What Sponsors Want circa 2023

I published my first solo book, What Sponsors Want, two years ago. 

Launch event post from 2022!

The book combined everything I had learned from others at the time. Whether attending conferences, working with clients, studying research, or learning from my industry colleagues. I refined the content through countless presentations by the same name and utilized the approach I created in many client strategy projects. 

However, as with many things over the past few years, I tweaked the approach as the pandemic radically redefined many organizations’ sponsorship or partnership approaches. So we can use those words interchangeably if you like. 

Conversations about partnership fuel the author’s perspective

This past week I was asked to do a keynote on What Sponsors Want, and I must admit, it has almost been a year since I presented it. This gulf in time is extraordinary, given the plethora of public speaking I have done in the past twelve to eighteen months. So as I approached the material, I needed to decide whether I would be presenting the updated version, an even newer version, or would I revert to the fundamentals of my book. 

I like the framework I created because it allows continuous interpretation and enhancement. The framework feels solid to me; how do you think after I share it with you? As I critiqued my work and pondered this presentation, I asked myself if I was answering the why sufficiently? 

The What Sponsors Want framework has five core principles created from what a brand leader needs from any property, partnership, or asset. Our clients utilize this thinking when developing an internal strategy or creating a pitch. In addition, they are broad enough to ensure all aspects of the partnership equation are inclusive and sufficiently inspiring to encourage the practitioner to dig deep. 

Here are my beliefs as to What Sponsors Want:

  1. To Borrow Equity – the more integral a property is to society, the more valuable it is to a sponsor.
  2. To Tell Stories – brands need to be the hero of their stories to connect with their audiences and create fandom. 
  3. To Engage Stakeholders – lasting and deep interactions with key communities can accelerate the growth of any company. 
  4. To See Proof – the counting of metrics is not nearly as important as the understanding of outcomes. 
  5. To Get Promoted – the job of any seller is to help the buyer do her job better.

I have long believed that sponsorship marketing is a people business, including the participants in our programs and the people behind them. Over the next couple of weeks, as I work on this new version of a What Sponsors Want presentation, I will tell you if that belief has changed.

Mark Harrison is CBC Metro Morning’s weekly business columnist –, the author of What Sponsors Want (, and co-author of Sports Sponsorship Strategies ( 

Rocket Man

Is there any way we can beg Chris Hadfield to lead our nation to full its full potential? That was the overwhelming feeling I had recently after leaving an intimate event featuring Commander Hadfield hosted by Elevate –

I had no idea what to expect when the invitation arrived. How often does one get to have dinner with an astronaut? Let alone the first astronaut from the British Commonwealth to go into space? Let alone an astronaut who is also a musician, an author, and social media savant?

The first thing I need to mention, and please hold your rolled eyes, is that Hadfield truly has an aura around him. While my colleague Giuliana duly pointed out that Hadfield did go to space, when I shared this comment with her, the aura I experienced was generated entirely by this amazing earthling. This man has a presence that is hard to define. I am unsure whether it is his enrapturing voice, his magnetic gaze, or how he seems to orchestrate the air around him, but it is present and powerful.

His uncanny ability to talk to everyone at a dinner table as if they were the only person alive while retelling his story is remarkable. Indeed you feel that he is sharing a secret with you for the first time before you pause to estimate how often he has shared this soundbite. 

No matter what profession Hadfield had chosen, his life lessons for a dinner audience would be the same. His emphasis on preparation for the best and worst in life by having an open dialogue about it was a new approach for me. How many want to discuss what we would do before losing a loved one or discovering that a health issue curtailed our career? This point stuck with me because Hadfield and his colleagues were technically well-trained to tackle the dangers of their roles. But this openness to the mental part of facing disaster is a new bent for me. I like the idea of discussing the worst case, so my head and heart are as ready to respond to crises as my hands. 

Commander Hadfield also talked about his objective for leading space crews. He knew he was a successful leader when crew members wanted to get right back in line for the next mission. In management, we call this retention. In marketing, we call this loyalty. In relationships, we call this commitment. It’s a powerful black-and-white, little-to-quibble test. Do people want to sign up for another adventure with you? If yes, you know your leadership – regardless of your style – is the right stuff. (Yep, I went there with that astronaut pun.) 

Many people talk of chasing one’s dreams, but how many of us have chased them out of orbit? As I walked home from that dinner, I made a short list of things I have spent years discussing but have never done. If the young boy version of Chris Hadfield can dream of flying into space after seeing a lunar launch on television and make it happen, an adult MH3 can get down to fulfilling a few simple acts on earth. 


