Year-End Highlights from the All Access Interview Series Podcast

Year-End Highlights from the All Access Interview Series Podcast

As we conclude Year 3 of the podcast and before 2024 gets fully underway, it’s a great time to look back and recall some of the ideas and insights shared by our podcast guests over the past 12 months.

We had so many fantastic industry leaders visit with us in 2023, that it was difficult to choose just a few to highlight. And that’s a great reminder that if you missed any episodes, go back and take a listen to any and all of our guests representing brands, properties, agencies and service providers. 

First up, we have three guests who all offered their unique takes on the relationship between brands and their property partners, including what rights holders can offer current partners when it comes to executing and activating a partnership; how sellers shouldn’t look at brands as underwriters, and what to do (and not to do) when approaching a prospective sponsor for the first time. 


Luke Drake, Vice President of Commercial Partnerships, Qatar Airways: It can be challenging to navigate a big corporation such as ours, to execute small and large programs at pace around the world in multiple venues often happening at the same time. So there is a very important role to play for rights holders. To be able to step up and provide solutions to help brands activate, especially when they have large portfolios like we do.  

Some of the partners we work with are exceptionally good at that. We work with activation resourcing and funds in sponsorships we negotiate, in terms of the commercial deal itself, because it gives us the flexibility to turn on certain events or activities with the clubs or federations at pace, with a light lift. We will be working on one big project, but there are other projects that need to keep moving as well.  

Working with great agency partners, which we have onboarded recently in order to be more execution agile, and also working with rights holders on smart solutions that are quick to deploy is super important for a big corporation like us with a large portfolio. 

Joey Graziano, Senior Vice President and Head of Global Event Strategy & Development for the NBA: One of the things I have always found challenging in the partnership world, and one of the hard parts of the job for my colleagues in Partnerships, is the idea of “Do you have a partner for me, because I can’t do this if not.”  

I’ve never believed that’s the way the relationship should work. The way my team works is that we want to build a standalone profitable business. When we do the financial modeling, I don’t want to include sponsorship. That should not be required for us to get the idea across. I want to show the business’s unique value and trust in my Partnerships colleagues that in time the business will find its right corporate partner who will be able to amplify that business. That may mean waiting until year two or three of the business. 

Garth Knutson, Chief Marketing Officer, Aflac: Lots of times when people are reaching out to try to start a conversation—whether it’s about a partnership or technology or a media buy—they will ask for some of my time so that I can tell them what they can do for me.  

Do your homework. If it’s a publicly traded company, spend 45 minutes listening to their more recent earning report. You can learn a lot from that and you can understand not only what may be on the minds of the marketing people you are talking to, but what’s on the mind of their COO or CEO or their board. That is gold.  

If you listen to that, you will discover things that your company, property, technology or whatever can do to help solve some of those problems. That’s where I would start. And then come with ideas, don’t come with asks, because time is our most precious commodity. 

Next, we hear from three guests who raised some provocative questions regarding the challenges facing sports and entertainment marketers. 

Coca-Cola’s Brad Ross discusses the optimal length of partnership contracts, Paragon’s Tony Schiller describes changes internally at brands and the impact on sponsorship, and the University of Oregon’s Bettina Cornwell cites research that shows authenticity is the key in connecting with fans and consumers. 

Brad Ross, Vice President of Global Sports & Entertainment Marketing and Partnerships, The Coca-Cola Company: Some of our contracts are long-term partnerships. They give you good perspective from a relationship point of view and help you drive better value in terms of the long-term negotiation and the construct behind that. At the same time, you have to ask yourselves, is it flexible enough to allow for changes that come up? That’s the paradox you have to deal with. What is the ideal lifespan of a partnership or a contract?  

The traditional school of thought is the longer the better. You negotiate a long-term deal, you get a better price, better rights, you don’t have to go through contract negotiations every year, etc. All of those points are valid.  

