In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to John Trainor, Founder &  CEO at ONSIDE.

Marking 10 years this month since receiving his Fellowship of the MII, and ahead of news in the New Year of plans for the ONSIDE / MII Who Won Sponsorship Series 2021 event, John Trainor discusses how the specialist consultancy firm guided clients and the wider industry through the impacts of the pandemic and the need for exceptional intelligence.


MII: Hi John, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

From March, we knew that information and data needs – the heart of our offering – were going to change considerably. Our annual Irish Sponsorship industry survey, released weeks earlier, was now more a picture of what might have been rather than likely. Our quarterly tracking of Ireland’s most admired sponsors was set for the biggest shifts seen in over a decade as sports and entertainment stalled. Data was changing fast and uncovering the exceptional ‘Covid effect’ for our clients, as well as creating timely intelligence as a support to the wider sponsorship industry that supports our business, became our focus. A new COVID-19 Sports Impact Monitor with sports industry stakeholders and research with the Irish & UK public around the specific effects of the pandemic on their sports and entertainment worlds allowed us to stay connected and relevant to brands and rights holders that needed fast and accurate market intelligence for their planning and negotiations.


How have you been engaging with your team?

Our team adapted and flexed very quickly to reset our ways of working and how we were producing our work. Fortunately, we had just completed a major IT infrastructure project that meant we were ready to switch to remote working within days. We invested in a new platform for report production in Q2 that served as new way for project teams to sit around our intelligence reports in a dynamic new way, bringing a sense of progress and pride in how we were upping our game in troubling times. We have ensured there is structure to interaction for those that need that, through different daily, weekly and fortnightly diary dates, while all the time creating space for spontaneous, random chats around how the extended family of ONSIDE dogs are behaving and how the US members of our team in Dublin and Chicago were voting.


What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

We have seen the growing need for those involved in marketing sports and entertainment to de-prioritise the live event as the dominant force of sponsorship. The pandemic is likely to spur a necessary shift in the way marketers approach sponsorship. Sports and entertainment will always be a live events business. But even before COVID-19 dramatically, and perhaps permanently, altered what a live event looks like, smart marketers recognised that limiting the scope of sponsorship to marquee events ignored many of the most beneficial elements of the relationship between rights holders and their communities of followers.

These sponsors and rights holders—while not ignoring assets such as on-site activation, hospitality and others integral to the live attendance experience—have moved beyond those interactions to exploit the relationship between fans and their favourite teams, artists, through a myriad of other ways, especially by taking advantage of digital technologies.

Sponsors that want to see better returns from their activations and other leveraging must work with their rights-holder partners to become not just digital and social content engines, but to do a much better job of mining the rich trove of data they have to inform and improve sponsors’ activations.


How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

We have used this window to reset our masterplan for the business and one of the key elements of success for me will be how well we can reset the culture at ONSIDE that fits into the next world order. We are privileged to work with some of the biggest and best brands and sports and entertainment events in our field globally and we aim to get to enjoy that more. More team days to recharge and play together, while continuing to learn more from the seats of the entertainment arenas we study rather than from the office desk. I think we will emerge as a more flexible, agile and balanced group of professionals in our field over the next few months and years.


Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

Our purpose is to build exceptional intelligence to improve both the commercial and community outcomes gained from sponsorship and related fields. As the demands for robust data regarding the impacts of something as dramatic as a pandemic on sponsorship value and effectiveness require unforeseen angles, such as the adjusted value of a sports event behind closed doors, we have been required to put sharper focus on the evolving commercial case for sponsorship in the near term. We are also stepping up our pursuit of better understanding of how the activation element of sponsorship total investment can score best, all feeding our relentless pursuit of next generation sponsorship business cases.


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

As a collective I think the supermarket sector and their marketing teams have been phenomenal in the nature and scale of their responses to the pandemic and public research we have built across the year supports that view. Further afield, special shout out for me goes to pharmaceuticals company MSD and their support of Dutch football club SC Heerenveen where they filled its empty stadium with 15,000 teddy bears to raise money for KiKa, a child cancer research charity. Fans responded in their droves, with the bears selling out in hours, raising more than €230,000 for the cause. Purpose driven marketing that hit the sweet spot perfectly in darker days.