Q&A with Sponsorship Thought Leader Kristi Ellefson, Delta Dental Washington

By Carol Garza

Kristi Ellefson is the senior manager of public relations and brands for Delta Dental of Washington and will be a guest panelist at the Sponsorship Mastery Summit. She was one of the first to hear the plans for this two-day summit and immediately agreed to join us. We had the opportunity to catch up with her recently and wanted to share that conversation to provide a little more information about Kristi, as well as insights about what she hopes you’ll get from her session at the conference.

Carol Garza: Last year, when we shared our plans for the Sponsorship Mastery Summit, you were quick to say, “Count me in!” Why did you want to be involved?

Kristi Ellefson: I did! I’m passionate about partnerships and what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve built. I’ve been with Delta Dental of Washington for 10 years now. I basically started with nothing, and that meant I really got to test things and see what worked and what didn’t. In 2009 we were a different brand that was just starting to explore sponsorships. I’m proud of the partnerships I was able to create in those early years. When you think about things like social media, that was still so new then. Today, digital is one of the top assets for a brand, and the need for content has really changed the landscape.

As far as why I wanted to be part of the Sponsorship Mastery Summit panel, it doesn’t do any good if we don’t share our learnings with others. Sharing is what’s needed to make a partnership successful. It’s helpful to me as well because when brands get together and share their best practices and lessons learned, we discover how to ask for the right things. There is a real need for sponsorship sales development and I’m still surprised at how some brands or organizations approach us with sponsorship opportunities, what they propose, how the relationship is cultivated and managed. If we don’t get together and talk about how to make these relationships better, it’s not going to change.

CG: Sports is one area of sponsorship focus for Delta Dental of Washington. Can you tell me why that has been a focus for the brand?

KE: Ten years ago, we wanted to align our brand with teams that could help elevate our brand awareness. Dental benefits aren’t always top of mind with consumers and we needed a way to break through the noise. Since then, we have grown our partnerships with local teams to include the Seattle Seahawks, the Seattle Sounders FC, the Seattle Mariners, Gonzaga Men’s and Women’s Basketball, and the Seattle Storm. When I look at these partnerships now, it goes beyond brand elevation to a true partnership that’s about what we’re doing to support our mission and the communities where we work and live. I also look at things like our sales funnel. What assets can the brands provide to us to help our sales team? We look to the partner to think of us when something presents itself that isn’t part of the sponsorship contract. Being in contact with the sponsor is vital to being top of mind. And our brand has something to offer as well. Delta Dental of Washington has strong brand sentiment, so we can share the love by posting support for our local teams on our social channels.

CG: There seems to be a shift in how companies are engaging in sponsorships. Brands that once sponsored multiple events and teams are now narrowing their focus to just a few larger sponsorships. What is your approach?

KE: I would say that yes, I am seeing some brands making a shift to a more narrowed sponsorship focus. We really look for sponsorship opportunities that make sense for us. That can be a challenge when you’re presented with a sponsorship that doesn’t imagine your brand. I’m also still seeing a lot of the same kinds of packages coming on the proposal front—a PDF with a chart of assets showing more logo placement and recognition with the more you commit. I’m not a big fan of this. I want something that is unique to my brand and shows why it makes sense for Delta Dental of Washington to become a sponsor. If it’s something I want to be a part of, I often find that I have to do the creative work—I have to figure out how to support it in a way that is unique and makes sense.

CG: You are speaking on a panel at the Sponsorship Mastery Summit about sponsorship insights and expectations as a sponsor. What can guests look forward to hearing you talk about?

KE: It’s important for properties to acknowledge the value brands can bring to a partnership. It’s not just about the price tag on the partnership. Once a deal is signed, properties should continually work hard to show their value and brands should engage in the partnerships and not just set it and forget it. A great sponsorship team is also going to look for ways to showcase the brand outside of what the contract outlines. This value add always helps the brand feel better about the spend. Deals can be tough and it takes a lot of back-and-forth for both parties to come out feeling good. This is where honesty and kindness need to prevail. Communication is also key. Be sure to keep regular meetings to ensure you are getting what was promised and that you’re getting them your deliverables, but also to grow the relationship. It provides both sides a chance to look for opportunities that might be out of scope, but don’t be afraid to ask. No asky, no getty.

CG: What is one of the keys to your success?

KE: I am always thinking about learning, evolving and not getting stagnant. I keep goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) to track ROI, but I don’t let it become a copy, paste, repeat routine. If you get wrapped up in doing things the same way you’ve always done them, they become obsolete. If you don’t work hard to keep innovating, the sponsorship loses its value.

CG: Part of sponsorship includes networking and connecting with the right people. What are your tips for growing your network?

KE: Show up. Yes, it can be a challenge to find the time for so many events, but showing up to support your teams and partners can help deepen your relationships and help you find out about new opportunities. Always make sure to say hi to the right people in the room and thank them. A little goes a long way.

About the author: Carol Garza is the partnership manager for Caravel Marketing. She brings a wealth of partnership and event marketing experience and expertise to the table, most recently in consumer engagement for a national advertising agency. She previously worked as an events and promotions manager for the Downtown Seattle Association and received two regional Emmy Awards for her creative contributions at KOMO 4 TV in Seattle.