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  1. Interviews
January 25, 2018

The Callum Murray Interview – Shaun Whatling

Shaun Whatling, the poncho-wearing chief executive of strategic consultancy Redmandarin, tells Sportcal Insight about the western construct of the brand, how to work with Olympic sponsors, how to stand up to Dentsu and why Australians are psychologically well-equipped for life

By Callum Murray

Shaun Whatling rocks up to our interview wearing a kind of grey wool poncho over corduroy trousers, as if to confirm my suspicion that he’s no ordinary corporate sponsorship guy. In fact, his reputation is more the thinking guy’s sponsorship guy, someone who ponders deeply about sponsorship, while working as a commercial practitioner – arguably an uncommon combination.

He’s published two books, ‘Defining Sponsorship’ and ‘Working the Olympics’, and given intelligent talks on the subject, as well as leading an established and respected sponsorship agency, founded in 1999.

We talk in a sort of common room in Somerset House, the great courtyarded, neo-classical building on the north side of Waterloo Bridge in London, where Redmandarin has its offices. The place is also home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, the world-famous centre for the study of art history, and there are various arty types wafting about. Whatling, though older than most of the students, does not look out of place.

Yet it’s certainly not as if Redmandarin doesn’t have any big, multi-national corporate clients of its own. They include, or have included: Atos (a top-tier TOP Olympic Games sponsor); Credit Suisse; Deloitte; Honda; Lloyds TSB; Martini; Unilever; Siemens; Visa; SAB Miller; and Toshiba. It’s his views on sport sponsorship, and especially Olympic Games sponsorship, we’re here to talk about, and he’s not short of them.

The present line-up of Redmandarin clients also includes five Japanese domestic sponsors of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, one of which is Pasona Group, the recruitment company that signed up last week as a third-tier ‘official supporter’ of the games. Whatling won’t tell me who the other four are because, he says, he needs to protect them from the wrath of Dentsu, the all-powerful Japanese advertising giant with whom the four already work. The company, he says, would give them a hard time over their (to Dentsu, redundant) additional relationship with Redmandarin, if it knew about it.

He also tells me a story about a recent grilling he received over Redmandarin’s intentions in Japan by a top Dentsu executive at its headquarters in Tokyo, after he’d written to Dentsu complaining about it “briefing against” Redmandarin. To Whatling, Dentsu’s paranoia over the activities of a tiny, UK-based, sponsorship agency seemed baffling, if not actually laughable. It’s an interesting glimpse into the mysterious, often impenetrable but apparently controlling (to westerners), world of Japanese business.

Redmandarin specialises in a ‘forensic’ approach to brands and sponsorship

Whatling has cited Pasona in response to a question about sponsorship campaigns he is most proud of, albeit he says: “Quite often at Redmandarin it’s not about a whole campaign; it’s more about a forensic analysis of parts of a campaign: for example, the work we just finished in Japan with Pasona. The reason we’re so proud, we met them in the first half of 2016 and explained that, because of the timings of a tier-three partnership – at the end of the line for signing up – they would need to do preparation work before they signed up and were engaged.

“They took the recommendation and understood the value and were committed to working through the preparations. They spent 18 months ensuring they would develop a vision to share with their staff of 60,000. We helped them understand the best position to take in negotiations, to have a clear objective and metrics and evaluation methodologies, and signature activations.

“As a result, they’re way ahead of most of the partners who have been there for over two years. I don’t think that’s ever been done before.”

It’s this kind of ‘forensic’ (to use Whatling’s own word) approach to brands and sponsorship in which Redmandarin specialises, and which leaves him frustrated by what he terms the ‘Premiership’ approach to sponsorship, in reference to the unrealistic expectations that English soccer’s Premier League and other marquee properties impose on many rights-holders.

“One of the biggest problems is that the success of the Premiership and major properties like Formula 1 and the NFL suggest that is how sponsorship should be done,” he says. “It really isn’t. The Premiership and Formula 1 command high returns that are not replicable for 99 per cent of other properties. They’re premised on vast TV exposure, and popularity. When you don’t have that, you have to re-think your approach. In USA, sponsorship largely revolves around counting logos, because airtime packages are associated with sponsorship. That’s great for exposure and media-buying but misses the ability to establish an emotional connection with audiences.”