PS. A day after the dinner, my Mom told me she and Chris Hadfield’s mother graduated from nursing school together. So if I didn’t believe in six degrees of separation before (and the use of the PS for an additional name drop), I do now.  


There are influential people in your life, and their brands in your lives are the same.

Steve Levy is a bit of both in my life.

Levy, of Ipsos fame, is an incredible public speaker, a highly recognized marketing information guru, and an invaluable though unpaid personal advisor to my professional life. For the first draft of this sentence, I wrote unwittingly, but that it was a brave comment to make about a person (Steve) who states, “Nobody is unpredictable” on their LinkedIn profile.

In early February, Steve revealed the 12th annual list of The Most Influential brands in Canada at a fantastic Globe & Mail Center event. Steve’s presentation, a keynote by world-class triathlete Andy Shibata of Air Canada, and an out-of-this-world panel of marketeers filled my insights tank for the week.

Steve has also made multiple appearances at SponsorshipX, and if you ever have a chance to watch him on stage, you will instantly want to sign up for his presentation courses. But enough about Steve. I want to share the key things I learned about Influential brands from his presentation, Andy’s keynote, and the panel.

Steve Levy

The first thing I learned to understand Influence is why one brand stands out among a sea of others. Brands with Influence outperform the stock market, weather pandemics, and continually find ways to adapt.

Some new drivers of Influence are essential to consumers – Empathy and Utility. Empathy resonates strongly with me because I believe consumers will measure brands on the integrity meter. Utility and affordability will be vital as the economic fears are front and centre in the minds of consumers.

Andy Shibata shared some simple advice – “Make it simple for others to tell your story.” Word of mouth has been the most effective marketing tool from the beginning. It will never change. Andy and Air Canada leveraged that fundamental principle during the pandemic when they had no marketing budget.

The closing panel dropped too many gems to count, but the topic I found fascinating was the notion of Generational Harmony. The concept, fortified by the Ipsos report, is that only some brands appeal to every generation. Great marketers understand how to have a symphony of activities related to their priority cohorts. In short, the marketing world can be obsessed with Gen Z, yet Boomers still control 40% of the wealth in Canada. Another takeaway was how focused the group was on serving their consumers, creating value, and solving problems. Yes, we just witnessed a ton of cute ads on Super Bowl Sunday, but this group’s focus on the other 364 days of the year reminded me of the need to put business first and laughs second. If you want to be an influential brand, understand a brand is a solution to pain. 

The panel moderator was Carla Serrano, Chief Executive Officer, of Publicis New York and Chief Strategy Officer, of Publicis Groupe and featured Alyssa Buetikofer, VP and Chief Marketing Officer of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada; Nicole German, Chief Marketing and Digital Experience Officer of Tangerine Bank, Bilal Jaffery, Principal, Head, Customer, AI and Experience Platforms, Accenture, Chris Stamper, SVP, Strategy Operations and Transformation, The Bay and Steve Levy, Ipsos.

Panel in action

If you want to pull your insights from the study, Ipsos has prepared a 24-page presentation available here – – that is well worth 24 minutes of your day.

The Nature of Influence

Black Impact

Last summer, my opening keynote at SponsorshipX Whistler was entitled Impact over Impressions, and I shared my model for making change.

I want to recycle and reuse this idea for my message to kick off Black History Month 2023. To help the Black community, we need to create an Impact, not merely generate Impressions. If you are a member of the Balck community, you need to measure the impact you are making to help. If you are a collaborator of my community, you, too, should recognize that 2023 is the year of outcomes over output.

My message to every company that wants to help during Black History Month is similar. Create Impact. Measure it. I mean real effects. Where to start? That is easy.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Many organizations want to donate their volunteer time, products or services, or marketing channels to Black organizations. That is nice as an add-on, but the base layer needs to be cold hard cash. You know in your business that cash is king; fledging black organizations need your financial commitment.
Your Idea Is a Bad Idea. I believe in every brainstorming, there are a lot of bad ideas. When it comes to helping other communities, you should not create ideas unless you are a cohort member. Black folks know what needs fixing. Non-Black folks don’t. So let those in the community come up with the solutions. There are many intelligent, talented, experienced, and well-trained partners to invest in and support.
Every Month Is Black History Month. One of my young colleagues said this to me over a year ago, and it has stuck. I hope it will stick with you. The Black Community needs your help 24/7/365. Your commitment to the Black Community is not a commitment if it has a twenty-eight-day shelf life.

