How to create a successful partnership

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In this episode John Burns, Partner in our Commercial, Sports and Technology team, is joined by Mark Cueto, MBE and former international rugby player, to discuss what it takes to create a unique and successful business partnership.

In this episode:

  • An overview of the partnership between Gateley and Sale Sharks Rugby Club
  • A guide to the things that businesses should consider when researching partnership options
  • Mark and John take on what works well within partnerships
  • Top tips for anyone looking to set up a partnership

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This episode is part of our straight talking business success podcast series. Learn more about the series and what we cover. This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Read the transcript:

Host: Welcome to Straight talking business success, your guide to growing and developing your business. Today we are joined by our guest Mark Cueto, MBE, former England winger and commercial director for Sale Sharks rugby club. We're also joined by John Burns, who's a partner in our commercial, technology and media team. He's a specialist in IP, brand licensing and sport and together we're going to be looking at how partnerships between brands can benefit a business. The first point that I'd like to look at, is what we actually mean by partnerships and to get your opinion from a Sale Sharks perspective.

Mark Cueto: There's many sort of different levels to it. We get approached by a lot of, sort of companies that want to partner with the rugby club for reasons such as brand-awareness similar to the introduction and the initial conversation with Gateley and you guys. You'd done a re-brand and knew you want to get a platform to get it out there, as well as hospitality for entertaining staff, staff rewards, whether it's entertaining clients, doing business off the back end of hospitality is a common thing. So I think in terms of partnerships as a whole, I think these days the social media platforms is something that's sort of exploded over the past, maybe five or ten years.

Mark Cueto: Most general business struggle to make content interesting, so I think that's where we can help massively. Partnering with a sports club or rugby club, you get access to players, to coaches, to staff and it just allows you to spread that sort of brand awareness on a completely different level, it's a bit of a softer sort of push. So I think there's a number of sort of huge benefits to a partnership.

Host: John, from your perspective, is there anything to add there?

John Burns: Just really, in terms of when we look to partner with either a brand or individuals, athletes, it's all about whether that alignment is going to work with Sale. They have a very clear picture as to where they want to go and we think it's ultimately in the same direction that we want to go and that's key to any partnering arrangements. If you're not both headed in the same direction with the same general goals, it's not going to work. The days of just slapping a badge on something and thinking, "Right, that's it. Job done." They're long gone. As Mark said, there's now so many platforms to get the fact of your partnership out there, to work on that partnership.

Host: So you mentioned there about making sure that direction is aligned. What should those looking to enter into a partnership be considering at the outset?

John Burns: Well, it's a number of things. One, what are the brand values of the company or individual you want to partner with? What's their reputation like? Is it going to enhance your reputation or is it a big risk of damaging your reputation? Can you build a network or grow out to your network on the basis of their network, both your partners and in the case of Sale, their fans, their suppliers and if that all adds up, then I'd say, "Yeah, well go for it." If it doesn't, there is no point putting a partnership in place just because the brand or the individual athletes appears to be flavor of the month, because that's where things can and do go wrong. If you look at a lot of these brand ambassadors out there, how many of them have fallen by the wayside and they've had to say a big story in public.

Host: So what things have worked well in this partnership?

Mark Cueto: For Sale Sharks in particular, we're very proud. John mentioned sort of core values, you drive for success, you winning your trophies, your discipline, your teamwork, your enjoyment and I think a lot of businesses are focusing on cultures. How to get the best results from staff and I think if historically, maybe that's something that hasn't been looked at from a business point of view, but that's something that is looked at every day in a sports team. So I think there's a lot of, sort of parallels that cross with sports teams and businesses and I think, sort of going back to Sale Sharks, one of the things that we pride ourselves on commercially is... And I'm hoping I'm not tempting fate here, because we're only in the first year of the partnership with Gateley.

Mark Cueto: But obviously give or take the odd partnership, but historically, whether it's a headline sponsor UKFast, they've been involved for 10 years, print and sponsor one of the main stands at the stadium, been involved with us for 10 years. AJ Bell, the naming rights to the stadium who sponsored us for 10 years. So we take a lot of pride in once we manage, it's so hard to get a partnership deal done. The number of companies that as a team, as a sales team, as a commercial team, that we approach every year. You wouldn't, but I suppose it's like any pitch in any business, isn't it? So when you do get someone in, you want to look after them and you want to make sure, again, gone are the days where 10 years ago we signed a deal together, Sales Sharks, Gateley.

Mark Cueto: The main sort of principle part of the deal is the branding piece on the kit. In the old days, once that deal is signed, we stick you on the kit, we take a few pictures and you shoved it in a drawer till a year, two, three years later when it comes to renewal and suddenly we're like, "Oh, we want to be best mates again." That just doesn't work these days. That is a big part of the deal, but we probably speak weekly or at least every other week on other aspects of the contract that need activating. Again, whether it's going back to social media campaigns or events we do, we do an event once every sort of six to eight weeks. There's so much to-

Host: It's more than just a brand.