99 per cent of other properties can’t match the Premier League for sponsor exposure

It’s this emotional connection that, Whatling argues, distinguishes sponsorship from other forms of advertising. Really?, I ask. What about those classic TV ads we remember from our youth that made us laugh, shout at the TV – or, even, very occasionally, cry? In that sense, sponsorship is not different from advertising, Whatling agrees, “but it’s rare that employees would feel proud of an ad in the same way as they can be proud of a sponsorship. An ad is arm’s length; it’s done by someone else, an agency, on your behalf. Sponsorship is something that you do as a business.”

Is there something cynical about brands setting out to manipulate emotions, to profit covertly from sports fans’ dedication to their clubs or their sports, I ask? Exhibiting mild surprise at being asked to field such a question, Whatling’s argument is that people will respond emotionally to brands anyway, so brands might as well make sure that that response is as positive as it can be.

“The western construct of a brand is all about an emotional connection,” he argues. “Look at ‘super’ brands or ‘love’ brands: they show a clear relationship with consumers that treasure them. ‘Is the whole western brand model cynical?’ is an academic question. We have a universal tendency to anthropomorphise; we do it with cars, with animals, so it’s natural to do it with brands, to ascribe them a personality. We talk about businesses being ‘aloof’ or ‘pompous’. There’s not a special language. Brands can’t fail to communicate emotionally with a consumer. We’re talking about how to make sure that communication is as positive as possible.”

There is also, Whatling argues, a “universal tendency for attribution,” by which he means that we naturally look for a cause to explain an effect. So, he says, we will ask: “Why is this sponsor doing this? We conjecture, we look for reasons why sponsors are sponsoring things. Studies around attribution show that sponsorship by remote organisations is more sceptically received than by local ones.

“There are three sorts of motives [for sponsorship]: altruistic; impartial; and ulterior. Studies show convincingly that the fact that a sponsor is geographically distant provokes an ‘ulterior motive’ response. It’s a whole area of psychology and behavioural science. If we ignore it, we risk ignoring universal psychological traits.”

A couple of days after the interview he emails a further explanation of “why behavioural science is so important for sponsorship,” which goes like this: “For me, behavioural science should have a big impact on how sponsorship is executed. At the moment, people go to events where brands try to imprint an association with logo exposure and promotions which integrate a connection to product. But behavioural sciences show us that we process our experiences in different ways: superficially, with low level processing of information; but also more profoundly, with our minds trying to create sense and meaning.

“This creates some consequences that are often overlooked in experience design: sponsors need to consider their overall activation, to anticipate the holistic impression it creates; they need to recognise that mechanistic promotional mechanisms may work well at a shallow level, but are likely to have the opposite effect at the deeper level; and they need to look for ways to create a close association with the most psychologically impactful moments of the experience. Behavioural science will help sponsors to design experiences to build even stronger emotional connections with their key audiences.”

In our industry, when people talk about why sponsors do or don’t do something there’s often a simplistic assumption of how sponsorship is governed in the organisation  

What Whatling calls “making sponsorship work in the real world” is not easy. “In our industry, when people talk about why sponsors do or don’t do something there’s often a simplistic assumption of how sponsorship is governed in the organisation,” he says. “It’s absurd, some of the industry commentary. We, as an industry, should have a far higher level of understanding of the overall business context of a decision.”

Whatling cites McDonald’s shock announcement last year of its decision to withdraw from its Olympic Games TOP sponsorship deal, which he has already addressed in an opinion column for Sportcal Insight, in which he accused various media, including the Financial Times, of ‘fake news’ for their suggestion that the withdrawal of one TOP sponsor somehow constituted a trend. The column can be read here.

In fact, Whatling says, McDonald’s reasons for withdrawing are highly complex, relating to its “overall business needs and the role of sponsorship within that,” and cannot simply be reduced to a single external factor. Likewise, embarking on a sponsorship of such a size is never simple. “You have to get huge internal agreement, even when you have a senior [executive as a] champion,” he says. “There are so many things that can go wrong, it’s a miracle when any sponsorship deal of any size is signed. Assuming there is the budget, and nothing better to do with it, it has to align with the CSR [corporate social responsibility] or sustainability activity [of the firm], and it assumes that all the internal engagement metrics are positive.

