Jackie Fast starts her interview with me with a bombshell: having finally departed late last year from Slingshot a year after selling it and seven years after its launch, she’s leaving sponsorship behind too. The plan, she says, is to go back to Canada, her native country, buy a vineyard, start a wine brand and distribute it there.
What?! And this at a time when, she says, her ‘daily rate’ in the industry is now £10,000 ($13,593). That’s more than some Premier League footballers. Even Linda Evangelista might once have considered getting out of bed for that.
Why? Why throw it all away, at the age of 34, to start again at the bottom in a totally different industry, albeit this time with the cushion of a cash-and-shares deal that was thought to be worth over £2 million. She won’t confirm the amount The Marketing Group, the full-service marketing group that owns 16 agencies and operates 30 offices in eight countries, paid for Slingshot, because, she says, she’s signed a non-disclosure agreement which prevents her.
Actually, whatever the real figure was at the time of the deal, it’s likely to be a lot smaller now, given the acquisitive TMG’s recent struggles which have provoked a crash in its share price from a high of about €9 ($10.84) to its present level of €0.34. But still. She’s done well in a short space of time in sponsorship. And from sponsorship to wine is quite a jump, however big the cushion.
We’re speaking in the seriously hip club she belongs to, Shoreditch House in east London, which is mobbed with the cool and trendy, dressed in every possible shade of grey. “I set up Slingshot as a test project,” she explains. “I knew minimal about sponsorship. Now I’ve taken those skills and I want to do something much, much bigger: purchasing a vineyard, starting a wine brand, distributing it in Canada.
I like to work – I’m not a workaholic – but I like the opportunity to be creative and be challenged
“I was always going to do something else. I came to a point in my life where I would have had to slug it out at Slingshot. I’m concerned that in two to five years, I won’t have the energy. I want my business to be so much bigger! I like to work – I’m not a workaholic – but I like the opportunity to be creative and be challenged.
“I was really passionate about what I did, but now I want to do something different. Oh, I could have got so much bigger, but I left with Sir Richard Branson as a client. Where am I going to go from there?” Slingshot’s work with the Extreme Tech Challenge held on Branson’s Necker Island was nominated for the ‘rights-holder of the year’ award in this year’s European Sponsorship Association Awards. Slingshot was also nominated for three other awards, an achievement only somewhat undermined, perhaps, by the fact that Fast is an ESA board member and chairs the awards.
So, does she plan to become a serial entrepreneur, I ask? “Yeah, but I don’t like that name,” she replies, in the first of several contradictions and near-rebukes, which I find strangely refreshing coming from someone from the (normally) super-consensual world of sponsorship. “I really like the process of setting up, of finding a business. I find it really challenging and all-encompassing. I’m that type of person. My mother used to say, ‘everything in moderation’ so I suppose I’m rebelling against my parents, because I really like extremes. I hope my next project will be huge. Then, hopefully, I’ll sell that and do something even bigger.”
Fast has her critics. One highly experienced rival sponsorship agency chief calls her a ‘rentagob’ and claims she simply peddles “a different kind of b.s.” from others in the industry, adding: “The reason is the same though: she’s talking almost entirely from theory, not practice.” It’s true that Slingshot’s work with blue-chip brands in sport was limited under Fast’s leadership, but whatever you think of her, one thing is clear after less than five minutes, and that’s that she is an absolute dynamo. Even the critic cited above admits she’s a good speaker. No doubt that’s the reason her achievements have come in such a short time (she was actually quite a late starter, having taken several university degrees while she tried to work out what she wanted to do with her life). “My friends call me Robo-Cop,” she says. “Acquaintances call me a little hurricane. I’m not someone who holds their tongue very often.”
Her latest forum for not holding her tongue (she is also a prolific speaker at conventions, in the media and at industry events) is her newly published book, Pinpoint, sub-titled: ‘How Challenging the Norm Is the Only Route to Success in Selling Sponsorship’.
