EUROPEAN SPONSORSHIP ASSOCIATION SPOTLIGHT
What’s your name and position within the organisation?
Sam Baring, Head of Sponsorship at The AOK Events Group. We launched our dedicated sponsorship consultancy, AOK Connect, in 2018.
Can you give us an overview of AOK Connect as a part of The AOK Events Group and your approach to sponsorship and partnerships specifically?
Founded by Alex Hewitt in 2000, The AOK Events Group has become most well-known for three dedicated, events-focused, departments. AOK Cavendish are the largest independent broker of sporting & cultural hospitality across Europe, AOK Creative are a dedicated team of experienced event managers and wefindvenues is our venue-finding service. The continual growth of the company through the 2010s gave Alex and I the opportunity to launch a sponsorship division in the form of AOK Connect. The primary objective being to build upon the long-standing client relationships that have been nurtured over the previous two decades.
Having previously worked for both The Rugby Players’ Association and Ascot Racecourse, and with a number of sponsorship agencies over my years there, we knew we wanted to launch a consultancy that was client-first. Our process is very simple: understand the client’s brief, draw up a list of key objectives, go to market on the client’s behalf and source a shortlist of on-brand, impactful partnership opportunities. From there, we work to secure and negotiate the client’s chosen partnership programme.
Complementing AOK Connect’s work, we have also developed and launched our own inventory management tool, Eventrax.co.uk. Tailored specifically to brands with large amounts of ticketing, hospitality and events inventory, Eventrax’s tracking, reporting and invite management functions continue to streamline a client’s events and procurement processes in relation to any sponsorship deal. Existing Eventrax clients include Ricoh, Guy Carpenter and Weil Gotshal Manges.
We are also seeing AOK Creative’s expertise become increasingly related to the partnerships that we have brokered through AOK Connect with James Maclay, previously at IMG Consulting, leading on supporting our clients’ activation plans.
Who are some recent clients you’ve worked with, and what do these partnerships tell us about the sponsorship industry currently?
The two flagship sponsorship deals that we have brokered have been centered on sustainability. Robeco Asset Management asked us to source an opportunity that would highlight their position on the circular economy and reducing single-use plastics. We subsequently brokered the deal for them to become a headline partner of City to Sea’s Refill programme.
Most recently, we brokered the 5-year deal for our client, Foresight Group, to become the Goodwood Estate’s first-ever Sustainability Partner. This will see Foresight Group host a Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Seminar at Goodwood in each year of the deal whilst also consulting across the Estate to help deliver upon Goodwood’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Approaching a wide variety of rights-holders with sustainability-led partnership briefs has been eye-opening and the disparity in proposals that we have received back for clients a stark indicator of how some rights-holders are seemingly just bolting on sustainability to their commercial programme. ‘Greenwashing’ can certainly be evidenced as much rights-holder side as it can be brand side!
Sustainability aside, we have worked on a real mix of client briefs and secured a partnership for the global law firm, White & Case, to partner with Sotheby’s across their Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction season.
What approach makes AOK Connect’s strategy unique?
Our approach is truly independent with no bias towards working with one rights-holder over another.
With over 50 account managers across the business, each managing a range of clients from a cross-section of industries, AOK Connect leverages those pre-existing relationships into partnership discussions.
We have the flexibility to support regional, national and international campaigns and AOK’s Communications Director (James Maclay, ex-IMG Consulting) is integral to that, his previous work across multiple Olympic Games, golf and music sponsorship campaigns carrying significant weight in how we scope out potential activation briefs.
What challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them?
Given the large majority of The AOK Event Group clients originate from hospitality (AOK Cavendish) or venue-finding (wefindvenues) enquiries, we have a client base that is heavily skewed towards the City and this sees us work across more B2B than B2C focused partnership briefs. Subsequently being able to truly breakdown a rights-holder’s audience becomes a real priority, specifically understanding how a new sponsor may network across incumbent partners and what engagement opportunities can exist across hospitality clients.
The mix of sport, cultural, art and CSR partnerships that we continue to work upon means that we have a 360-degree view of the industry, a trait that is certainly aided by attending plenty of ESA events!
We receive a lot of commercial decks from rights-holders and the disparity on quality and information within them is staggering. Our role here is to heavily filter through the good and the bad, ensuring that every proposal we submit to a client fits the detailed brief as much as possible and clearly outlines how the proposed partnership can evolve throughout the term – again, a point that is often be glossed over in more generic decks.
What’s going to be new for AOK Connect in 2020?
We hosted a well-received ‘Sustainability in Partnerships’ networking event at Somerset House last September and will be looking to host similar events this year, all aimed at discussing key themes within the sponsorship industry and supporting existing clients of The AOK Events Group around the development of their partnership strategies. For any ESA members interested in hearing more about such events, please do get in touch.