“Buying a sponsorship is an incredibly difficult process: long sales cycles, and little certainty of outcome. When talking about sponsorship, we need more insight into the business process that makes this possible.”

So, is working in such an apparently intractable field frustrating, I ask? “Yes and no,” he replies. “It’s incredibly challenging, but what drives Redmandarin and anyone who works in the industry is what sponsorship becomes when it comes off. It’s beautiful, because it’s so complex, but it can be so powerful. Advertising doesn’t have such an effect on engagement and on corporate pride.”

RedMandarin worked with Lloyd’s Bank at the London 2012 Olympics

Redmandarin has had its fair share of disappointments, of course. It worked with Lloyds Bank in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games (indeed Lloyds pinched Whatling’s predecessor at Redmandarin, Sally Hancock, to become its director of Olympic and Paralympic marketing), in what was generally regarded as a successful partnership. However, Lloyds rejected Redmandarin’s plan for a social enterprise follow-up involving leveraging an existing relationship with a school for entrepreneurs – partly, Whatling argues, because “their general sponsorship concept was quite a simplistic English Premier League one” (albeit Lloyds eventually chose to support the Children in Need campaign, a pet project of one of its senior executives).

Why then did Redmandarin not propose a sports-related project to follow up the successful London Olympic one, I ask? “There’s no intrinsic argument that says if you’re a sponsor of the Olympics you have to sponsor sport,” Whatling replies. “The Olympics are less about sport and more about optimism: building a better future for society. Both of those were tonally in the right place [for Lloyds at the London 2012 games]. London 2012 was support for a national project of deep personal relevance to everyone in the country. We all have a bit of skin in that game. The Olympics worked very well to enable brands to contribute to something people felt deeply about: the success of the games.”

Expanding on the theme of successful sponsorships, Whatling cites the IOC’s TOP sponsorship deals with Visa and Samsung. Visa “went from being a distant third [behind American Express and Mastercard] to the dominant payment provider globally, judged by cards issued and turnover,” he says. “The IOC played a large part in that.”

Whatling dismisses the argument that Visa lost a measure of goodwill around the world – or at least in Olympic host countries – through its insistence on exclusive use of its cards for ticket payments at the games, saying: “It established Visa as a global brand, accepted everywhere. At the time people thought of it as primarily a US provider. The Olympics premiumised it. It affected the brand as well, the stature of the brand. The figures for Visa’s global success are phenomenal, if you look at what it achieved at individual games, driving merchants’ card turnover. People in the business would acknowledge that sponsorship helped them achieve that.”

Similarly, Whatling claims, “Samsung weren’t really known outside Asia, they had no brand stature and little brand value and were not able to justify a higher price point for the brand. Samsung acknowledges that becoming an IOC partner [in 1998] put it on an equal platform to McDonald’s or Coca-Cola: a big, solid global brand. Samsung has now overtaken the iPhone in volume of sales. It’s phenomenal business, which they ascribe partly to the Olympics.”

However, such success is not guaranteed for Olympic sponsors, Whatling says, and the chances of success are not helped by the “true value being deliberately misrepresented by organising committees. They’re sales people and they need sponsors. London 2012 employed McKinsey to develop a sponsorship return on investment model, which showed that by improving various parts of the business by just 1 per cent, there would be a huge net value to the sponsor. But the misrepresentation is that it is easy to improve. The reality is you have to work extremely hard to make that happen. The misrepresentation around the Olympics is that it’s a guaranteed success. It isn’t. Read any academic paper and it presents it as if business is clear about what it wants to achieve, and the result is always positive.”

An example of a business that got it wrong, Whatling says, is Cadbury, the UK chocolate brand owned by Mondelez International, formerly Kraft, the US foods giant, that was a domestic sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics. Cadbury had claimed that social media would be one of the key channels for its ‘Spots v Stripes’ Olympic campaign and launched Facebook pages and online games to tie in with the campaign.

