Q&A with 2020 Sponsorship Mastery Summit thought leader Britt Carlson
By Paula Beadle
Sponsorship Mastery is excited to announce Britt Carlson’s return at the 2020 Sponsorship Mastery Summit. Britt’s 2019 session “What’s the Big Idea?” was rated as one of the top sessions by summit attendees.
Britt Carlson is a master at building partnerships at the highest levels and currently serves as the CEO for Special Olympics Oregon. Previously, her work in professional sports marketing and sponsorship spanned two decades with the Minnesota Vikings, Timberwolves and Lynx. She then served as the Senior Director of Partnerships for the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, raising $53.3 million in corporate partnerships.
I had the opportunity to work with Britt during our time together at the Minnesota Vikings. It is there that I witnessed firsthand how Britt creates authentic partnerships that elevate the synergy between consumer, brand and sponsor. Britt’s ability to develop ideas tailored to sponsor objectives and marketing initiatives was extraordinary then and continues to flourish today.
At the Sponsorship Mastery Summit in September, attendees had the opportunity to hear from Britt about her experience taking risks to sell big ideas to potential sponsors. One example was how Britt successfully navigated the partnership between the Bold North, XOOX and the NFL Super Bowl to create one of the most popular attractions of the 2018 Super Bowl despite numerous barriers and red tape. Overcoming obstacles to produce wildly successful partnerships is just one of the reasons why Britt is changing the sponsorship industry as a sponsorship thought leader. Following the Sponsorship Mastery Summit we had a chance to reminisce about our early days together and share a few favorite stories.
Paula Beadle: When did you first develop an interest in sponsorship? Was there something specific that sparked your passion?
Britt Carlson: I started my career with the Minnesota Vikings as a Corporate Account Supervisor. I remember walking towards the plush purple carpet of the conference room for my interview and just before I walked in, I glanced in the office to the right. Most people would have probably been captivated by the team practicing on the field, visible through the big windows. Not me – I was staring at the t-shirt gun with a Factory Motor Parts logo, the Sargento cheese grater (clearly a prop for the Packers game), and the huge posters of players with Burger King logos. At the time, I didn’t really understand how these things came to be, but I wanted to learn – it felt almost like a gravitational pull. I remember feeling as though that interview could change my life – and it did. I’ve spent the last twenty years immersed in building and supporting partnerships – I’m a storyteller and use sports as a platform to engage and unite communities, activate brands, create immersive experiences and ignite conversations that capture local, national and global attention.
PB: Tell us about your journey becoming a sponsorship trailblazer and thought leader.
BC: My path was a little non-traditional – I started in sponsorships and then spent most of my career working with companies to create hospitality partnerships. I oversaw executive suites, clubs, courtside seats and season tickets. Eventually, I moved back into the sponsorship space with the Super Bowl and that opened my eyes to an entirely new level of activation. We had the global stage for ten days in Minnesota (2018) and our team created a ten-block interactive, transformative experience for 1 million guests, 5,800 media and 10,000 volunteers. We had 48 outdoor concerts, partner activations throughout Minneapolis and even built a zip line across the Mississippi River – in February – in Minnesota. We had the challenges of needing to weave a football theme into each activation, teach companies how to use a platform like this to maximize their investment and work strategically with not only the sponsors, but the NFL, the activation agencies and the city. I’m proud of what I contributed, but also felt like I spent two years enrolled in the Harvard of sponsorships, working alongside some of the greatest minds in the industry. I quite literally rewrote my own playbook after that experience.
PB: You recently spoke at the Sponsorship Mastery Summit about your experience developing and executing Big Ideas. What are your key strategies to developing big ideas for sponsor partnerships?
BC: The sponsorship industry has evolved past asking clients to choose from package A or package B, which is very transactional. And, your assets are no longer your selling point – everyone has signage, websites, social media, and tickets – that’s what is in your tool belt, but not what you lead with. There is not a one-size-fits-all formula to selling big ideas, but I do have a method that I keep fluid enough to adapt to the unique circumstances or nuances of each partner or situation. Step one: Start with the “why” (credit to Simon Sinek). When you understand what an organization does, but more importantly why they do it – you’re going to be able to connect with them on a much deeper and more impactful level. Step two: Unless the discovery process brings to light a very clear desire and the creative campaign to go with it, my goal is to come back to the partner with several big ideas that show them how they might use my platform to accomplish their objectives. I rarely worry about vetting the logistics or even the cost when it comes to big ideas – I just want to see what makes their eyes sparkle. Often, an idea I present will trigger an imaginative breakthrough for the client or we will pull the themes that they liked and continue to tweak the proposal until we’ve found the right fit.