In the book, she (mis)quotes Samuel Beckett, the bleak, some would say plain miserable, Irish playwright, as follows: “Try, fail, try again, fail a little less, try again, fail a little less, try again, succeed.” Actually, the quote is: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” There’s no ‘succeed’ in Beckett’s lexicon. Beckett was not, in fact, what you’d call a motivational speaking kind of guy. So, is this an instance of a sales pitch that bends the truth a little to suit its own purposes? And if success is what eventually happens when you fail a little less with each attempt, does she consider herself to have succeeded?
“God, no,” she says, apparently shocked by the suggestion. “I fail continually. I feel nothing is ever good enough. I wish I had had the skillset to grow Slingshot to bigger than it was. I did not have the skillset, even though I employed every tactic, read every book. It’s very difficult to grow a business when you are the business [if Fast was the business, you have to wonder why The Marketing Group failed to tie her in for more than a year, having paid whatever it did for her/Slingshot].”
Then, somewhat surprisingly, she moves on to a critique of her own book, saying: “I’m not very pleased with the book; I almost didn’t put it out. But I feel there are things we have learned that I want people to take on board. The most important tips are counter-intuitive. I wrote the book as a help, but I wanted it to be better. You know when you read something that makes you rethink the way that you think? I don’t think it does that, and that was the objective: to change the way people think about sponsorship.
“I wish it was a bit cleverer. I worked really hard on it and I fired seven people in the process: two graphic designers, two publishers and three editors. Through sheer determination it was finished. The last editor was great, and had the patience of a saint. But I probably will never do it again…”
At this point she breaks off to ask if I think she’s damaging the book’s prospects by speaking of it in this way. I tell her what I at least half-believe, that I think people are more likely to be intrigued than repelled by such a novel sales pitch. Nevertheless, she says, “I have to be careful of what I can say. I do plan to take the book around speaking. I’ve already got dates in Russia and here in London on the book. I do wholly believe in the principles of the book. I’m spending the next year and the foreseeable future doing that.”
Good news for those that feared her vineyard plan meant she might be an instant loss to the industry.
Last month, in a survey of 100 sponsors by ESP Properties, 58 per cent said they were seeking an early exit from at least one of their sponsorships. The figure compares with 45 per cent of those surveyed the previous year.
ESP Properties said that a possible explanation for the increase in those looking for a way out was that sponsors “may be dissatisfied with rights holders that are not keeping up with changing priorities in terms of the benefits they offer their partners.”
ESP Properties continued: “Properties may still be focused on benefits such as on-site signage – which fell from second to sixth this year among survey respondents when asked to identify the most valuable sponsorship benefits – instead of presence in rightsholders’ digital, social and mobile media – which rose from sixth to second.”
The survey is playing Fast’s song. Her book includes six ‘key takeaways’ (see below), based on Fast’s absolute conviction that nearly everyone else does sponsorship wrong (despite her relative youth and inexperience, she doesn’t lack the confidence to point out the perceived errors of others and this, she admits, rubs some people up the wrong way – like the critic quoted above).
It’s a miracle when really good sponsorship comes together
Her core conviction is that rights-holders and brands usually just don’t understand each other. In fact, she says, “It’s a miracle when really good sponsorship comes together.” What is required is “someone in the middle”: someone like her, she says, who understands the requirements of both sides.
In her book, she writes: “When a brand is negotiating with a major sports team, neither side typically asks the question, “What are you really trying to accomplish?” The brand rarely asks what the sports team’s long-term goals and objectives are. But they absolutely should ask this question.
“Is the team trying to build a new stadium? Grow their audience in the Middle East? Appeal to women? Start an after-school sports programme? Or establish a charitable foundation in Africa? Wouldn’t those all be important things for a brand to know? Maybe that brand could provide assistance that would prove to be far more valuable than just writing a cheque.
“Whether you’re a brand or a rights holder, you have to understand your potential partners. If you’re going to truly collaborate with someone, but you don’t know where they’re going, how will you help them get there? How are your efforts going to be mutually beneficial?”