Spots v Stripes involved nine challenges that were supposed to prompt people to complete everyday tasks at a quicker than normal pace, offering competitors the chance to set a world record. However, Whatling said, “I’ve spoken to people at Kraft and the internal feeling was that it was a disaster. If you look at the Spots v Stripes ad execution, it was one of the largest flops ever in terms of what it drove for engagement. It was advertised extensively, so will have built awareness, but it failed to capture the public’s imagination. The ad showed that Cadbury didn’t understand the relationship between consumers and sport. It failed because it was irrelevant to people’s lives. People didn’t sign up, engage with it.”

The Kraft-owned Cadbury ‘didn’t understand the relationship between consumers and sport’

The “intrinsic challenge” of Olympic sponsorship, Whatling says, “goes back to the simplistic concept of sponsorship. People assume you sponsor, and then reap the benefits, encouraged by the organisers’ sales team. But it’s a challenge because the partnership lasts five years, and you need a coherent five-year plan, because it’s larger than any other campaign. Olympic campaigns have to be integrated and coherent, because they don’t just talk to consumers. They engage employees, channel partners [distributors, wholesalers and sales teams], the media and regulators because it’s such a high-profile activity.

“It’s also a huge change because a lot of partners sign up five years out. They don’t realise that, come 30 months out, it’s difficult to run parallel communications. If there’s a brand campaign, it has to acknowledge the Olympics, and it’s the same for internal reward and recognition schemes. It also extends to leadership and development training, they have to come together. In the year of the games you require support in so many parts of the business: volunteer, promotion, hospitality… There’s nothing really like it. If you’ve never done it before it’s easy to lose the first two years. But the value of the games is in the years leading up to them, not during the games themselves. That just cements the success.”

Whatling was born in St Albans, north of London, in 1968, a bright, sporty kid – his sports were rugby, swimming (later, his first ‘proper’ job was with the Royal Life Saving Society, the drowning prevention charity) and athletics – before winning a place to study modern languages at Oxford University, where he turned out for his college rowing team.

When the time came to graduate, Whatling, not one to follow the herd, says he “avoided the ‘milk round’ [the organised recruitment visits by potential corporate employers] like the plague” and instead took himself off to Latin America to teach English for four years (maybe the poncho dates from those years).

Returning to England, he “accepted with some dread and depression” the Royal Life Saving Society job, offered to him though an old teacher, regarding it as “not the most glamorous,” but now sees this as a “formative period,” in which he “developed an understanding of the value of a brand.” Such small organisations “stimulate internal resource,” he says, and he found himself, for example, going to London to tout a sponsorship package to 10 different sponsorship agencies.

From there, he was headhunted by the Body Shop, the influential and much-written-about and admired (at the time) chain of ethically-sourced cosmetic stores, to head up its UK communications team. But there, he says, the main lesson he learned was that “big organisations are rarely productive. After three months I was asking to be made redundant, to restore my faith in the management of the company.”

Why? “I was not really doing anything worthwhile,” he says. “They didn’t [make him redundant], so I had to resign.” It was then that he moved into sport, helping found SSM Freesports, a pioneering action and extreme sports production company and agency, at a time when such sports were only just beginning to make their mark. The agency was extremely successful in raising the profile of action sports on TV, thus bringing them to the notice of (potential) sponsors.

“What I loved about that was the values attached to those sports were so strong,” Whatling says. “There was not so much around, so the question was, ‘how can we maximise the broadcast rights? And how do we keep faith with the core audience of bikers, surfers, snowboarders…? How do we mediate between sponsors and sports?’ Such sensitive sub-cultures are very easy to alienate.”

Incidentally, Whatling approves of the long, sometimes tortuous process by which the IOC and the local organising committee have finally brought skateboarding into the Olympic fold for the Tokyo 2020 games, saying: “The IOC is a big, slow organisation that thinks long-term, rather than short -term, which is both a strength and a weakness. But the way they engaged was right: slowly, with a huge preamble, talking it to death. Now the time is right. There was always a strong reaction from [skateboard] athletes in the past, but now there’s not a lot of opposition. They’ve done a good job.”