Mark Cueto: It's more than just the branding, yeah.

John Burns: There's no way we'd done a deal just based on branding and I think what we liked about Sale, obviously they're a key part of the Manchester and greater Manchester community, and in terms of resonance with the business community, arguably the or certainly one of the top brands, but it's aside from that what really sold it to me, was this is how we're going to activate your partnership with us. This is who we're going to introduce you to. These are the events that we've got ongoing and unfair play to Mark, I've been to a number of these events already. I've met some great people, some really hot client prospects. I've got a meeting actually this afternoon with a guy I met on last Wednesday and the other thing... Sorry, I'll talk a little about this, but what I really like is that once you're part of the Sharks family, you're very warmly embraced. There's no one who thinks hopefully other lawyers arrived. With anything there's always a risk when you sign a deal, because you don't know what you're going to get. What I can say, this far it's gone beyond expectations, so.

Host: That's great to hear and to build on a point you alluded to a moment ago, around kind of setting up partnerships and that not always being straight forward. What are the main pitfalls and how can these be overcome?

Mark Cueto: I think with a lot of marketing it's really hard to measure actual ROI. We try to give as much information as we come, we outsource a lot of that work. So for example, all our major partners in terms of, from a branding piece, we worked with a company called Nielsen. So they're recognised as the global leader in sports marketing data. So they track every single time that the Gateley logo is picked up on live TV, from our matches and what they do, they've got an algorithm pumped into a computer system and they basically give us a value. So for every time in the first six months, so they give us these values for every game. They give us a weekly report, a quarterly, half yearly and an annual report, and generally... Well, I've never seen it come back where it's the value that the company gets from the exposure on a kit, it's almost 10 times what it would cost them.

Mark Cueto: So for example, for every second the Gateley's seen on our kit in a live game, the algorithm basically works out what it would cost Gateley as a company, to get that exposure in front of a similar audience for a similar number of minutes, seconds, whatever and they can convert that into a cost. And generally we return it between five and ten times, that value and that's purely just immediate value. So from that point of view we're working hard to try and give a return. I think as we've said, kind of the days where people just spend money and it's an ego thing and they see the brand on a kit or they see the brand on a TV and think, "Oh, that's my company."

Mark Cueto: You actually need to see a return for business and just going off what John said there, in terms of a business network in the Northwest, I'd probably put Sales Sharks, sort of business network, up there with one of the best. So in terms of getting in front of other businesses in Manchester, looking for introductions, looking for work off the back of the partnership, there probably isn't a better place to do it.

Host: I can imagine that having those metrics from the outset is important, as it's going to help you demonstrate return and make those negotiations a little bit more straightforward.

John Burns: Yeah, it does. I've been working in sport for many, many years now. So I've seen those numbers and I know how the pitch goes, so really that's taken as a given that you're going to get more exposure. For me, what really sold it to me was the activation piece and this is how we're going to bring you into the Shark's family. Yes, you're right, it's important. Nobody is going to want to be with a brand that's not going to be seen.

Host: Okay. So from the buyer's perspective, what top tips would you give to anyone looking to invest in a partnership?

John Burns: I mean, from the buyers side, shop around. Because it's highly unlikely that you're going to be so specific with your requirements, that there's either only one company, one sports club, one brand, one ambassador that will fit, because they will have different offerings. Point two, make sure that the values are aligned. As I said earlier, check what their reputation is like. Point three and this is, here's a tip, don't do a Time Computers. So when Time sponsored Blackburn they thought great, Blackburn, a local club doing well, they're going to be mid-table. So they put a really, really hefty bonus or they agreed to a really hefty bonus clause. If Blackburn called qualified for Europe, that was literally astronomical at the time, they thought they're never going to get there.

John Burns: Blackburn win, they qualified. So we had to try and get Time out of that contract, because Time were going down. They'd already paid for Mr. Spock in Star Trek to advertise them across national television. Then they went on this year to Blackburn and we managed to get them out of that deal and flog it on. I can say that, because Time are now no longer with us, they didn't have enough time.

Host: That's really useful to hear John. So from your perspective, Mark, do you have any tips?

Mark Cueto: I think from our point of view, it's a really sort of difficult market. I think naturally being in Manchester, you've got the big heavyweights of the premiership football clubs, so you've got United, your Man City. Obviously the big potential advantage that we have over them, is that for every £1 it costs you to get involved with Sale, it'd probably costs you a million quid to get involved with Man United and they're two completely different platforms. And they've got that price tag for all the right reasons, but I think it is a tough market and I think that's one of the reasons. It's good to hear from my point of view, when John mentions the thing that sold it, because I think we do focus a lot on those media values.

