Octagon, owned by US advertising giant Interpublic Group, has evolved from a sponsorship agency which had proprietary research on fans, through its ‘Passion Drivers’ tool, at the heart of its offering to clients into a more rounded business that provides creative solutions for brands and rights-holders to help them get return on investment in their partnerships.

Seymour-Hyde, who has spent more than a decade at Octagon, and took up a new role as head of UK in February, claims that in today’s fast-moving media landscape it is important to deliver campaigns that have a simple message and connect immediately with the consumer, and this explains its commitment to creativity.

Recent ventures have included the development of a global campaign concept known as ‘This Means More’ for English soccer’s Liverpool, which will contest this month’s Uefa Champions League final against Real Madrid, building on the strong relationship the agency already had with the club’s main sponsor Standard Chartered.

‘This Means More’ – Octagon UK’s global campaign concept for Liverpool

The UK division has also been working on campaigns for the Wimbledon tennis championships, Shell, across the oil company’s motorsport sponsorships, and long-standing Octagon clients such as MasterCard, on events such as the Champions League, tennis’ French Open and golf’s British Open, and AB InBev, one of the major sponsors of this year’s Fifa World Cup.

This has come on the back of investment in creative, with Josh Green moving from Octagon’s global headquarters in Connecticut, USA in 2014 to become creative director for the European region, and the agency’s acquisition two years later of a majority stake in Milkmoney, one of Asia-Pacific region’s leading branded entertainment and content production companies, for which a new office was opened at the London base.

Seymour-Hyde tells Sportcal Insight: “Passion Drivers and the understanding of the fan – they were and still are core components of the story we tell because they allow us to make sure that at any point we’re creating work it comes from the position of understanding fans better than we think anyone else can because we’ve got so much data here. We’ll never forget where we came from in that sense.

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“However, in terms of what we believe is helping us in the market, and helping us to produce really good work for our clients, is to think more about the creative solution because that is the way the world is going. The phrase we are talking about is ‘earned attention’. Our mantra now is that we want to create work that earns attention for our clients.

 People don’t have any attention anymore so you have six seconds to earn someone’s attention, and if you don’t get it then you’ve gone

“The whole point of this earned attention piece is that people don’t have any [attention] anymore so you have six seconds to earn someone’s attention, and if you don’t get it then you’ve gone. So we need to be quite single-minded about how we see the world because if we talk about too many things at the same time then we’re not really following the mantra of earning people’s attention. We need to be focused on a story.”

Octagon’s London office has a strategy team of six focused on data and insights, as part of a workforce of nearly 100, itself a doubling over the last three or four years, but the most obvious growth has been in creative, following what was seen as a trend in the market.

Seymour-Hyde says: “We have really worked hard to evolve the business in the last few years. That started with investing in creative teams and planning teams before we necessarily had all of the revenue work done, but we made that commitment because we could see the way the industry was going.

“We’ve now built a studio, so we have a studio manager and designers all in-house, and we acquired Milkmoney for production so we’re doing all that through the line in-house. Most importantly, how we position ourselves has changed. We used to talk about being a sponsorship agency, and we don’t anymore because that’s just too narrow. We talk about being a creative agency with a specialism in sports and culture.

“What all of that has meant is that the types of conversations you can have with your clients have changed and it allows you to start doing more work for them in different facets, which you wouldn’t necessarily have done before.”

He gives the example of the above-the-line content that Octagon developed for new sponsor Delta Air Lines for The Masters golf tournament this year.

The sports marketing and sponsorship sector has come in for criticism outside USA for being slow to evolve and behind the times, especially when it comes to emerging technology, but Seymour-Hyde believes this is an unfair reflection in 2018, and that, if anything, it is now ahead of the curve, embracing concepts such as augmented reality and virtual reality.

He says: “There are press releases that you see from new entrants that often will say something like ‘the sponsorship model is broken, or sports marketing is stuck in the 1970s, or we’re here to rewrite the rulebook.’