The sponsorship marketing industry has been working hard on many issues – providing access to sports & music for children, tackling gender equity, and climate threats. Now powerful groups such as the Carnegie Initiative, the Black Opportunity Fund, The Reading Partnership, and the Black Talent Initiative (disclose I am a co-founder) are making an Impact with their every breath. Your support of these groups can be a vital step towards actual equity.

Bet on Black

Last week I was thrilled to attend BFUTR 2022, presented by TD and curated by the Black Professionals Technical Network. Accompanied by my colleague Hildah Juma, we were there to represent the Black Talent Initiative and support our friends at BTPN. 

The summit did not disappoint. 

Lekan Olawoye: Founder & CEO of BPTN, summed it up in one sentence when he talked about how TD “Bet on Black” when they came on board as his Title Sponsor. Indeed TD and a host of other tech-driven companies have wagered that our community is an essential cohort for them to curate. If some organizations didn’t understand this paradigm before this summit, Lekan and high energy host Nkechi Nwafor Robinson ensured they did. 

My favourite panel of the conference featured Searit Huluf from Pixar, Franella Ngaboh-Smart from Tik Tok, Shontay Lundy from Black Girl Sunscreen and moderator Sonia Oblitey from OkCupid. I admire how each panellist exhibited courage and ferocity to succeed. The critical moral of their individual stories was that the past few years have made them more fearless and less worried about how others interpret them. I support their collective maxim that by prioritizing what they need as individuals, they can better impact society. 

Mina McCullom, President & CEO of SynEnergy, was the motivational spark of the day, which we all needed late Friday afternoon. She called on the audience and, more importantly, brands to celebrate the achievement of Black engineers and not just constantly tout Black athletes in media. Her powerful message makes so much sense. If we celebrate Black success, it will produce Black success.

“Black is the new Black in Product Development” featured Intuit Product Development guru Shani Boston. She shared some startling facts, including that the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program paid Black-owned firms 50% less than white-owned firms of the exact specification. Knowing the challenges of Black entrepreneurs helps Shani lead innovations that will help them with their most crucial issues. Efforts like Shani’s and Intuit’s are significant as we know that without actual ecosystem change, society will never conquer systemic racism.

Betting on Black is not just for corporations, governments, or white allies. It is something any organization or individual can do today. 

Thank you, Lekan and BPTN for doubling down Black.

The Power of Belonging

Image credit: August De Richelieu

How was your Thanksgiving? Or Friendsgiving for those who couldn’t unite with their families. I am sure it was a deserved break to be welcomed by family and friends. Thanksgiving is a time to reflect and also a moment to recharge for the last months of the year. 

This holiday weekend illustrates a conversation I have had a lot lately. The idea of Belonging. It is the theme of my talks, many one-on-ones and my conference. Belonging is the North Pole of DEI for me and the motivation for changemakers and policymakers alike. Belonging is the way to combat many of the problems we face.

When we feel we truly Belong, we are at our best. Our performance soars, our confidence overpowers, and our insecurities are long behind us. You cheer for your local team because of the sport and the connection with fellow fans. Your social media friends are the best version of a friend you could ever ask for and ways accessible. If you have been part of a start-up, you felt like it was home because the mission was so inspiring. That is Belonging. 

Image credit: Fauxels

My ask is this. How can you create belonging in our world today? How can you make change and battle through the noise? How can we all? 

You didn’t ask, but here is my answer. I believe in creating Belonging in society; we need to focus on five things:

We need to create equity. This pandemic has been elitist, sexist, and racist. Never before have we witnessed such a great divide, and it will only worsen. When some folks don’t have running water, breakfast, or heat, and others pursue tax loopholes, how will we create balance?

We need to amplify voices. It isn’t enough to put up black squares on social or wear orange shirts. The people with the mic need to help those without by opening doors and stages to speak with our support and conviction helping them. 

We need to reimagine ecosystems. When non-marginalized people control investment, software programming, and what gets taught in schools, the playing field is not only tilted; it is a minefield. Racism is systemic and pervasive in our ecosystems.  

We need to demand results. How long can we wait for things to change? Ten years ago, at the 2012 London Olympics, the women’s gold medal soccer match filled Wembley. In 2022 we are celebrating the same fandom, but have we come close to levelling the investment in women’s sports? No!

We need to protect our Belonging as it is one thing to be fearless in life but another to be fierce. If we believe in a world where no matter what you look like, how you move, who you love, or how you identify is essential, you need to be fierce because the opposition to acceptance is angry, powerful, and organized. 

