ANALYSIS - How we sold the Dome to UK brands - Kevin Johnson, former commercial director at NMEC, explains how he and his team set out to raise pounds 150m in sponsorship deals for the Dome

Friends thought I was bordering on the suicidal when I told them, in June 1997, I was taking the role of commercial director at the Millennium Dome.

Friends thought I was bordering on the suicidal when I told them,

in June 1997, I was taking the role of commercial director at the

Millennium Dome.

Having accepted the job and resigned from my then role in sports

marketing at ISL in Switzerland, we faced the double trauma of house

hunting in London while the new government debated whether the project

would go ahead.

’Dump the Dome, Tone’, the tabloids implored the prime minister.

So it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our return flight

to Zurich and read the headline: ’Blair gives green light to Dome’.

Team spirit

Arriving at the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), I inherited a

short section in the business plan that suggested we needed to generate

pounds 150m net of cost of sales and that there would be a team of


I set about creating the necessary structure (ultimately, the commercial

department had over 30 people), while also developing commercial

strategy and recruiting a team.

The reality was that the collective aspirations of my senior management

team colleagues and the government, added up to a capital and operating

budget of pounds 758m. The difference between lottery funding and

projected gate receipts from 12 million visitors equalled commercial

revenue. Well, that was the theory.

I remember my first board meeting, when I explained to Bob Ayling and

colleagues that there was no way we could do 150 deals of pounds 1m each

because there was insufficient time and value in the project. There was

probably not even time to do 50 deals at pounds 3m, but maybe we could

convince the market that the cost of entry was pounds 12m. Twelve

sponsors at pounds 12m each would make our lives a little simpler.

I think I ’oversold’ the idea to the board, as they seemed to believe

me. The only challenge was to do it.

Positive push

There had been some initial indications of support in principle under

the last government, but that was another time and another place, so we

were effectively starting over.

The Conservatives had put forward the notion that whole industry

sectors, such as motor manufacturing, might co-operate to produce a

single exhibition zone. But close scrutiny led us to conclude that this

was fuelled by negative psychology, with brand owners potentially being

’corralled’ for fear of loss, rather than any real desire to be part of

Britain’s millennium celebrations.

Our principles were simple and borrowed from the world of sports

marketing: category exclusivity was key, the Millennium Dome and its

associated National Programme must offer ’investors’ a real point of

difference over their competitors, not a ’me-too statement’.

Over nine months, we moved from the prospect of a consortium led by the

Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to a massive commitment by

Ford to become presenting sponsor of the Journey Zone, developed by Gary

Withers of Imagination.

This was supported by an initiative to allow schools and colleges to

design the car of the future.

Ford’s commitment said much about its desire to preserve market

leadership and be perceived as having ’fabric of the nation’ status but,

more importantly, it would be leveraged internally to its 70,000

employees and externally with a limited edition Millennium range and

advertising. You may have noticed Ford Transit’s ’Backbone of Britain’

TV execution.

Marrying resources

Each of the sponsors invested for different reasons. We knew that Tim

Mason at Tesco was in the market for the next generation of Computers

for Schools, Tesco’s most successful sales promotion, having provided

34,000 ’free’ computers for schools.

We suggested combining our resources to more than double the impact and

so Tesco SchoolNet 2000 was born, allowing every school in Britain to

create a digital Domesday Book, with the Dome’s Learning Zone as the

climactic conclusion.

Marks & Spencer carried out research among staff and customers and

concluded that children must be the central theme for its millennial


Niels de Vos, NMEC’s general manager, sponsorship, was the inspiration

behind ’Children’s Promise’, the simple idea that M&S should help the

nation to donate their last hour’s earnings of the millennium to

children’s charities.

This British trait of charitable giving in turn provided a logical link

with M&S’ association with the National Identity Zone in the Dome.

Children’s day

McDonald’s had little need to invest in further sponsorship, with its

commitments to the World Cup, Euro 2000 and the Olympics. But

discussions with the company produced a scheme to put McDonald’s at the

heart of millennial celebrations in 1000 communities around Britain.

McDonald’s ’Our Town Story’ will allow children in Britain to ’own the

Dome’ for a day, as they tell their story. This will be supported by

educational material, from the construction of the Dome to planning a

visit. Add Britain’s biggest McDonald’s restaurant in the piazza and you

have a compelling business proposition.

From relationship marketing to cause related, incremental business

opportunities to product showcasing, we explored the project’s every

facet. By June 3 this year, we announced pounds 157m worth of


Kevin Johnson is now senior vice-president, business development for

Octagon, and a member of The Marketing Society.


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