But fast forward two years in, and a new industry player emerges—or your own business strategies change—how do you adjust? So what I would like to see from our rightsholders is the ability to meet us halfway and be as flexible as possible when either we start to change course or the industry starts to course correct. How do we maintain our long-term partnership and relationship but move away from the letter of the contract to find a win-win in this new space? 

Some partners get that and are very open to it. Some are fantastic in terms of saying, “We understand the landscape is changing. We need to adjust ourselves. Let’s figure this out. You had XYZ. Now we are going to give you ABC.” You have that conversation and you figure it out together.  

Some are a bit more jaded in their thinking. You just have to deal with that, help educate them and bring them along.  

The flip side would be getting into one-year deals. That might not help you in the long term. Can you build a sustainable long-term partnership and relationship that way?  

So what is that perfect lifespan? I don’t know if I have the answer, but it’s more about the intent and the relationship that you build. That is critical today. You will be governed by the contract. That’s table stakes. It’s the relationship and how you map it out that is important.  

That’s where having an account team on the partner side that understands your business, that knows what your objectives are, that’s not just trying to push a sales approach but wants to help you, is where the partnership is one plus one equals three. At the same time, there is a burden on the company. We have to do our very best to make sure our partners know what our focus is, what we are trying to achieve, and how we need their help to unlock the value that we know can be there.  

It’s a bit of a dance. But that is the beauty of the space we operate in. If we borrow equity from a partner that knows how to connect with its tribe in a way that is authentic and real, how can we support that, be part of that and learn and listen to them? Hubris aside, arrogance aside, we need to listen to and learn from our partners because some of them know our consumers better than we do. That’s the role that partnerships play for us in certain cases. 

Tony Schiller, Co-Founder, Paragon Marketing Group: The CMO has so many people coming at him or her with so many opportunities, ideas, challenges and needs, how do you coalesce all of that with a strategic focus?  

That’s something we see a lot. We have a great opportunity and we have buy-in, but our clients need to secure buy-in from the CMO and it may take days, weeks or months to get on the calendar. The velocity of what’s happening at any given time is wild.  

What’s exciting—and a new evolution in our space—is that there used to be a sponsorship person and a person or two in marketing that understood the potential power and impact of sponsorship. Now people in sales, digital, social, PR, experiential, and community all understand the power of sponsorship. Consequently, they are all dabbling in sponsorship. Sometimes that is a tremendous accelerant to making things happen, but sometimes it can be a challenge, because people step out of their boxes and they may not have the purview or the resources or the understanding of what they are potentially unleashing!  

There are a lot of people at many companies who want to be involved in sponsorship. That can be a great assist, but sometimes it can be a bit of a harness to getting things done. 

Bettina Cornwell, Head of the Department of Marketing, and the Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Marketing at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon: What people want is a genuine relationship. They don’t want advertising stuck on that doesn’t have any relationship to the team or event. They want to know how you have this relationship, what is the history, what is the meaning that you share. 

Authenticity will change over time. In general, insurance companies don’t really match or fit with sports properties, but when they have been working with a group for so long, they become part of the ecosystem. And if they communicate about their shared values and about the history of the partners working together, they can develop authenticity. 

How brands evaluate partnership performance is an evergreen topic on the podcast, as well as throughout the industry, and next we have two companies—one B2C and one B2B—that have long been at the forefront of sponsorship measurement. 

Brad Ross, Vice President of Global Sports & Entertainment Marketing and Partnerships, The Coca-Cola Company: What we have tried to do is build an evaluation framework that is consistent. Is it perfect? Is it 100 percent accurate? I don’t know, but it’s as close to it as possible right now. What it does do for us, is it allows us to compare apples to apples. Within our portfolio, we are able to see what partnership X and partnership Y each drove based on metrics or objectives that we set out. So we are able to get a tangible, comparable data set that shows you what each did.  

