Agency of the Year: Sponsorship Agency of the Year - M&C Saatchi Sponsorship

From a near standing start M&C Saatchi Sponsorship has outpaced competitors with a series of high-profile wins, writes Drew Barrand.

To start the year as an outsider with one client of note and end it as a major player with several high-profile clients earns M&C Saatchi Sponsorship Marketing's Sponsorship Agency of the Year title. Few sponsorship agencies can claim to deliver on the promise of integration, but M&C can. Its success in pitching, winning and implementing contracts - fending off stiff competition - is based on communicating the sponsorship at every level of consumer contact.

M&C's biggest win of the year has been telecoms brand Orange and its football content strategy. Deals have been signed with six Premiership clubs, including Chelsea and Liverpool, with M&C managing the negotiation and exploitation of the rights.

The three-year contracts are based on a revenue-share basis, with the clubs receiving a commission payment for content and services, while the operator is handed numerous branding opportunities within the clubs' stadia, fanzines and web sites.

These exclusive deals will be used to drive the Orange World brand and build on consumer understanding of the operator's services. The success has so impressed Orange that it handed the agency incremental business for its sponsorship of the BAFTAs.

Football was also a key ingredient in M&C's success with Coca-Cola. The soft-drinks giant hired the agency at the beginning of the season to work on its newly signed title sponsorship of the Football League. Briefed to work on the ground to establish Coke as a refreshing and credible sponsor, the agency created a series of initiatives that maximised the brand association.

As well as persuading Coke to host its first high-profile launch event in more than 12 years, M&C convinced it to change its red background to the colours of the clubs of the Football League in a series of poster and press ads. Coke had never tampered with its universally recognised logo, so scepticism could be expected. However, the launch event brought Coke nearly £350,000 worth of media coverage, with the strategy producing a return on investment of 25:1.

The agency continued to exploit its sports credentials and won major work on TaylorMade's 25th anniversary promotions, Travelex's cricket involvement and Powerade's athlete endorsement programme.

Such a prestigious client list is even more impressive when put in context. Founded in July 1997, M&C had dropped off the radar to the extent that its only high-paying client at the start of 2004 was tobacco brand Benson & Hedges (B&H).

The work for B&H on its sponsorship of the Jordan F1 team was a long-term association but the impending ban on tobacco advertising in 2006 meant activity for the agency's principal client was drying up.

A change of direction was needed and the introduction of a new managing director, Steve Martin, proved the catalyst the agency needed. The enigmatic Martin, a former Adidas PR man, was hired from his post as director of Ketchum Sports Network in February and given free rein.

This confidence in Martin's ability and market knowledge is well-placed, but the speed at which M&C has accelerated over the year will have surprised even those in the agency. Though trading under the M&C name, the growth has been created without any knock-on work from the creative agency, as the companies operate independently.

From a team of two working on the B&H account Martin has increased staff to 10, and two more appointments are expected. This hiring strategy has as much to do with bringing in the right expertise as it does with meeting the demands of new clients. The appointment of Jamie Wynne-Morgan, hired from Hill & Knowlton Sports Marketing, as Martin's deputy has been crucial, while he also brought the experienced Sarah Pearce with him from Ketchum to strengthen his account management team.

Martin attributes the agency's strength to its ability to be complementary to advertising and sponsorship agencies to find solutions to brand issues. Though focused on sport at the moment the agency's intention is to rename next year and focus on the wider sponsorship market, especially the entertainment industry.

M&C has ended 2004 by being hired by Reebok and the London 2012 Olympic bid. This could be the quickest turnaround in agency fortunes in the sector's history.

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