Media Forum: Is sponsorship losing its way?

Are creative standards falling when it comes to TV sponsorship, Alasdair Reid asks.

These are busy days in the TV sponsorship market and amid a flurry of deals announced in the past couple of weeks, there was news that Reckitt Benckiser has decided to continue its association with one of the biggest properties of the lot, Emmerdale.

The multimillion-pound deal for its Air Wick brand will involve TV sponsorship of the show on ITV1 and ITV2, plus online sponsorship, interactive and mobile bumpers, offscreen licencing and merchandise sponsorship.

It sounds like a hugely sophisticated deal - and its scope is indicative of a generally buoyant sponsorship market at a time when TV spot advertising remains unfashionable. There are those, however, who argue that such digital bells and whistles have become a distraction, liable to blind advertisers and agencies to a worrying underlying trend.

The cash may be rolling in, but aside from a few high-profile examples, your average sponsorship activity is, some say, deeply uninspired, with agencies knocking up lacklustre break-bumpers for advertisers who care little about the relationship with the programme they're allied to.

Are they right? Is this becoming a commodity market? Gary Knight, the director of brand partnerships at ITV Sales, clearly doesn't think so. It's true, he agrees, that UK TV sponsorship revenues have been up significantly year on year - and the market is easily more buoyant than spot advertising.

He says business is good because it works and advertisers have a greater understanding of how to do it well. Knight adds: "We have the case histories now, showing how sponsorship can be used to attract bottom-line sales in a short time period - and these are the sort of thing to make people sit up and take note. With the opportunities that new technology brings, sponsorship can act as the gatekeeper to the world beyond spot ads. It's the closest relationship you can have with a show without actually being in it - it's about connecting consumers. So you can use your understanding of that relationship to unlock other links with consumers."

However, Laurence Munday, the founding partner of PHD's content agency, Drum, has deeper concerns and argues that market buoyancy is no guarantee of quality. He comments: "It's true that sponsorship has become a more mainstream consideration and will be assessed these days on any serious communications plan. There isn't a major ad category that isn't involved these days. Revenue is more buoyant than the spot market and when the right property comes along there's always interest from major advertisers."

But he also feels that creativity has become an issue. "We've always believed sponsorship should be sympathetic and relevant to the programme. I'm not sure that all the agencies involved these days have a full enough understanding of how it should work."

Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, agrees advertisers should aim to put as much care into their sponsorship as they do with their spot advertising.

He adds: "I think TV sponsorship will actually begin to attract an added premium because of its proximity to programming - we're all aware of how difficult it is to keep people watching through the commercial break. I think viewers do feel favourably towards a brand because it has helped to bring them, say, their favourite drama. And from an advertiser point of view, just going through a process of looking at this is a great way of testing the personality of the brand. Just asking the question 'What sort of TV programme is the brand?' is a highly interesting exercise - and if you can't come up with a credible answer, then perhaps there's something wrong with the brand."

Chris Hayward, the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, argues that we're going to see more rather than less effort devoted to getting sponsorship creativity spot on. He concludes: "I think we're continuing to see renewed enthusiasm for it. The increasing penetration of personal video recorders has been refocusing advertisers on the need to hold the audience's attention. So that's pulled sponsorship higher up the agenda at a time when a relaxation of the rules has allowed longer credits and a greater creative freedom. There's always going to be some poor creative work, but my experience is that most clients work very hard to make sure that the environment is correct and that their sponsorship activity is both engaging and relevant."

NO - Gary Knight, brand partnerships director, ITV Sales

"Advertisers understand more about sponsorship than ever before. These days, major advertisers will issue a strategic brief and ask broadcasters if they have any programmes that might help them meet that brief."

YES - Laurence Munday, founding partner, Drum

"It's true that creativity has become an issue. A wider range of creative companies have now become involved in this area - and some of them don't have a full enough understanding of how sponsorship works."

MAYBE - Oliver Cleaver, European media director, Kimberly-Clark

"The question is whether sponsors put the same care into their idents as they put into their spot advertising. They certainly should. Everyone is aware of the likes of Stella, which has built whole communications strategies around sponsorship."

NO - Chris Hayward, head of investment, ZenithOptimedia

"It's important that you make the best of the opportunity and that there's no disparity between a brand's sponsorship and the rest of its messages. We're seeing a lot less of the cardboard 'in association with' credits than you used to see."

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