The Role of Partnerships in the IBM Transformation Story

The Role of Partnerships in the IBM Transformation Story

Chris leads all aspects of marketing for IBM across the US, Canada and Latin America, with direct responsibility for marketing-sourced revenue, demand generation and geography marketing professionals.

Chris sat down with podcast host Jim Andrews to put the role of sports and entertainment partnerships—from legacy sponsorships with US Open tennis, The Masters golf tournament and Wimbledon to newer relationships with ESPN Fantasy Football and others—in perspective for a global B2B tech giant.


He discusses the value of technology showcases, relationship building with today’s customer buying committees and the ability to follow the data to track impact and return on investment. Below are edited highlights of the conversation. 

Jim: I’d like to start with a couple of questions I typically pose to people in your position. The first is to ask you to describe your role at IBM, because while the responsibilities of a CMO are generally similar from company to company, I know from speaking with you earlier that your approach and what you do day-to-day is somewhat different. 

Chris: Every CMO role is different. We all support different businesses. We all have different stakeholders who we need to address and keep happy. Every CMO has a different approach, but we can all learn from each other, which is why having these kinds of things where we can share insights and learn from our peers is great. 

I’ll start with IBM—the environment and context in which I’m the CMO for IBM in the Americas. IBM has been around for 112 years. We are constantly transforming and changing. Right now is a super-exciting time to be part of IBM, because in the 18 years I have been here, the first 16 years the company struggled to grow at GDP. For the last two years, what we have seen as we transformed the business is we have become a high-growth software systems and consulting company. 

As a marketing professional, that’s a different vibe, different emotion from what most of our IBM marketers were used to for those first 16 years I was here and probably several years before that. 

My imperative as CMO of the Americas is to help the business deliver high single-digit revenue growth for the company across those services. To do that you need a mix of marketing communications tactics from top-to-bottom of the funnel that are tightly interlocked with your sales and business partner friends who are actually going to deliver the revenue. 

So we have a mix of tactics, from digital to paid to social, into events, into sponsorships. That whole mix has to come together to deliver an outcome for the business. That outcome is a shared outcome that we deliver with our sales and ecosystem partners. 

My role is to make sure we have the right demand-gen plan in place, make sure we are delivering high quality pipeline into the business, and make sure we have all the tactics in place so that the average seller can go out there and know they have a place to meet a customer, progress a deal and turn it into a win. 

Jim: The other “CMO question” is where do sports and entertainment partnerships fit in the marketing toolbox for IBM and what are the objectives that you are trying to achieve through them? I know that you spend a lot of time with customers and prospects on the client entertainment and hospitality side of things, so that is certainly part of the plan. 

Chris: I’m probably the most client-facing marketer we have at IBM. To do that you have to understand the technical capabilities of the products, understand the messaging, and be comfortable getting out into the market and talking to clients about their problems, their challenges and how technology can solve them.  

Bringing this into the realm of sports, you need to get at-bats! How do you get at-bats? You do it through experiential marketing and selling. Every CMO will tell you that you need a robust marketing mix across all the different types of tactics. A big part of that is experiences and events, frequently done through sponsorships, that give you the access and time with clients to talk with them about what’s important to them. 

I love spending time with customers, I love getting out into the field, I love bringing the IBM point of view to them but also listening to what their challenges are and then helping identify together what the product, offering, capability, solution, technology, process-change, people question that we can help them solve. 

Where am I going to get those at-bats? It’s the events we might own and run ourselves at IBM. It might be third-party events that we sponsor—whether it’s a sole sponsorship or a multi-vendor event—and then there is a whole realm of sponsorships and engagements where you are getting time with a client with a shared interest around something. That’s where sports and entertainment sponsorships come in.  

Jim: You mentioned the tremendous change and transformation that IBM has undergone, which makes it interesting that throughout all that change and re-invention, the company has maintained many of its largest partnerships for decades now—the US Open and Wimbledon in tennis, The Masters golf tournament, the Grammys, etc. I would think there might be a temptation to want to re-introduce the company through new partnerships, so I’m interested to hear how you’ve accomplished that with legacy sponsorships. 

Chris: In 2022, we absolutely had to reintroduce IBM to the world. We knew the capabilities we had, but the world was not familiar with the new IBM. It was striking how often we heard, “I don’t know what IBM does anymore.” We had to bring the story of the new IBM out into the market.  