As chair of the ESA awards, Fast sifts through 150 entries from brands, agencies and rights-holders. She’s frustrated by the lack of detail in many of the entries, she says, adding: “The section that makes up a considerable amount of the points awarded is the results – how much money was spent, how much money they got from it. They won’t fill it out, even though it’s not made public. There’s a lack of transparency, everyone thinks everyone is screwing each other over.
“That’s the problem with the industry: no one tells it like it is, to help people get better. It’s a big end/small end industry. There are only a handful of big brands that spend a considerable amount of money. About 10 agencies pitch for that kind of stuff, but those big deals are hard, competitive. They don’t want to slag off, say, Pepsi, and then they don’t get to pitch. But it’s the work they didn’t win that should be talked about. It’s those conversations that would be fascinating: how much money was spent, the ideas behind the pitches…”
Sponsorship is a $60-billion industry that’s growing every year, she points out in the book, so “it shouldn’t be built on conjecture, vague assumptions, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best. This type of guesswork and volatility would not be tolerated in any other industry, and it shouldn’t be tolerated in sponsorship.”
I’m beginning to see why she rubs some people up the wrong way. People in the sponsorship industry just don’t usually talk like this. In fact, I’d go as far as to say there’s a kind of conspiracy of silence about motivation, processes and outcomes that is deeply frustrating to anyone trying to understand how the industry works, or how any given deal was put together.
So why won’t they even talk properly about what makes a successful deal? “They don’t really know,” she says. “From a rights-holder’s perspective, they’re concerned that they’re not ‘aligned’ [with the brand]. But it’s obvious. If you’re Coors, you want more people to drink beer.”
For her, sponsorship is all about correct packaging. “Brands are not stupid,” she says. “You don’t need to convince them. You need to package what they want, and when you package and price correctly, you articulate, and you don’t need to convince. Imagine going to a shop and you don’t know what’s on the racks. You don’t shop like that as a consumer. You want to know what you’re buying. All we do is show what’s on the shelf. It’s not rocket science. The reason [others] can’t do it like that is all of your instincts are wrong.”
For example, she says, echoing one of the six counter-intuitive ‘key takeaways’: “It’s not about who you know. People get deals not because they know someone but because it’s the right deal. I can’t sell them s–t unless I know about their business. It’s really aggravating. A lot of managers take this excuse from their sales team.”
Another of her pet canards is rights-holders pricing a sponsorship based on what they need, not on what it’s worth. “It’s not about what you need,” she says. “Most people approach sponsors because they need money for something – say an event costing £100,000. No one ever asks, ‘Why £100,000? No one does the math on it. It’s like going into Marks & Spencer and being told: ‘We’re short-staffed today, so everything you buy will cost you double’.”
And another one, “It’s not as hard as you think. A lot of people assume it’s too hard. Usually it’s just the wrong property selling to the wrong people. Like selling ice to eskimos. That’s what people are doing, nine times out of 10.”
A concrete example of the kind of counter-intuitive sponsorship thinking that she promotes in action was the deal the McLaren Formula 1 team signed with GSK, the pharmaceuticals giant, in 2011, which, the way Fast tells it, was designed to address a very specific problem facing GSK: the production line logistics associated with its proliferating toothpaste brands.
“They spoke to everyone they could and couldn’t solve the problem,” she says. “Then they stopped trying to find the answer in supply chain management and thought: ‘The smartest engineers are in F1. How can we get these guys?’ So they said: ‘We’ll give you money if you give us your people in the off-season’. Formula 1 had been going on for ever but [former F1 promoter Bernie] Ecclestone had never sold people as an asset.”
In the book, Fast writes: “The McLaren-GSK partnership created a closer relationship between the two companies in a way that sticking a logo on a car can’t. They moved from a symbiotic mutualistic relationship where they could exist without each other, to a coevolution relationship in which they grow faster together.”
