- Experiential marketing agency Engine Shop acquired T Burns Sports Group
- Group will use acquisition to tap into Burns’ global contacts and client base
- Burns commissioned first ever brand assessment of the Olympics in the 1990s
The first thing to remark about Terrence Burns is just how well-connected he appears to be. What should be a short walk around the SportAccord Convention becomes a much more drawn-out affair in his company as he stops repeatedly along the route to talk to an assortment of industry figures. IOC members, heads of federations and even rival consultants all gravitate towards him like old friends as we cross the hall looking for a quiet corner to conduct our interview.
When you’ve worked on as many Winter and Summer Olympic bid campaigns as he has, it’s inevitable that you will make a few acquaintances in the Olympic family, but Burns’ work as a marketing consultant means he boasts some powerful friends on the brand side of the industry as well.
For once, the renowned consultant isn’t at the conference to promote a city’s bid to host the Olympics but is stalking the halls to promote a new venture.
At the turn of the year, he left bidding specialists Teneo Sports to set up a new sports marketing and communications agency, T Burns Sports Group, and soon after, the fledgling company was acquired by Engine Shop, the experiential marketing agency owned by former IMG executive George Pyne’s investment vehicle Bruin Sports Capital.
Burns says his relationship with Pyne dates back to their time working together at Nascar 15 years ago and that the two of them have tried, off and on, to work with each other ever since. His old friend, he reveals, attempted to buy Helios Partners, Burns’ other sports marketing company, while he was at IMG, but it is only now that they have managed to strike a deal.
The new firm will marry the US-based, full-service, experiential marketing expertise of Engine Shop and clients like Anheuser-Busch, ESPN, Mercedes-Benz and Under Armour with the more strategic marketing expertise of Burns and his European client base. Essentially, it appears Pyne bought Burns the individual, his book of contacts and the relationships that are so evident walking around the conference.
“George and I chatted and George said: ‘Let’s figure out a way to plug you into the Bruin universe and Engine Shop. They are a marketing services company, mostly in the experiential space, they don’t have any international business with the Olympics, Fifa etcetera, and that’s what you do, so maybe there’s a fit’.”
Under Pyne, Bruin Sports Capital have built a reputation for investing in future-facing, direct-to-consumer technology firms like Deltatre, in addition to sports hospitality firms and the live sports experience, but to get a fuller sense of the human resource they are investing in with the T Burns Sports Group, you have to go further back in time.
Terrence Burns and IOC president Thomas Bach
Burns’ relationship with sport began in 1996 when he worked for Delta Airlines on its sponsorship of the Atlanta Olympics. The IOC were said to be so impressed with his work that they invited him to help start the Meridian Management marketing agency, which took the Olympic contract away from ISL shortly after the Games had finished.
“It was fascinating because my role was on the sponsor servicing side, dealing with all TOP partners and marketing relationships with the IOC,” he explains. “But I also got to spearhead the first ever brand assessment and positioning work for the IOC.
“A TOP deal in those days was I think around $55m and we would go into, say, the CMO of Coke, or Visa or McDonald’s or whomever, and we would say it’s $55m and 99% of the world knows what the rings are and 99% of those people like it – that was the only market research we had.”
After the same brands became increasingly vocal about the IOC’s need to professionalise, Michael Payne, the IOC marketing director at the time, commissioned Burns to carry out a brand analysis of the Olympics.
“It took about a year and a half to convince them that they were a brand,” says Burns. “And once we got the green light, we did qualitative and quantitative research in 11 countries around the world. We created brand marketing data for sponsors to use to show them how people imbibe the Games, what the values were, how they expected sponsors to conduct themselves. It all seems kind of simple and straightforward now, but in those days, it was pretty radical.”
Through the research, the IOC discovered that that the Olympic Games ranked alongside organisations like the Red Cross and Unicef in the minds of consumers and determined to create a more sophisticated relationship with its sponsors that would allow them to tap into this rarefied brand equity.
“We were able to share that with sponsors and you started seeing that manifest itself in sponsor advertising at the Sydney Games, which probably was the first games where the values became paramount in the messaging,” Burns says.
Burns with King Felipe of Spain
Since conducting the study, he estimates that he has worked on ‘two dozen or more’ Olympic TOP or OCOG sponsorship deals, either as a part of the IOC, or as a private consultant, and says he has always tried to align the objectives of these brands with the lofty perceptions of the Games to help them get the most out of their expensive investments.
“I’m a recovering sponsor as we say, so I understand how it works and I know how difficult it can be in a very crowded space to stand out and differentiate and drive revenue or whatever your metrics are,” he says. “There are many metrics to be a sponsor. There are brand metrics and there are revenue metrics, there are employee metrics, there are license-to-operate metrics in terms of developing relationships with governments. It’s a lot more complicated than it used to be, but in a nice way.”
He gives a better flavour of his strategic insights when he describes what makes the most successful sponsorships work. Interestingly, he ranks staff engagement as one of the priorities of a partnership, especially for service brands.
“Service brands, like a bank or airline, are fun to work on,” he says. “You know I learned early on that the people that touched the customers for airlines and banks are the real brand ambassadors for those brands. You know the tellers, the flight attendants, the check-in agents. It doesn’t matter what your advertising budget is, or your campaign or your tagline. It takes one bad flight, with one bad flight attendant to ruin it at all.
“We suggest, or at least I do, to look at that as a discrete target audience for your sponsorship. How can you use things like torch relay slots, how can you use things like trips to the Games? How can you use things like licensed merchandise, to create programs, internal programs, to reward the types of behaviour and performance that you want employees to do?”