The IOC has ‘done a good job’ of bringing skateboarding into the Olympics

His four years in Latin America were early evidence of Whatling’s thirst for learning about and working with and in other cultures – a thirst that is now being played out in Redmandarin’s work in Japan. So what has he learned about Japanese business and sponsorship culture? His interest in working there hasn’t dulled his critical faculties. “What we’ve learned from 18 months in Japan,” he says, “is the importance of the concept of national pride in the project, being a good, loyal Japanese company, plus being sold a belief. You can have a successful sign-up without understanding what you’re signing. Sometimes, the only thing they understand is what they have to pay.

“There is a lot of pressure to sign to be supportive. A phrase often used by the Japanese is: ‘The nail that stands out gets hammered in’. There’s a penalty attached to being different. That can put them in a double bind, sharing category rights which are thus cannibalised and diluted [he cites six different IT partners for the Tokyo 2020 games], but at the same time you don’t want to stand out and be different. Our experience is that Japan is unique in terms of its communications culture, to the extent that many Japanese companies struggle to communicate with the world outside Japan.”

In part because of this inability to communicate internationally, Whatling predicts that, “in general, the brand value that Tokyo 2020 partners will generate will be sub-optimal. None of them are communicating as well as the partners of London 2012. The flip side is that no technological innovation was driven by London 2012. All they had to talk about was wireless networks and increased digitalisation of the logo.

“But Tokyo 2020 abounds with new technology. It will be unlike any games, ever. Their innovation will wow the world. They’re piloting robots in Narita airport that can help with questions and luggage. There will be instantaneous interpretation devices that volunteers can wear. Autonomous cars and taxis are likely to be on the streets. There will be a massive shift to hydrogen fuel cell technology. There’s even talk of an artificial meteor storm for the opening ceremony.”

Undaunted by the cultural challenges, Whatling now has his sights set on work in the Chinese market. “The centre of the universe is changing,” he says. “Four or five years ago Unilever were cutting marketing budgets in western Europe, and their only ambition was to sustain their position. They were investing discretionary spend in the East because of the opportunity for large growth. Markets here are very tough and the potential value of Asia far greater. The economic centre is shifting.

“China is fascinating because there is a massive internal market, and bullish confidence. As a disruptive force on sponsorship, it will be fascinating to see the effect over the next 20 years. We hope to be more active in China, offering objective advice as we have done since we were founded in 1999. China is seen as a cash cow by major rights holders. They’re seeking affiliations and investments in China, and we’d like to help Chinese brands that are not aware of the opportunities.”

Fundamentally sport is an expression of our own physicality, a structure that gives us permission to express our physical bodies, which is a beautiful thing

So, in a world in which sport is increasingly valued and commoditised by business as a uniquely emotional conduit to the consumer, what is it really for, I ask? Perhaps returning to his action sports roots, Whatling replies: “Fundamentally it’s an expression of our own physicality, a structure that gives us permission to express our physical bodies, which is a beautiful thing.

“It’s an invitation to humankind to discover the limits and abilities of each individual body. Applied sport is brilliant in its ability to support inter-personal growth and confidence. I’ve been very pleased to see that over the last 20 years. I was most struck by sport as a metaphor for life at the Sydney Olympics. Australians were the first to live their life as sport, with attitudes about failure and trying in life so closely linked to sport. They were like the catalyst for this metaphor of sport as life. Australia embodies that in a way that has underpinned CSR programmes, such as Peace and Sport. I came away believing that Australians are psychologically well-equipped for life.”

Asked for his most memorable sporting moment, Whatling, not himself a golfer, perhaps surprisingly cites the so-called ‘Miracle of Medinah’ in 2012 (Redmandarin was working with EY, one of the sponsors), when the European Ryder Cup team came back from 10-6 down to win the tournament. Whatling wasn’t even watching, but listened to it on the radio. “The comeback was one of those stories of legend,” he says. “It was just so against the odds. For me it touched on the power of the team and how the team can come back.

“Lots of generalisations were made about Europe and the US, but in the end the European team pulled together in a way the US team didn’t. It was just down to their cohesion and self-belief as a team.”

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