I’m convincing, but it’s because I believe it – and if I’m wrong I’ll make it happen anyway
Fast’s mention of maths is relevant; it’s the advantage she thinks she holds over her rivals, enabling her to make use of modern digital data and analytics to provide a much truer valuation of sponsorship messages than has been possible in the past. As a salesman, she says, “I’m convincing, but it’s because I believe it – and if I’m wrong I’ll make it happen anyway. I always fundamentally believe I’m helping people by helping you get away from yourself. A good salesperson would usually moderate. I contradict. I’m good at getting people to do stuff. The story I always tell is I grew up being in love with math. At 10, I was the number-three math person in the country. Underneath, I liked being right. I have three brothers. It’s really important for me to be right. If I’m wrong, I will do anything I can to fix it.
“What most people look at is media value. The predominant value is the media package. I argue vehemently that broadcast deals and logos on kit is not value; certainly not as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But there is stuff underneath that can be valued. I can tell you how much your tweet is worth, based on analytics. All of that stuff is in place, we all have access to that, but no one chooses to use it.
“I come from a digital marketing background. In other industries there is a constant desire to learn. I don’t see that in our industry. There’s an over-confidence because people have read about it in the newspaper. I don’t profess to do open heart surgery because I read about it in the paper. You’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that acts the same way we do.”
Fast set up Slingshot at home with £2,000 and a laptop at the age of 27 in 2010, having approached almost every major sponsorship agency in the UK for a job and failed to land so much as an interview. That seems hard to believe now, for someone so persuasive. Why did she struggle so much at first? “Because I was young and didn’t understand. And because it’s ridiculously hard to get into as an industry,” she says. “Being an employer, I now know you have to pin someone down. It’s because it’s seen as the entry point into doing something that you love.”
Her sponsorship philosophy is summed up in this passage from her book: “Do not start your sponsorship journey by saying, ‘We need money, and this is how much we need’. Brands are not interested in how they can help you. They’re interested in how you can help them.
“Do yourself and your organisation a favour and start the relationship with your sponsor by saying, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve. This is what you’re trying to achieve. Let’s work together to achieve these things’. It’s a very different starting point, and one that will lay a solid foundation for a long-lasting relationship.
“The unfortunate truth of this industry is that agencies and sponsorship professionals have learned to give lip service to that notion of mutual benefit. Everyone has been trained to say, ‘Let’s work together toward both of our goals’. In most cases, it’s a lark, because they have no idea at all what it is their partner is trying to achieve.”
She tells me about Slingshot’s work with the Wales Rally, the annual UK round of the World Rally Championship, saying: “We only work with clients who are 100 per cent bought into the process. We don’t work with the NFL [she should be so lucky, some might say], because it won’t change its assets. It wants the same amount of money, with no assets. We don’t take those clients on; it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
“We go in, and uncover every nook and cranny of the business, look at all the things we could possibly do, then look at the prospect pool. If you’re the Wales Rally, Coutts [the upmarket private bank] won’t sponsor you. You need to find the specific sector that is the sweet spot: look at the assets you can deliver that fit with a brand – most people don’t create a package based on the sector – then go and flog it! It never had sponsors before, and we did loads of really great stuff. But I can’t remember who [the sponsors were], I didn’t work on that. It’s sport, and I don’t like sport.”
For the record, Slingshot brought in Shell and Hyundai as official partners of the rally. But Fast works in sport sponsorship, and doesn’t like sport! Did she tell that to her sports clients, I wonder? Would she have told me, if she wasn’t moving away from the industry?
In fact, in her book she attempts to make a virtue of the fact that she didn’t enter the industry as a sports fan, or any other kind of fan or expert (she’s worked in sponsorship in both sports and the arts). She writes: “I believe that when you’re not a passionate fanboy of something, you actually have better judgment, because you’re impartial. You can see the true value of assets, unencumbered by personal desires, passions, or blind loyalty. It has been my experience that an outsider can offer a valuable perspective that someone who grew up in a certain organisation or industry cannot. An experienced sponsorship professional will always be more likely to succeed than, say, a former rugby player who is now just learning the skill of sponsorship and starting from square one.”