Image credit: Fauxels

I was recently on a trip to the States and, as is my custom, ate dinner alone at the hotel bar. In minutes I wound up in a four-way conversation with a group of strangers. There was a dentist, a lawyer, a bar manager and me. That is how a marketer would have identified them. The dentist was a budding entrepreneur, the lawyer had a child who was transitioning, and the bar manager was adopted and searching for her birth family. So that is how a preacher believing in Belonging would look at this trio. 

Someone once said we don’t get to choose our families. I agree, but we do belong to them. 



I am calling on all of you who believe in what we do. 

I mean, honestly believe. I am looking for those willing to put your money where your mouth is. A belief that you are ready to stake your reputation.

That belief is that sponsorship marketing works. Faith is in its ability to connect with the consumer, impact perception, and generate interest. Are you willing to put our craft up against any other marketing strategy? More importantly, do you have a conviction that brands should integrate sponsorship marketing with all types of marketing strategies? 

Historically we have seen some of the most successful brands in the world utilize partnerships as a central nervous system of their marketing. As a result, these brands have paved the way for a sector flourishing today at unprecedented levels. 

However, your word, or mine, or that of your colleagues is not enough. Opinions and insights matter but CEOs, CFOs, and Boards want to see results. They want Proof that what we say works, actually works. 

For sixteen years, Dr. Norm O’Reilly, SMCC, and IMI produced the Canadian Sponsorship Landscape Study to help you with fundamental benchmarks to build your business case for sponsorship marketing. The study provides insights into usage, trajectory, and types of sponsorships. In addition, the study provides the foundation for brands to understand what is occurring and for properties to talk intelligently with brands. 

The best sponsorship marketers are leveraging the CSLS and adding custom research and strategic analysis from one of the many talented industry research firms, consultants, or agencies that comprise our industry. The utilization of multiple inputs allows them the platform to secure marketing budgets, internal collaboration, and external support to build results-generating campaigns.

As a leading practitioner, the first step is for you to participate in the Landscape Study. The study design captures inputs from brands, properties, and agencies alike. It is entirely anonymous and secure as a third party collects the data with academic rigour. But there is a catch. 

The more people that participate, the better the study. The fewer participants, well, you understand. That is why I entitled this blog—100% Proof. 

Suppose we have 100% of the industry participating. In that case, we know that we will have 100% accuracy and be on our way to convincing the powers that sponsorship marketing is 100% worth investing in on a year-round basis. 

You can find the study at, and the results will be shared on November 23rd at SponsorshipX Montreal (SPX Montreal | SponsorshipX), with a full report available online in early 2023. 

I am counting on your support. (Pun intended)



Image credit: Toronto Maple Leafs

Never say never.

Reports claim that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman once proclaimed the league would never allow brands to have logo patches on team jerseys, but a pandemic can change many things. (For the record, I keep changing many pre-pandemic “nevers,” a dozen and counting as of this writing, so I empathize with the commish.)

Recently we have seen a flood of new deals as the league’s marketers shrewdly capitalize on the opportunity that the NBA started in 2017 and futbol began in 1817 (or so it seems). So the move by the NHL seemed to me like a natural, and probably more lucrative, by-product of their helmet logo test. 

Image credit:

So today, we have a flurry of deals. Canada Life on the Jets jersey. Gila River Resorts on the Arizona Coyotes uni. Dairy Farmers of Ontario on the Maple Leafs jersey. Rapid7 on the Bruins jersey. RBC with the Habs. 

I have some questions for our community:

  1. Do you like the jersey patches?
  2. Do you think it was long overdue?
  3. Is the commercial value there?
  4. Which team and brand is the best fit?
  5. Which team and brand are the worst fit?
  6. How about some predictions on nicknames and memes that may result?
  7. How best should these new partners leverage this affiliation?
Image credit:

I am old enough to remember when the rink boards and ice were clean and brandless, and thinking how odd it was when I saw European hockey, and they had ads on the boards and helmets on every player. Yep, that is a Black & White memory; due to its age, we didn’t have a colour TV at that point. But given the history of marketing soccer (sorry, Imran) teams in Europe with logos and third jersey concepts long before North America, it made sense that their hockey teams followed suit.

So first the NBA, now the NHL. Will MLB follow suit? The NFL? (I suspect not for the latter, given their TV contracts.) But the sports marketing world is shifting beneath our feet daily with NIL, Web3, crypto, NFTs, and sports betting. So is it no wonder those changes are now front and center for the fastest sport on earth?

The Era of Belonging

Image credit: Matt Sylvestre

One fantastic trend emerging at the SMCC Sponsorship Marketing Awards last week is that a new era has come into our industry. 

