When people think about the relationship between media owners and advertisers, and how this has evolved down the decades, they assume that this is a marriage based on mutual suspicion. Arguably, this goes right back to the Victorian era, when newspapers were sensitive to accusations that their editorial integrity could be bought by commercial or political interests. That’s how the media owner notion of “church and state” was born – structures to keep advertisers and their commercial ideas well away from high-minded content creators.
The situation was even starker in the British broadcasting sector, monopolised as it was up until the mid-1950s by a licence-fee-funded BBC. Decades after the launch of ITV, there was still a notion that advertiser money would inevitably undermine the credibility of the entire broadcasting ecosystem. Remember the fuss when TV sponsorship was first allowed? Or the near-hysteria we witnessed when product placement rules were first relaxed?
It’s interesting how often you come up against the residual pull of these notions when you talk to people about media partnerships – the notion that advertisers, agencies and media owners can work together to develop mutually beneficial initiatives. Maybe this is understandable. Because there’s another important – and perhaps more enduring – source for scepticism. In the late 1980s, with the launch of big media buying conglomerates, commentators started reaching for conflict analogies: this was surely an arms race, a Cold War between emergent "super powers."
Again, you can argue that the world has moved on. Long gone, surely, are the days when media initiatives were assessed almost solely for their potential to deliver an ego-satisfying discount against ITV station average price. And yet, it’s also true that if you staff your media agency with hard-nosed negotiators, you’re only going to pursue certain outcomes. Vestiges of conflict-mindset still permeate deep within our industry.
So, here’s the headline question: How can genuine advertiser-media partnerships possibly exist in such an environment? Well, they do. The very existence of Electric Glue is proof of that. And we believe we’re likely to see greater numbers of advertisers – particularly those focused on brand-building – pursuing partnership opportunities.
"Sacrifice" – committing to fewer, bigger, better media partnerships
The biggest driver of change, we would argue, is the way in which the media marketplace has exploded over the last decade, not just in terms of size, but in terms of complexity too. This is a marketplace in which £2bn is spent every month in the UK alone. How on earth do you stand out within that level of activity? Where do you place your bets on a virtual roulette table with 38,000 numbers rather than 38? The answer, of course, is that you concentrate your focus. We call this "Sacrifice" – a conscious commitment to fewer, bigger, better moving parts. When you simplify, when you reduce complexity, you thin out the trees to leave only the important things that can grow and flourish in the daylight. When you commit to fewer players on a clear shared-reward basis, all sides are vested in the success of the venture – and you can, for instance, extend your relationship with a programming entity beyond simplistic spot-and-sponsorship packages.
Case study: Yeo Valley and ITV
So, what’s the blueprint? Well, clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all template. But maybe it’s worth knowing that we set up Electric Glue following the success of our work a while back for a fabulous organic dairy farmer from Blagdon in Somerset. This was a client brave enough to take on giant European competitors – but having a roster of many different types of agencies would have been too clunky and expensive. The story goes like this. Tim, the business owner, wanted to drive awareness of Yeo in a fiercely competitive category where people couldn’t even pronounce the brand name correctly. And, as with most business owners on a finite budget, he quickly worked out that this budget would be stretched to breaking point if he hired the multitude of agencies he was being told he needed.
And so he hired one, BBH, and asked them to solve this conundrum. BHH creative guru Rosie Arnold devised an idea to bring together the provenance of the farm and its output through the notion of "Live in Harmony," expressed in the form of a two-minute music video. But where should it live? There was one show that offered the best contextual resonance, the biggest audience, a show that united families every Saturday evening. The X Factor. Between Kevin Brown (then BBH) and myself (then ITV) we worked on how we could tie the brand idea to the ecosystem of X Factor, unencumbered by historical trading deal structures.
The exclusive nature of the partnership provided the credence to “do something different” at a scale that had not been attempted before and yet still delivered the key business KPIs. And so, an idea was born. Dominate the first break of every live show, live in the social footprint, license the show on pack and much more. The audience loved it and couldn’t care less about how much a break cost; they loved the song, the dancing tractors and the body-popping owl. They loved the brand as a consequence, and the partnership delivered an ROI of 13:1.
It was a first of sorts. And, of course, there’s an international dimension to this too. The US marketplace has long been more relaxed (certainly compared to the UK and continental Europe) about sponsorship deals. And in many Latin American markets, advertiser-funded programming producers have been active since the 1990s, so there are lots of examples of multi-layered tie-ups.
Our focus is, unapologetically, on the UK market, home also to our work for Matalan – and a partnership with ITV and a stable of fashion magazines owned at that time by Time Inc. We helped create a chat show that was promoted across the ecosystems of the client and of both media partners. Not only did it shift awareness and positive sentiment while stimulating a revival in footfall to store, it led to e-commerce revenues doubling in the first year. Other partnerships, ones that have been innovative and smart, great strategically, effectual over the long term and fully deserving of a shout-out, are initiatives courtesy of O2, ComparetheMarket and Sky.
Our mention of O2 in this context may surprise many. However, it illustrated an important principle – think laterally, and you’ll discover the richness that can be derived from the right sort of sponsorship. O2, of course, famously bought the naming rights to the Millennium Dome from Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2007. Some suggested at the time that it was buying a White Elephant… but the tie-up inspired a hugely successful (and unique at the time) O2 Priorities programme in the UK and abroad. O2 is now synonymous with music that resonates with a key young audience. So … a success? Well, in 2017, O2 extended the deal for a further 10 years.
Another is everyone’s favourite Meerkat and his associationwith the UK’s favourite show, Coronation Street. This was a brave move. Would it be possible to use this to grow the brand without diminishing the show itself? Well, it actually became a showstopper… and Aleksandr danced down the cobbles for a memorable nine years.
Finally, Sky, and an ingenious partnership with Virgin Radio that helped to facilitate the return to the breakfast airwaves of Chris Evans. This brilliant media sponsorship came with one caveat – there was no media inventory on the table. So, it became a commercial radio show with no ad breaks, creating a similar feel to the show Evans previously presented on Radio 2. Of course, there were numerous Sky promotions throughout the three and a half hours but as a seamless presenter narrative rather than regular intrusions by jingles and hastily read terms and conditions on behalf of brands. It has also spawned a number of innovative cross promotions between the partners, driving both listeners to one and new subscribers to the other. True to their word, Sky really did "Believe in Better" ways to create an enduring partnership, one that is still rocking it today.
So... Adopt the right mindset
Simples (to borrow from the meerkat lexicon)? Well, hardly.The difficult bit, from an agency and client perspective, is adopting the rightmindset. The key here is belief. Belief that partnership deals are the future.
Belief in their potential power.
What these deals need is an understanding of compromise and a feel for the need to make sacrifices. And there has to be a clear focus on success through belief in the ability of the participants to deliver collectively – a circle of trust.
Don’t settle for becoming just another customer, supplier, buyer or seller. Become a partner. Act differently with media owners and they will act differently with you. They will let the creative work fly unencumbered by traditional rules of engagement.
They will open up their whole comms ecosystems across which now behave as multi-media, top-to-bottom marketing machines to keep bringing customers to their content and to create unique opportunities for advertisers. They will open up their own resources and expertise across the partnership process. The potential rewards, as a consequence, are greater – and there’s every chance you’ll go from knowing the price of something to the value of everything. And that, in anyone’s terms, is how you steal a march on your competitors.
This article first appeared as a Warc Exclusive in October 2021.