are about perceptions changes, changes in the number of test drives or enquiries or brochure downloads, sales, loyalty, or whatever – they can all be measured, but only if you have benchmarks. This is why you plan measurement when you plan leverage, and this is why you do both with a cross-departmental team. Not only do you get buy-in, you also get access to their ability to measure and the benchmarks they already have.
For more on that, you might want to check out, “Sponsorship Measurement: How to Measure what’s Important“.
Sometimes, a sponsorship portfolio is so wrong – fragmented, legacy investments from a previous iteration of the brand, driven by personal preferences, or most common, driven by very old-school thinking (exposure, awareness) – that the only way forward is to start again from scratch.
If the person who hired you is new, they love hearing that, as you’ve just showed them the way to big, positive change under their watch. If, however, they’ve been there a while – implying that they’ve had a hand in those decisions – hearing this is likely to be an unpleasant blow.
Most consultants don’t want to do or say anything that in any way implies, “wow, you guys are idiots”, as that will impact on their ability to get extra work – particularly implementation work. So, most consultants try to improve what is already there – as my grandpa used to say, making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
There are absolutely ways to make the recommendations that need to be made, in that circumstance, with a minimum of collateral damage, but doing that requires as much experience and strategic expertise as formulating the strategy itself. Consultants who don’t know how to do it just avoid those recommendations altogether.
In reality, the blog title should probably read “most consultants won’t tell you”, because some consultants will tell you the truth, even if you and/or your MD won’t like it, and they’ll back up those recommendations with solid rationale. I’m in that group. So, if what you want is someone to tell you that everything you’re doing is fabulous – with a few tweaks and spending a lot more on leverage – don’t hire me! If, however, you really need the straight advice, be sure to tell whoever you hire – me or anyone else – that there are no sacred cows and you need and want to hear the unvarnished truth. Any good consultant will be glad to hear that, and will work with you to ensure your career trajectory is improved, not dented, by the process.
Another option is to get your hands on a copy of my new book, The Corporate Sponsorship Toolkit, which goes through the whole portfolio audit and sponsorship strategy development process. You may still decide you need a consultant, but you’ll definitely have a better handle on the difference between great strategy and phoning it in.
You may be interested in my latest white paper, “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“.
If you need additional assistance with your sponsorship portfolio, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer a comprehensive sponsorship capacity-building service for large and/or diverse organisations.
Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.