PB: I appreciated the story you told about working with Lifetime Fitness and how you developed several BIG ideas in preparation for the meeting. What was it that you specifically did right in that meeting to bring the partnership together?
BC: For the most part, the companies we were approaching about Super Bowl partnerships had never done anything like that before – and the investments we were seeking were not idle dollars in a marketing budget. It was clear with several companies – and I shared the specific example of Lifetime Fitness – that it would need to be a passion project. With Life Time, we presented ten big ideas that ranged from converting a downtown health club into a private concert venue to an extreme sport activation for fans to setting a world record for the most people doing yoga in sub-zero temperatures outdoors. In the end, none of the ideas ended up being the home run – but a combination of those concepts evolved into one big idea. It was the theme of one (Experience of a Life Time) with a twist from the creative minds of Life Time’s leadership that aligned with their development goals locally that brought us to the final concept: an intimate evening for the leaders of the Super Bowl LII Founding Partners to welcome Roger Goodell and other NFL executives to Minnesota – complete with snowmobiling and an exquisite dinner.
PB: People often ask me to share big ideas in hopes they can repurpose them, but I think it’s more helpful for people to learn how to create their own customized ideas. Do you typically create your own ideas or build upon and repose ideas you have learned along the way?
BC: I couldn’t agree with you more. I find value in having a finger on the pulse of what others are doing because of what I referenced above – looking at different ideas can only help to spur more ideas. I spend time every day looking through LinkedIn, blogs and articles to see what the latest trends are and keep a file of things that wow me. I have found value in partnering with activation agencies – Clamor in Minneapolis is an incredible boutique agency that gives very personal attention but has driven many high-profile national campaigns; they are incredible creators. My work with them has ranged from just needing a few hours to help me brainstorm ideas, to having them build out a partnership deck with customized renderings, joining me for a pitch (in case conversation around a concept gets tactical or logistics-focused) to bringing them on board to execute a partnership activation.
PB: You have worked with many large partners like Polaris and Lifetime Fitness. What has been the key to maintaining those relationships?
BC: I always take the long position. As sellers, we are focused on results and when you invest time in something that doesn’t come to fruition, it can be disappointing and even devastating. I always remind myself that until a contract is signed, a company owes me nothing. They can pull back or change their minds and that certainly does happen. Sharing your disappointment can be done with respect and it’s an honest emotion people would understand – but I never burn a bridge. I always want to leave doors open for the right partnership – which could be a month or several years down the road. When partnerships do happen, there are a few things that I think are important to ensure success: 1) Set expectations that are very clear to ensure both parties understand the scope, scale and objectives of the partnership. 2) Define how you’ll communicate and who internally needs to be involved for decisions that need to be made (this might involve a list of people who you work with on various aspects, with one person serving as a project management lead). 3) There is generally some level of latitude or fluidity, especially on larger partnerships. I try to engage clients right away when things deviate from original expectations or plans (which is not uncommon) and make sure conflicts are worked through immediately. Nothing crushes trust more than being blind-sided or feeling like someone knowingly withheld information.
PB: What do you think the next five years look like for sponsorship marketing? Consumers are faced with so many options, whether it is the products they buy, the services they use or the events they attend. Nobody is looking to be sold, so if you use sponsorship to force feed advertising messages, I see it having a reverse effect. If consumers walk into advertising soup and can’t see through the clutter, you’re doing a disservice to your partners and your customers. The key today is to use sponsorship to enhance an experience for the fans or consumers – that should be the litmus test of a big idea. I also see the trend of paid influencers losing momentum as consumers are seeking more authentic connections to the brands they love. If those brands are doing good work (impacting values and issues their most loyal consumers are passionate about), that is going to build trust and create loyalty. Big ideas in sponsorship should align brand personality, values and goals.
About the Summit: Sponsorship Mastery Summit takes place September 23-24 at the Hyatt Olive 8 in downtown Seattle. SMS is a powerful and immersive experience specifically for sponsorship sales leaders representing universities, parks and recreation, tourism, sports teams and events, fairs and festivals, venues, arts and cultural organizations. Attendees will collaborate with thought leaders, hear from big brands, exchange ideas and leave with best practices, actionable tools, valuable resources and new connections. Participants will attend interactive workshops, industry forums, big idea roundtables, and networking events. Learn more and register here.
About the author: Paula Beadle is the president of Caravel Marketing. She is a results-driven trailblazer with a proven record of creating order out of chaos. Paula has helped numerous organizations discover and achieve their goals by developing and managing innovative sponsorship initiatives, generating incremental revenue and successfully coaching thriving teams, executives and boards.