He argues that a lot of Olympic sponsorships fail because brands tear up their existing marketing plans and create an entirely new strategy based on their involvement with the Games. He says he was unimpressed with the latest set of sponsor activations for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and thinks the last truly great Olympic campaign was Proctor & Gambles’ ‘Thank-you-mom’ advert which celebrated the parental sacrifices behind every Olympic athlete, and first aired at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
“I think for its time, three games ago, it was very ground-breaking and beautiful and spoke to the values,” he says. “I would like to challenge them to do another one, but the one with the moms was right in the sweet spot of the values.
“But a lot of the other stuff to me was pretty traditional, kind of old-timey Olympic sponsorship advertising and I don’t say that to denigrate anyone. I just notice these things, it’s my business.”
Burns says these are the sort of insights that he would like to bring to the new agency, but where previously his sponsorship work tended to be at the strategic ‘front end’ of a deal, the acquisition by Engine Shop will allow him to service sponsor and rights-holder clients for the full duration of a deal.
“I bring the global perspective to a company that’s the best at what it does in the US,” he says, “and they give me an opportunity to talk about something more than simply: ‘let me help you negotiate a deal and do a strategy for it’.”
Burns with Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., Lima 2017
In spite of Thomas Bach’s determination to reduce the influence of the expensive consultancies that attend every Olympic bid, Burns would like to continue to help cities to compete for the Games and seems confident that he will still be able to do so in the post-Agenda 2020 world.
“What I do for bids is to help them create the brand narrative, create the story, tell that story. There will always be a need, I think, for someone who knows how to do that and I’ve been very fortunate to carve out a niche in that work over many years. Every two years I literally get to create a new Olympic brand somewhere in the world and it’s just so much fun.”
And even if the work with Olympic cities should dry up, there’s always the Fifa World Cup to provide him with a living – he is also currently working for the joint USA, Mexico and Canada bid for the 2026 World Cup and slips effortlessly into the pitch when the topic arises.
“I think in a perfect, rational world it’s a no-brainer,” he says. “I think it’s what Fifa needs to be a proof point on its aspirations for Fifa 2.0. I think it is a bid that if it wins can help kickstart sponsorship around global football and Fifa. I think it can help on issues of transparency and good governance. All the things that people are struggling to express in Infantino’s new vision this bid, for me, is tailor-made for it.”
Burns is so practiced is the delicate politics of a bid – where direct criticism of a rival campaign is frowned upon – that he seems to have become a master of subtext. When he describes how the joint bid is the logical destination for Infantino’s expanded 48-team tournament the insinuation is that Morocco might struggle to host the larger tournament.
“It’s a nice story for the world’s first ever largest World Cup – 48 teams and 80 matches – that by definition kind of limits where it can go,” he says. “The other thing the US, Mexico and Canada bid will do if it’s successful, is set a model that shows that you can have two to three countries in the future do this. Some of the smaller football nations will see that maybe they could actually host part of a World Cup someday.”
Having worked on the LA bid to host the 2024 Olympics he is equally accustomed to having to detoxify the influence of the Donald Trump presidency on a bid and adheres to the message that the presence of Mexico on the 2026 joint ticket is the perfect riposte to the politics of division.
So, is he worried that antipathy towards Trump or global politics might cause different voting blocks to align themselves against what would otherwise appear to be a strong bid?
“With every bid that I’ve worked on, all you can do is put the best bid forward you can do, tell the best story you can and on any given day they are either buying it or they’re not,” he says. “Irrespective of what you think of how voters are going to act, you’re probably wrong. I laugh, I tell most of my clients the only the only time I ever believe anybody, is if they tell me they’re not going to vote for you.”
It’s would be a dereliction to talk about Fifa with a brand specialist like Burns and not ask him for his take on the governing body’s brand. What, then, would he recommend to Infantino, to help the organisation move away from the controversies of the past?
“I were giving him advice, if they hired me, I would do the type of work that we did for the IOC 20 years ago, which would be to take that Fifa brand and break it down, see how consumers really understand it. What don’t they like about it, how do you fix those things?
“I assume people have done that for them, I have no idea. It’s frankly a much easier product to sell and it’s a much easier product to activate as a sponsor because in the Olympic Games, as you know, it’s clean venues, no media.”
It might be a challenge to detoxify the Fifa, but you have to imagine that Burns would enjoy the challenge of coming up with a clever catchphrase or rebrand to draw attention away from the governing body’s misdemeanours.
On the topic of slogans, he seems most proud of the ‘Follow the sun’ tagline for the LA 2024 bid which succeeded in reinforcing the US campaign’s forward-looking, new-world credentials and reminding the IOC of the old-world attributes of their rivals, Paris, and at an earlier stage, Budapest and Rome.
“I knew that it had to have something about the sun because I love the sun, I think the sun is about optimism, that’s why my company is called Helios.
“I’m on my phone, I’m on the beach, my wife is pissed off, we’re supposed to be on holiday, I’m slightly buzzed – I had a couple of drinks, you’re always more eloquent than you think, right? So, I’m Googling and I found this quote and it said: ‘by following the light of the sun we left behind the old world.’ It was Christopher Columbus, who’s not exactly the most PC guy of course in North America now, but to me that distilled it – that was exactly it. They left, they followed the sun to find tomorrow to find progress, to find innovation.”
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that with Engine Shop, Burns hopes to take some of that new-world marketing sunshine and direct it towards some of those old friends in the Olympic family.