Mark Cueto: Because for every £1000 you spend with those, we can show you a return or not a return, but if you were to do it in a traditional sort of media marketing platform, like the radio or the TV or the newspaper. For every thousand pounds you spent with us, it'd cost you 5000 with one of those other platforms. So we do sort of leverage quite a bit on that, but what was going back to the point that John mentioned about the sort of the activation, that's something that I think we've identified as a business in the last sort of four or five years. That it isn't just about getting a contract, getting a brand on a piece of kit and putting it in a drawer and not speaking for a years time, and that's the biggest part of the business that we've grown.

Mark Cueto: We've always had your accounts and your sales team and your ticket office, etc. That's always going to be there, but if I go back five years, we had one media manager, that one media manager looked after everything. We've now, that media team is five men strong, led by young, sort of youthful, fresh sort of out of college, out of university kids that are big on social media and know how to best activate certain bits of budget across social media. And the other key parts of it, is we have a sort of dedicated account manager.

Mark Cueto: Once a partnership is signed off like this, it gets passed over to a dedicated account manager that makes sure, on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, that everything's being delivered and everything that we've promised is no longer just hidden in a drawer until till next year. So I think it's reassuring, because as I said, we've grown that part of the business quite a lot. Like I said, we've probably gone from two or three staff to probably 10 staff. So there's a big cost to the business to do that, so it's reassuring that those sort of things are valued and are important to you guys as a client ultimately.

Host: Okay, that's great. So we've got some tips in there for those businesses considering entering into partnerships and we've looked a little bit at how kind of partnerships have changed over the years. There's a lot out there. What do you think makes a partnership or a partnership opportunity unique and takes it above just delivering on a contract?

Mark Cueto:
I think the key for me is, and it's sort of flipping it to the other side now, although ultimately your paying us, so it's up to us to deliver. The other side of it is having a company and guys within the company that are engaged and they want to make the partnership work. So even little things like, John coming to every business club event or you wouldn't believe how many partners we have that never come to a business club event or we're chasing them. They've got X amount of hospitality in their contracts and we're chasing them all season to get the hospitality booked in, because if you leave it till the last month or the last two months of the season, you're not going to get booked in because it's busy, it's popular.

Mark Cueto: So I think the fact that you guys are engaged in it, you want the partnership to work, the fact we're doing this. Again, there's so many rights that get missed every year in contracts and it's not for our lack of effort of getting them delivered and we understand that people are busy, companies are busy, but it's refreshing. I genuinely mean it, that you guys are engaged in the partnership and I think that's really important.

Host: That's good to hear. What do you think John?

John Burns: In terms of actual distinction, as I say, it's rare to get something that specifically stands out on its own. You can have partnerships that you didn't think would work, that do work. You can have partnerships that have happened in difficult times, but the easiest one for me is, looking at in terms of distinctiveness, those partnerships that have really worked, where you get brands and partners that are so closely aligned, that they're almost one in the same. This is going a bit slightly off piece, but the ones that really work for me, that are very much in the public domain, are naming rights. So if you look at various names of buildings around, there is still people who remember them by that initial partnership.

Mark Cueto: Like Millennium is a classic, isn't it? No one calls it the Principality nowadays, even though it is the Principality.

John Burns: Yeah. So they for me, if I'm looking for distinctive partnerships, naming rights that have really stuck and when the partner has come in at the right time, they're often the first to do that deal. That for me is where I think there is a clear distinction.

Mark Cueto: I think just to add to that as well and it's easy for me sitting here on this side of the table and I'm not paying the money, but I think that you've got to give a partnership time. Doing a one year deal and then potentially not renewing, because you've not seen the return or whatever. I think the longer the partnership exists, the better chance of that return that you've got. There's obviously an end point to that, maybe if after two, three, four years you're still not seeing the return that you want or you're still not getting the activation or whatever aspects of it, then naturally you're going to make a call. But I think there's definitely an initial period that you need to give a partnership a chance.

John Burns: No, I think that's a really good point, because lawyers can frequently be very short term when they're looking at an ROI, not just in terms of partnerships, but in the events that you attend. Right, we didn't pick up a client this year, we're never doing that again and it may be that you get a call 10 years down the line or that you haven't seen, you've got to work at something. So yeah, I think that's a good tip for anybody out there when you're looking at your partnership, make sure you have a realistic term for ROI, don't expect anything to definitely happen immediately or in the short term. If anybody out there wants to know more about partnerships or maybe dig down more into the specifics of a particular arrangement that you're contemplating, please just get in touch on either LinkedIn, email me, call me. All the info should be out there.

Host: Thank you for listening to Straight talking business success. To find out more about the series, please visit From here you can subscribe for updates, meet our speakers and get more information on all of the topics that we've covered.

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