No longer are we blindly chasing impressions, and money can’t buy experiences. Instead, the brands, agencies, and properties that comprise our unique industry focus on Impact, Innovation, and Inclusivity. 

Whether it be Molson providing hockey content in multiple languages, the best in show program from BMO supporting soccer families in need or my client OLG collecting for the community, many of the award winners had a powerful intersection between purpose, cause, and branding. 

The awards shared last week inspire my point today. I believe we are now in what I call the Era of Belonging. What is belonging? It is that fantastic sanctuary where someone feels connected by a common purpose, allowed to express their shared passion, be rewarded for their effort, and feel accepted for who they are. 

The feeling of Belonging is what every company’s DEI efforts should be pursuing. But it’s far more than a CSR play or a social media campaign. Belonging is good business. Your profits will soar when people feel comfortable thinking they own part of the team, the brand, and the revenue. Your employee engagement will reach new heights. Your brand will become a movement.

This November, we will dive deeply into Belonging at SponsorshipX Montreal. We will hear research on which sport your consumers and fans feel they most belong to. Up-and-coming changemakers will detail how their social justice activities utilize grassroots communities of a shared passion for creating an impact far beyond their size. There will be classrooms to study sponsorship impact, workshops on doing presentations that connect more powerfully with your internal stakeholders, and interactive chats with marketers in the business of Belonging. 

Image credit: Matt Sylvestre

At its core, the sponsorship business is about brands creating opportunities for consumers to enjoy the things they love. Would the festival, the fundraiser, or the match occur without corporate partners or supporters, you could ask? But, of course, it is no longer enough to be about the simple act of underwriting. The sponsorship industry must do more in this era and all we are going through. It must help change the world. To create a place where no matter what you look like, who you love, or how you identify, you feel you Belong.


Three Years is a Long Time

Image credit: Matt Sylvestre

Sometime in May 2019, I walked off my SponsorshipX Toronto stage on top of the world.

My baby, the sponsorship marketing conference I had launched in 2005, was heading to Montpellier the following week for our first European event. We had just concluded an incredible event in Toronto partnered with Sick Kids with the inspiring theme Every Brand Has a Heart and entertaining sessions such as an interview with Andy King of Fyre Festival fame. France wasn’t the only destination on our minds as we concluded our TO event by announcing our 2020 lineup of events, including Vegas at the NFL Draft, Montreal in partnership with Athletics Canada, and Tokyo alongside the COC for the 2020 Olympics.

Forgive me if you feel my top-of-the-world comment was over the top. That is where I thought we were. 

I was hoping you could pause for a moment and consider this question. What was the worst of all the professional or work things you missed or lost during the pandemic? What was the program, promotion, or passion point you didn’t get to fulfill? You need to think carefully about this question through your 2019 lens. To consider it in hindsight will cloud it with situations during the pandemic that became situational lessons.

There is no question that the past few years have made me realize how challenging life is. Issues around mental health, work-life balance, diversity, and belonging that I somehow ignored have become persistent and meaningful. But unfortunately, it took the trauma of the situation to bring them to life. 

I feel like 2019 was so long ago. I was shocked at how emotional I was at the close of SponsorshipX Whistler a week ago. Writing these words brings back those feelings. It has been three years since my favourite time of year. Three years since, I have been able to host, serve, and commiserate with my industry pals. 

Three years. 

The mountains of Whistler called me, and it was an inspiring few days for me to be back among my peers. Nothing can compare to being together to share and support one another. If you were one of the strong seventy in Whistler, I would thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

I am a preparation freak, but I don’t think I did an outstanding job preparing myself for the moment of truth. I rehearsed my opening keynote and studied my Q&A notes, and researched mine—interview subjects. Even took time to deliberate over the flow of the event. But in all that prep, I did not once consider the emotional impact of stepping back on stage. 

I can’t lie. I am not at the top of the world. I am incredibly grateful to all who came to Whistler; I am excited to host more events. But a part of me is angry, and a part of me is confused.

The anger comes from missing out on those three years. The confused part of me questions why I am being so petty.

The pragmatic part of me says to hell with the past three years and the following three. If the pandemic has taught me anything, I should no longer look years down the road for personal fulfillment. But, no, we have zero clue what is around the corner. 

Perhaps the next thirty minutes of my life are a more helpful timeline to consider. The next half-hour may not be more controllable than the next three years, but we must enjoy today as tomorrow has never been more uncertain.

As the years have gone by, I am still learning.