The IEG sponsorship conference held in Chicago this past March 26 to 29 remains the biggest event of its kind, bringing together over a thousand sponsorship professionals from all over North America, plus South America and Europe. This 34th “Pivot” edition was classic IEG, with its tried and true formula. In general, I feel that the audience is getting more property and non-profit heavy than when I started attending in the early 2010s, but the content from keynote speakers was very diverse and, in my opinion, better than 2016. “Pivot”, the topic of the conference, was about rethinking the concept of audience, requiring more from partners and redefining what is sponsorable.
Three Sponsorship Trends from IEG
Definitely a trending topic this year, cause sponsorships are especially topical given the current political climate. The subject was beautifully covered by Afdhel Aziz, author of Good Is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn. This was definitely one of the most compelling presentations.
A seasoned marketer, Aziz went through a professional crisis about the meaningfulness of a job whose ultimate goal was to drive sales through advertising. This led to some deep introspection, the writing of a book and the development of a principle called the new fifth ‘P’ in Marketing. The letter represents Purpose: why do we exist as a company and what problems are we trying to solve in people’s lives? The topic is relevant to sponsorship because brands often need to pair up with a star or a non-profit to get their message across and put change in motion.
Aziz gave a number of examples of brands that have done well by doing good, like Toms shoes and Patagonia, backed up by data to support their successes, and case studies of brands partnering with such star activists as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and LeBron James. He explained that social activism is a strong driver of brand strength, which is especially true for Generations Y and Z. For example, some 64% of them won’t take a job for a company that doesn’t have a strong corporate social responsibility component, and 85% of Gen Z believe companies have an obligation to help solve social problems.
The gaming industry is already four decades old, and a second generation of players is entering the market. There are still plenty of stereotypes about who gamers are—and I must admit I did have a specific type in mind. This is far from the truth, however, explained Nathan Lindberg, Director of Global Esports Sponsorships at Twitch, as today’s gamers are not only fit but also more diverse than you’ll find in traditional sports—and 25% are female.
Twitch, which was bought by Amazon in 2013, is reaching audiences on a massive scale: with 100 million unique worldwide viewers in a year and 10 million users logging onto the platform daily. What is Twitch? It’s basically a social platform on which you can watch other players in real time, or browse videos (like the YouTube platform).
This is a social network with a very defined demographic: the audience is young. Plus, both the creator, playing in real time for hours, and the viewer enjoy a truly unique relationship which, believe it or not, is unfiltered and very authentic. Furthermore, according to the research presented, gamers are more receptive to sponsorship than the general population.
According to Lindberg, this group has a particularly sensitive “bullshit detector.” They are not likely to support brands that enter eSports for a one-off; they’re looking instead for a long-term, authentic and natural involvement. He backed this up with the example of how Xfinity entered this unique world with a team sponsorship. The brand did it right by completely outfitting the team’s training house with the most advanced gear and fastest Internet connection, giving them the technical edge they desired.
The key takeaway from Lindberg’s presentation is that we are not reinventing the wheel with eSports. The structure is the same as any sport—with leagues, teams, events, content and so on. What this boils down to is that the best practices we apply to sponsorship are still valid on the eSports frontier.
The Rush to Digital
The title of this presentation could be seen as misrepresentative—in a good way—as the content was much richer than the name let on. This lunch-panel comprised entertainment industry behemoth Russell Simmons from Rush Communications as well as Sanjay Sharma, the CEO of All Def Digital (which was also founded by Simmons).
All Def Digital aims to reach Millennials through hip-hop culture, which happens to drive global pop culture, with over half of 80 million Millennials reporting that they love or are influenced by it. Contrary to popular belief, 80% of hip-hop consumers are non-African American, which means that Hollywood is leaving a very large population untouched. Moreover, contrary to sub-cultures like punk, which are antagonistic, hip-hop culture is open to diversity and brands to market into. Despite launching only in 2014, All Def grew quickly with its specific content and a creative studio for brands looking to leverage hip-hop culture. They own channels that reach over 3.5 million fans between the ages of 18 and 24.
A lot has changed. These days, digital is giving rise to new stars. What’s different is that it’s now possible to build stars without the traditional gatekeepers. You’ll get the idea from a show that All Def and Spotify created called “Traffic Jam” whose premise is as follows: “What do you get when you pair a rapper and a producer who’ve never worked together before, throw them in the back seat of an SUV, send them into the middle of LA’s legendary rush hour traffic and tell them that they have to create a brand new song before arriving at their destination?”
Surprisingly, considering the number of attendees—and despite the new IEG app that very few people ended up using—one of the biggest challenges at IEG was meeting people. Most messages for meetings remained unseen and unanswered. And the company names on the passes were purposefully small, leaving me squinting my eyes at a number of fellow conference-goers. Three nights were organized for networking, with the first on Sunday in the hotel lobby, before the official start on Monday, meaning not a lot of attendees were there. However, after last year’s disappointing networking event at Soldier Fields, the big networking event on Monday was a high point. The night took place at the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, with decent food amid extraordinary surroundings.
What really blew me away at “Pivot” were the question periods: people were surprisingly straightforward when the time came to have their say. For example, after the 45-minute pitch from Audi outlining how great their last Super Bowl ad on women in the workplace was, a woman took the mic and put the executive on the spot in front of the thousand people to question the company’s own track record. Great job! Besides that, the questions were direct and precise—and that was refreshing.
Should I go?
If you’re considering attending the conference next year, the first hurdle will likely be the cost, as the value of the Canadian dollar doesn’t help and the conference is not cheap to begin with. Here’s my tip: if you do go, I would advise avoiding panels. The speakers are generally not as well prepared as keynote speakers, and the takeaways— from what often seem to be nothing more than a glorified conversation—are limited for seasoned sponsorship pros (the same advice holds true for SXSW, by the way). Plus, a lot of brands present their case studies in such a way that they feel like brand pitches.
That being said, IEG is definitely worth it to get up to speed on these latest case studies and you will certainly find plenty of inspiration. As for more junior sponsorship folks, they’ll also benefit from the broad range of sponsorship-related topics. Final advice: chat with strangers. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done so far this year.