So can sport learn anything from other fields, say music, in its search for sponsors? Fast seizes on this one. “I argue innovation comes from desperation,” she says. “Because of Spotify, the music industry has undergone a huge shift. The value of the label, the CD, is no longer there. Through desperation they became more flexible about how they work with sponsors: better activation, better things for fans. Sport is getting there – although I thought they’d be more desperate.”
Does she have any advice for those seeking to enter the industry, as she exits it? “There are so many things you can do within sponsorship, you should be quite clear about why you want to work there,” she says. “Just because you like sport doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it [sponsorship]. I started my own business because I really didn’t think I was ready, and I was told I didn’t have enough experience. I didn’t have a choice, I was forced into it. But I wish someone had told me, actually it’s not very difficult.
“Things are different now; you have access to information and clients like never before, you can market to people for 20 pence on Facebook. Access to start is way more cost-efficient. The only thing is the preparation, the work, putting in the time. If you’re a band you play bars and bar mitzvahs, you play and play, and that’s what you need to do.
You can do an advertising campaign, but what sponsorship does is that it typically brings people with diverse skillsets together and when it works out it’s so much richer than either person could have done by themselves
“I love sponsorship. It’s got so much potential. You can do an advertising campaign, but what sponsorship does is that it typically brings people with diverse skillsets together and when it works out it’s so much richer than either person could have done by themselves.”
Fast has no time for the many excuses she hears for a failure to sell sponsorship. “I honestly believe anyone can sell it, if you know what you’re selling, and you’ve got a solid sponsorship package,” she writes in her book. “The problem is not in the selling part; it’s that most people don’t understand sponsorship, so they fail to put together a viable, credible package. That’s why they’re unable to sell…
“I’m not special. I’m not incredibly talented at doing this stuff. I don’t have magical sponsorship fairy dust. I’m successful because I know what makes good sponsorship. And maybe because I outwork everybody. But there’s nothing proprietary. I don’t have a special sauce. It’s plain old hard work and hustle, plus wanting to create value for the people I work with. That’s it. Anyone can sell sponsorship if they’re willing to invest in acquiring the knowledge and skillset to do sponsorship strategically.”
So having got there, having put in the hard work to succeed in an industry she loves, I ask once again why she’s getting out. “Honestly?,” she asks. “Management. I struggled and it’s hard on everyone to have to be both creative and a salesman. In the sponsorship industry, you go into sales or activation at a senior level; you can’t do both. I had to hire a lot of junior people who have gone on to do amazing stuff. But I don’t have the patience and tact to manage people more effectively than I did.”
On the front page of her website, Fast has chosen to display a single word from a Forbes magazine profile of her: ‘Relentless’. Why? When we call people relentless, we don’t usually mean it as a compliment. “I take it as a compliment,” she says. “Absolutely. It means you’re never going to let it go. I work tirelessly. I like to be right – and if I’m wrong I’ll fix it. I’m like a dog with a bone. I really don’t give up at all. It would be a compliment if I was working for you. It guarantees you’d be very happy.”
Jackie Fast’s six ‘key takeaways’:
1. Consumers ignore most ads. So if your marketing strategy is built only upon traditional advertising, you’re wasting a lot of money for diminishing returns.
2. When trying to sell sponsorship, do not focus on yourself or your organisation. Focus on the sponsor. By asking the right questions, you are likely to understand their needs and thus secure the right sponsorship.
3. When pricing your sponsorship assets, don’t focus on the amount of money you need. Instead, price the assets fairly, based on the actual value they provide to a sponsor.
4. Make sponsorship a strategic priority, not an afterthought. Include a sponsorship strategy as a key element in the marketing mix. Do your research so you can pinpoint your target list of potential sponsors. Invest in learning the fundamentals of sponsorship.
5. Succeeding in sponsorship isn’t about who you know. It’s about figuring out what value you can offer to a sponsor and then communicating that effectively.
6. Succeeding in sponsorship requires investment, whether it’s hiring a sponsorship agency like mine or allocating internal resources. Sponsorship is not money for nothing.