So in January of last year, we launched a new brand campaign called “Let’s Create.” At IBM, we launch new brand campaigns every 10 to 15 years, so this was a big deal. It let us reintroduce IBM to the world with the new capabilities we have developed and built around software and consulting systems, told through the lens of co-creation with our clients—what we are doing with our clients to make the world work better. We established the mission of the IBMer, which is to be the catalyst that makes the world work better. 

When you think about how to reintroduce a brand in the context of some things staying the same while some things have to change, the sponsorships we have had—the US Open, 30 years of sponsorship and we just reupped last year for another five years with the USTA as a strategic partner; I think this is the 27th year of The Masters partnership; Wimbledon since 1990—I think if you asked a fan of any of those, they would say there is something timeless about the experience. But at the same time the fan experience has evolved significantly and been transformed for a digital era, frequently in partnership with IBM consulting and our technology groups. 

The point is, we will always be there. It’s timeless; for millennia we have had competition in our culture. At the same time, you have to transform, adapt and change. We have helped those organizations, hand-in-hand, co-creating different fan experiences so that The Masters of today is not The Masters my dad or my grandfather watched. The US Open has completely changed their fan experience over the years.  

Those kinds of sponsorships fit really well with the IBM narrative. The application of the technology to transform a business while keeping the heart of the business the same. 

Jim: Even though you have lots of clients and customers that you could use as “test-cases” for your services, I assume that nothing beats having such well known organizations like the US Open, Wimbledon, The Masters, etc. as a showcase for your technology. 

Chris: People don’t naturally equate running the US Open experience and all the technology and infrastructure that happens there to business. But we make that connection for them. It’s one of the main reasons we do the sponsorship. We take something accessible like the US Open and the tennis experience and then we talk to our clients there about what we are doing to support the US Open and how that would actually apply to their businesses. 

When you take them down into the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium and show them the IBM data center and the analytics that are getting fed out to ESPN and the USTA website, the lightbulb goes on. They get it. They understand now how it could work for them. 

For example, the USTA for 50 weeks of the year is your average small-to-medium size business that chugs along getting really steady state hits on the website, issues some press releases, etc. as it fulfills its mission to support tennis in the U.S. But then, for the US Open, they have a massive scalability challenge. For two weeks of the year, they are the center of the tennis—and some might say the sporting—universe. 

They go from having thousands of clicks per day on their website to millions. Those clicks are all to different aspects of information and parts of the fan experience: real-time analytics, video-intense content, etc. IBM technology, the IBM cloud, IBM AI, IBM security provides all of that infrastructure at massive scale that we turn on the Sunday before the Open starts and turn off on the Monday after it ends, scaling everything back down, providing elasticity and flexibility. 

There is no difference between that and a retailer on Black Friday. You have a massive influx of traffic. You need to scale up immediately and not lose any transactions while you are doing it. You need to show all the content you need to get a sale going. And you need to do that instantly, securely and with the right recommendation engine behind everything. 

When you make that connection at the Open with the retail client, they get it and they understand you can deliver that. That is immensely valuable to us here at IBM. It’s accessible because it’s sports. 

Jim: At the same time, IBM has introduced new partnerships, such as your relationship with ESPN fantasy football, and has gone beyond sports partnerships, so I’d love to hear about the strategy behind those moves. 

Chris: You have to change with the times. To stay relevant you have to add different things into the mix. Fantasy football is a great example. We partner with ESPN, the largest fantasy football platform available They have millions of players who are looking for help with trade and draft recommendations, week to week who’s going to boom, who’s going to bust. It’s a massive data integration and analytics challenge for ESPN.  

It is an amazing showcase for IBM and an obvious, natural partnership for us to have pursued. And it’s fun! You get the element of fun and cool analytics on massive data sets used by millions of people across the country. It shows how we can work with anybody on their particular business challenge and come up with an analytics and data-based solution. 

The world and the U.S. are diversifying. The mix of sports is always changing. We are seeing the rise of Formula 1 and soccer in the U.S. Football, basketball, hockey, etc. are not going anywhere, but new sports will come in and if we want to stay relevant we have to keep including these things. 

And we have to diversify beyond sports. We do a big partnership on Broadway, with sponsorships supporting Broadway programming. Not everybody wants to watch tennis, or golf, or football. We’re just on the start of bringing in those new experiences. We’ve been looking at culinary or cooking partnerships and there is a whole range of things that people are passionate about and interested in that are sponsorship opportunities. We just have to explore. 

What’s interesting about the B2B buyer is that there is no B2B buyer. There are B2B buyer committees. In the average B2B tech sale, the committee size of people who have some role in the purchase is 13. We have a whole range of people, personalities and roles that we need to engage with and address in order to build support for a technology buy. They all have different interests, they are different genders, they come from everywhere and in general are a very diverse group. It’s incumbent upon us to meet them where they are with the interests they have if we want to build relationships with them, rather than trying to impose our interests on them. 