Sports marketing as a category is so much more innovative and progressive than it was 10 years ago particularly around social content and use of social channels

“I find that stuff reasonably offensive because actually, not just from us, but from many agencies and many brands, there’s lots of great work in the market, and I really think that sports marketing as a category is so much more innovative and progressive than it was 10 years ago, particularly around social content and use of social channels and integration across marketing platforms.

“Now it’s way ahead of a lot of traditional ad agencies and traditional media in terms of what people do and with integration technology, with AR and VR. Sport is the area that’s really pushing this stuff so it’s a little bit offensive to suggest that people already in the game aren’t already doing some really great, exciting, incredibly relevant stuff.”

Social media now forms an essential part of most sports marketing and sponsorship campaigns, and Seymour-Hyde believes that brands and rights-holders are mature enough to look beyond impressions as a metric of success and see how it is directly impacting their business, with the help of tracking tools and data from Octagon.

He says: “From a sponsorship and sports marketing point of view, the reason social works so well is probably twofold. One is about the quality of the content because if you put sport at the heart of your content, and you’re trying to reach the sports fan, then clearly there’s a massive advantage in terms of the quality of stuff you can create, whether it’s using video or talent or storylines or narrative. You’re starting with a very rich tapestry of content. That makes it very powerful and effective.

“The second piece is the real-time opportunity because when you’re talking about media fragmentation, sport remains the one bastion of live entertainment or live broadcast that broadly remains protected from that. So if you’re in social, which is such a real-time environment, then sport is just the ultimate way, if you can get it right, to capitalise.

“If you’ve got those two pieces then the trick is not just counting impressions, but counting back to sales. The way I tend to answer that for clients is it’s not sports marketing or sponsorship’s job to help a brand answer the ‘how does digital engagement lead to sales?’ question. That’s an advertising question and some clients and some brands are good at answering that question.

“That can be down to category, so if you’re a business that lives off online sales and transactions, that’s pretty easy. If you’re an FMCG brand, it’s still pretty hard because the gap from purchase in-store to online is physical, and always going to be tricky to prove.”

Seymour-Hyde now forms part of a European leadership team at Octagon, also including the likes of Green and Sebastian Smith, the executive vice-president of Octagon Marketing Europe, that reports to Jeff Ehrenkranz, the president of Octagon Marketing International.

Despite the sluggish economic growth and challenges posed by factors such as Brexit, Seymour-Hyde remains optimistic about the UK sports market, and eager to pursue opportunities on the domestic scene, particularly with forthcoming major events on home soil such as the 2019 Cricket World Cup and the climax to soccer’s 2020 European Championships, to be held at Wembley Stadium in London.

The Euro 2020 finals at London’s Wembley Stadium will provide big opportunities for the UK market.

Established clients in the UK include Mars, the confectionary brand, which, with Octagon’s support, has extended its sponsorship of England’s Football Association by four years, until 2022, in the process expanding the association to include women’s national team and disability teams, as well as the men’s senior side and under-21s and grassroots soccer, as part of a greater commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

“I’ve always seen the US as being one of the most innovative markets, but after that the UK tends to come next, and things get picked up very quickly,” Seymour-Hyde reflects. “It’s always been a hub and the way we’re set up now is that this office [in London] acts as our European central point so our key creative teams, our head of European creative, our head of European planning, our head of European new business, our head of international all sit here.”

He adds: “Octagon has always had a great track record with big international clients and that’s been brilliant for us because we love working with those massive blue-chip brands and pan-regional activations, whether that’s the World Cup or Champions League.

“But sometimes I think that meant that we didn’t focus as much as we could have done on specific local market opportunities. Certainly, from that point of view, I’m really keen that we are able to look to the UK market directly, and work with more and more local brands, while not forgetting what has made us a successful agency working on all the international projects we do already.”