The objectives are important. In some cases we are looking at building a partnership that is going to come to life to really drive weekly plus (week over week comparable sales), the immediate consumption of our products. That’s one objective. How that comes to life might be different from a partnership that we can leverage for our customer partners, or one that we can use for stakeholder engagement/company reputation.  

Each of those have a slightly different outlook in terms of what the methodology could be. We are happy that we have landed on a set of methods that don’t only look in isolation at the partnership but look to see how it drives the business. It’s integrated into our broader business measurement and metric system, so we are able to see that this partnership, this asset, this sponsorship drove XYZ for our business. We’re not coming as the sponsorship asset team, or the sports and entertainment team and saying, “Look what we did.” Integrating it into business results drives more credibility for our space, it drives more credibility for showcasing the results and the value this area brings, and it shows more integration into really leveraging the power of partnerships and sponsorships to drive the business forward versus something on the fringe that’s nice to have. 

Chris Bontempo, Chief Marketing Officer, IBM Americas: 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. You see these bumps and spikes in awareness and consideration. 

Finally, in our last segment, three of our guests offer insights into what’s next for sports and entertainment marketers, from innovations in events, to digital content, to influencer marketing. 

Joey Graziano, Senior Vice President and Head of Global Event Strategy & Development for the NBA: We don’t want to deliver traditional hospitality, a ticket and a hotel. People have done that for years. Instead, we want to offer the types of moments that allow you to express your fandom in a unique way tied to that event. For example, one of the experiences that we offer at the NBA All-Star Game is for fans to serve as stand-ins during rehearsals. So you have fans pretending to be LeBron James as the pyro goes off, etc. That’s an important time for our production team. They need to do that testing anyway. Allowing those fans a peek behind the curtain is a moment that while it’s connected to a ticket and meet-and-greets and on-court access, is the special moment that makes the experience unique. We’re offering that across our entire marquee event landscape because we see it as a seminal moment to connect with our most important and valuable fans around the world.  

Our fans crave access and insight. I look through those two lenses and ask, “Does the experience we are building offer those two things?” If it doesn’t, it may not be the right thing. We want to make sure we are giving our fans the opportunity to see and hear from, talk to, live through moments that they could not have gotten otherwise. That’s the bar and it’s so much higher because it needs to get someone off that couch in this new world. Those lenses require more creative vision moving forward.  

Michael Schreiber, Founder & CEO of Playfly Sports: The biggest category for a sports team is content. Not just thinking like a media company, but actually producing content and delivering it in interesting ways. There are a significant number of teams producing social media content and delivering it to their fans. But you can take these content experiences even further. To the point where you can create full-length documentaries, whether its historical stories, or current stories about players and how they are getting prepared leading up to the playoffs, etc., there are a bunch of story arcs that can be used to create more content.  

You can take that further and take all the great content that has been produced in the last year, whether for social media or other platforms, and build a linear experience, a 24/7 experience for that content provider. You can go a step further than that and create subscription offerings, where you make a significant amount of behind-the-scenes content available to your superfans.  

Ishveen Jolly, CEO of OpenSponsorship: We are seeing many new types of brands come into the influencer marketing space, including sports properties. We recently worked with the Premier League when they came to the U.S. and were looking to boost ticket sales in some markets. We helped them connect with a couple of NFL players for videos promoting ticket sales for matches at their home stadiums. We recently spoke to the NFL about their influencer program. At the conference you and I were at in Chicago, I spoke to one of the local teams about their influencer program. We work with LIV Golf as well.  

It makes sense. All of these organizations have a marketing budget. For us it’s a case of our supply has become our demand, which is kind of fun.  

The second trend is the massive demand for strong content. It’s great for someone to have a lot of followers but if your social content isn’t good, you never create video and you don’t post regularly, you are not going to get brand deals.  

That’s definitely a challenge for us, but also an opportunity. We can surface, for example, out of the 1,800 players in the NFL who are the top 20 who post regularly and get great views on their Reels. It’s interesting because it’s moving brands away from the idea that they have to work with the quarterback and toward working with the best content creator. 

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