There are some of those people who I’m never going to get to attend the US Open with me. But they may be interested in something else and as a good seller and marketer, I’m happy to go do that if that’s going to be what engages them. 

Jim: How does IBM determine how its partnerships are performing? Are you looking at return on objectives, or return on investment? There are so many components to a sale in the B2B tech space—multiple people on both sides, technology demonstration, relationship-building through hospitality and entertainment, etc.—is it possible to isolate the impact that sponsorship has? 

Chris: Most CMOs would say that marketing metrics and measurement is a mix of art and science. We are accountable to the business for certain results and we need to meet objectives.  

Those objectives are usually in the form of pipeline of opportunities and deals, and ultimately how many of those deals ended up as closed “win revenue”—new wins for the company. 

It will not shock anybody that we very rigorously track and measure all of that here at IBM. We have figured out ways to measure sponsorship based on the attendee who participated in a sponsored event—their company, their role, etc.—we track these things in what we call marketing-contributed revenue. There is a lot of activity that goes into opening an opportunity and closing it. A lot of it happens by the seller, the business partner, working the relationship, getting the right proposal with the right pricing with the right buyer committee behind it. Marketing has a part to play in that. I’m never going to be the one that says marketing generated that opportunity for you, because there’s a lot that goes into it. 

We track this stuff so that we can show that when we get a decision-maker to the US Open and into the IBM suite where we spend three to four hours watching tennis, showcasing the IBM technology, putting them on the IBM tech tour of Arthur Ashe Stadium, etc., we can connect that person with a deal sitting in Salesforce and track how that deal progressed and ultimately closed. 

That’s the nuts and bolts of it and I have to be able to show that for every sponsorship activity that we do. At the same time, there is umbrella awareness that you need to build so that they even know who IBM is and what we do, to my point earlier about reintroducing IBM. You get a level of that awareness and consideration bump by doing sponsorships. We track that as well. You can’t track it at an individual or account basis, but overall. Every year, we see a spike in awareness and consideration of IBM solutions around Masters in the spring, Wimbledon in the early summer, US Open in the late summer, and then the NFL advertising we do.  

Jim: Before I let you go, Chris, I’d like to make sure the viewers and listeners have an understanding of the structure that supports sports and entertainment partnerships at IBM. Can you tell us a little about the team that oversees global partnerships on the corporate level, and what they’re responsible for, and are there local sponsorships as well and where do they come from? 

Chris: We engage in sports sponsorships and partnerships at all levels. At the highest level are the corporate sponsorships that we have been talking about. That’s a corporate headquarters team run by Noah Syken. He’s amazing, been doing it for years and is the best in the business. 

For those sponsorships, we are looking for a great brand name and, more importantly, a technology relationship we can develop. It’s a two-way street: How can we engage with you as an organization and a business so that you leverage and use IBM technologies and consulting services to do something unique that we can showcase with our other clients so that they can see accessible examples. 

Noah and team are always kicking the tires on new sponsorships because in this technology-driven, digitally transformed world, everybody has something that they can get done. It’s just a question of fit. 

Underneath Noah, in the Americas, my goal is to get at-bats for my sellers and my field marketing team and my business partners with clients and meet them where they are. Clients live and operate in local communities. Those communities have local organizations that people are passionate about. Some are sports teams, but there are other parts of the community that people are passionate about, like Broadway in New York. We have all sorts of relationships. We have season tickets with sports teams across the country. In the U.S., we have a partnership with the PGA for access to golf tournaments across the country. We have the Broadway sponsorship, which includes touring Broadway shows. Every year we run an NFL suites program, so that my sellers can invite customers to watch some football and hear about IBM technology and what we are doing. 

There is also ad hoc stuff that comes up all the time. That is managed at the Americas level through me and my team. And then we also have Canada and Latin America. We have a big partnership with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in Toronto, so there is local variability in each of the countries. 

One thing you didn’t ask me is where we are going. And I will add, because it builds on return on investment, is that we’re looking at how we show return and keep track of things at the individual ticket level, so we are kicking off something with TicketManager, and I’m excited to see where we can take it and show the business the return on investment from an individual ticket or the season tickets that we’ve got. 

We’re always in the business of trying to get more efficient with any of our investments, with any of the process of getting this stuff into the hands of sellers so they can engage with their clients, so we’re looking at that as a pretty good tool for us in the Americas, so it’s exciting times!

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