8 Traits of a Great Corporate Sponsorship Manager

8 Traits of a Great Corporate Sponsorship Manager

I’m often asked by clients to assist in writing the job description for hiring and managing sponsorship staff. What I come up with is invariably different than they thought it would be, with less emphasis on experience and more on their intrinsic traits.

Let’s face it, corporate sponsorship is an unusual job, and if you’re thinking of hiring or promoting someone into a sponsorship role, you’re going to want someone with a somewhat unusual set of traits. Creating some kind of checklist that requires a certain level or type of university degree, X years of “relevant experience”, and so forth doesn’t actually tell you anything about their ability to do a good job at sponsorship in your company.

In fact, some of the most woeful sponsorship professionals in this industry have been at it the longest. I’m not bagging anyone who has been in this industry a while – I’m certainly in that group – but sponsorship is ever-evolving, so having twenty-odd years of experience isn’t helpful if that person is still using skills that were current in 1998.

It’s also tempting to think that “recent MBA” who would give their eye teeth for a sports business role and will work cheap (oh, and there are so many of those), is a good prospect. Maybe, and maybe not. If their understanding of sponsorship is limited to a week or two-long module as a subset of a public relations class – which absolutely still happens – hiring that recent MBA may be creating a rod for your own back.

The deciding factors for whether you get someone mediocre or great isn’t around their years of experience or what fancy degree they have, it’s around the way they think and manage and negotiate. You may find the right mix in someone with decades of experience, or in a fresh-faced 23-year old with an expensive degree. It could be that amazing partner that always goes the extra mile, or they may already be on staff. Or it could be someone with only a few of the standard, experience and education boxes ticked, but with all of the right attributes to be outstanding.

This blog is about those critical factors that go into a great sponsorship manager, or a great brand manager that will be looking after a substantial sponsorship portfolio. These are the traits you look for, and identifying them should form the crux of your search and interview approach.

Natural leader

Think of hiring a sponsorship pro less like hiring a pilot and more like hiring an air traffic controller.

Sponsorship leverage can take many forms, but one critical factor is leveraging across at least several of your existing marketing channels, adding power and relevance to already budgeted activities. This requires a LOT of internal buy-in from multiple departments – departments that may have vastly different agendas, cultures, and don’t answer directly to anyone in the sponsorship team.

Think of hiring a sponsorship pro less like hiring a pilot and more like hiring an air traffic controller.

Making this work requires someone who is a natural leader. You need someone with the ability to create a vision for how sponsorship can work for those stakeholders, and to assist those stakeholders in developing tangible, measurable leverage strategies. (Bonus points for making those stakeholders believe they’re all their ideas.) You need someone that those stakeholders will look to as a resource, who understands their needs and is on their side, not someone who’s just trying to get them to do something they don’t really believe in.

This is partly about charisma, but that’s only part of the equation. It’s about being able to effectively manage a huge assortment of people that they don’t really manage, and you should look hard for someone with a track record of doing this.

Balanced analytical and creative thinker

More than any other job I’ve ever come across, sponsorship requires a lot of strength in both analytical and creative thinking. A corporate sponsorship pro has to be completely comfortable poring over and parsing research and market segmentation, sales and social media reports, and so much more, drawing connections, and identifying opportunities and gaps. A corporate sponsorship pro also has to have some very serious creative chops.

In very basic terms, analysis is critical to defining all the raw ingredients you have to make your sponsorships work. Creativity is translating those raw ingredients into something that is meaningful and compelling to your target markets, and achieves your brand objectives – leveraging the sponsorship.

If you really only have one person overseeing your sponsorship program, this is not negotiable and you should search high and low until you find this specific trait. Don’t settle. You’ll doom your portfolio.

If you’re looking for one person among a larger team, this is still the ideal, but somewhat less critical. You will have to ensure that the overall team represents a strong balance between analysis and creativity AND that the team routinely works together on the biggest components successful sponsorship: Leverage and measurement.

Strong understanding of all key marketing functions

Specific sponsorship expertise is all well and good, but part of being able to evoke stakeholder buy-in and develop leverage plans that run across marketing functions is about understanding those functions. The sponsorship role doesn’t need to have granular expertise in every single aspect of marketing, but a good, working understanding will go a very long way.

Look at your key marketing functions – external, internal (staff), and intermediary (retailers, dealers, brokers, etc) – and do your best to find someone with at least a working expertise across many of them. If you’re strongly social media-oriented, you need someone who has done more than posting selfies on their own accounts. If retail promotions are a key platform, you need someone with an understanding of what’s involved. You may need someone with knowledge of institutional sales or big data or franchise management or VIP relationship building or so much more. It is absolutely possible to get someone up to speed on any areas they’re missing, and embedding a new hire in other teams for a few days can be effective, but best case scenario will be that your new sponsorship hire will understand a lot of this already.

Good negotiator

Being a “good” negotiator doesn’t mean “tough”. Sponsorship is not an endeavour that benefits from adversarial negotiations or being a badarse right out of the gate.

By “good”, I don’t mean “tough”. Sponsorship is not an endeavour that benefits from adversarial negotiations or being a badarse right out of the gate. That’s not to say that there aren’t situations that require some badarsery – and a manager should be able to bust that out, if required – but it shouldn’t be the default position.

It’s not about how much can we get – no matter whether all of that is really needed or not – for how little money. A great sponsorship is really a collaboration between sponsor and sponsee, and that collaboration needs to start during negotiations. You want someone who will ask what a sponsee is trying to accomplish with their marketing plan, and try to offer benefits that will extend that plan. And you want someone who will negotiate for exactly the benefits required, not pad out the benefits list just because they get off on putting the screws to someone who is (often) desperate for cash.

Your new hire also needs to understand that fans are the silent party to every sponsorship negotiation, and negotiating for benefits that diminish the fan experience – just because you can get them – is a really bad idea.

Politically astute

People care about sponsorship – that’s why it’s such a powerful marketing medium – and that includes people within your company. Everybody’s an expert. They’ve been to lots of sporting events – they’ve seen the signage!

The problem with that is that lots of people who need to be on board with doing sponsorship well don’t really know what “doing sponsorship well” means. Getting all of this internal buy-in, and particularly managing senior executive expectations, does require some political nous.

A question I often recommend my clients ask of potential new hires is this:

“Suppose you get an email from the CEO with a sponsorship proposal for the ballet attached and a directive that he wants this seriously considered, with the clear subtext being that he wants this done. The ballet is great, but you know ballet isn’t a match for any of our target markets, and it’s quite a substantial amount of money. How do you handle it?”

(Note: This doesn’t actually happen all that much anymore, but asking a question like this during the interview process should be very telling.)

Respects the end-game

The end-game for sponsorship is the same as the end-game for any other marketing activity: To achieve measurable marketing objectives. Each of those objectives should be defined as:

  • Changing target market behaviours (eg, increase trial, loyalty, advocacy, share-of-wallet, preference, etc)
  • Changing target market perceptions (eg, increase trust, alignment to the brand, understanding of brand attributes and unique selling points, understanding of the meaning and benefit of the brand in their lives, etc)
  • Demonstrating alignment with the target market

If you ask a potential new hire why they think your company sponsors, or what does sponsorship deliver for a brand, and their answer has to do with mechanisms, not changing perceptions and behaviours, that should be a big red flag.

It’s not about getting social media likes. It’s not about collecting market data. It’s not about exposure. It’s not about good corporate citizenship or front-of-mind awareness or the “halo effect”. Some are mechanisms. Some are euphemisms. None are marketing objectives.

What you’re looking for is some indication that the potential new hire understands and respects the real end-game, because if they don’t, they’ll focus on the mechanisms, whether they have any connection to measurable objectives or not.

Passion for sponsorship

Passion for the community is easy. So is passion for sports and events. A lot of people get into this industry because they love the things we sponsor, and these are the sponsorship professionals who live for all of the free tickets and perks, but phone it in when it comes to getting the sponsorship strategy right. Fewer, unfortunately, love the actual medium of sponsorship.

What you are looking for is someone who loves the challenge of making sponsorship work for both the brand and the fans. You want someone who lights up when they talk about the best sponsorship they’ve ever seen, or who seems genuinely disappointed when they talk about a sponsorship they believe didn’t work.

Understands best practice sponsorship

Last and, to an extent, least, a corporate sponsorship manager should understand what best practice sponsorship is all about. Why is this the least important thing on this list? Because if a corporate sponsorship manager has all of the other traits, these skills can be taught.

In a perfect world, you’ll find someone with every one of these traits, including a great understanding of best practice sponsorship. If not, I’ve had many clients over the years who have hired me to build the organisational capacity for sponsorship, as well as supporting the development of a strong, strategic, best-practice approach in their frontline sponsorship management. This usually involves a combination of training and coaching.

If you’ve got a candidate with the right raw materials, as well as some budget for talent development, bringing in some support of this kind is a great idea. Failing that, get them into a really high-quality, proven sponsorship workshop. If that’s not feasible either, you could do worse than to give them a copy of The Corporate Sponsorship Toolkit and a day or two to read it.

The upshot

No other marketing job requires the breadth and depth of cross-departmental understanding, co-operation, and management that a best practice sponsorship manager does. For all of the reasons outlined above, great sponsorship managers (or brand managers with a big sponsorship portfolio) evolve into great CMOs. So when you’re hiring, think about it like you’re hiring a CMO-in-training, and you’re likely to take the kind of broad, balanced, scopey approach that will serve your brand well.

Need more assistance?

You may be interested in my white papers,  “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux” and “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“. I’ve also got self-paced, online sponsorship training courses for both sponsors and rightsholders. Get the details and links to course outlines and reviews here.

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 Systems Design service for large, diverse, and decentralised organisations.

Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. To enquire about republishing or distribution, please see the blog and white paper reprints page.

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