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Brian Bolten | The rise of the collaborative

Brian Bolten, a 25-year sports and entertainment marketing veteran, discusses his vision for the future of service companies within the industry.

The year 2020 (and continuing into 2021) has obviously taken its toll on our industry. Properties and rights owners had to cancel everything. Brands cut budgets. Agencies cut people. Layoffs, furloughs, cancellations, make-goods, and millions of Zoom calls. What a time to be alive!

But as we look to the future and recovery, including 30,000 fans at the Australian Open and 25,000 fans at the Super Bowl, a window of opportunity has opened to reinvent the processes, structures, and working teams that were once taken for granted.

Brian Bolten

A “new normal” in operational strategy is emerging, one that will disrupt the way things were, but will result in greater efficiency and expertise with the things to come. This model takes advantage of the supply of available resources in the market, and incorporates fractional executives and no-overhead hiring via a pooled, collaborative, experienced team.

Today’s sports world requires a new game plan, one where agility is key. Welcome to the new, nimble model. Welcome to the collaborative.

Here’s how various stakeholders within the sports industry are finding value in collaboratives: properties and rights-holders have lost sales and partnership staff, yet they need to sell and manage their partners – now, more than ever. Leveraging combined expertise, teams and properties are using this collaborative model to fill gaps with experienced leaders without having to hire them full-time, often to run groups of more inexpensive team members who are still beating the streets.

At the same time, the collaborative can offer hundreds of years of experience, much more than an individual consultant, but without the cost and overhead of a top sales agency. Properties are leveraging these collectives as an extension of their sales arm, given the top-level relationships that are in place.

Brands are running scared as budgets were slashed in 2020. While they are starting to come back, and it seems that TV spending in sport is still strong (given the lack of supply of live programming), sponsorship and activation dollars have been threatened (I personally experienced this last year).

Where do the collectives come into play? With brands having to do more with less, they might no longer have the internal resources they once had, and agency relationships are a big red target, given their long-term retained cost. With this new collaborative model, brands can now capture the same level of expertise, on an as-needed basis, without the overhead or locked expense.

And since the collective has depth and breadth of experience (such as sponsorship, brand/product marketing, digital/social/content marketing, public relations/communications, analytics/insights, and experiential/events/activation), the brand can pick and choose to fill whatever holes they have, while keeping one consistent source for its needs. Members of collectives are already accustomed to working with each other, creating greater efficiency and consistency in their work, all for the brand’s benefit.

The truth is that most agencies already use this type of collaborative partnership on a white label basis. While most have been severely impacted by the economic impacts of Covid-19, activity remains. Pitches are still won every so often, clients still need servicing, and signs point toward a recovery. But offices are empty. Overheads still exist. Who pays for that? The client.

So, as agencies transition to a remote model to save on overhead, they still need to plug holes. They reach out to collaboratives to service their own teams, in service of their client. Sometimes, this is communicated and sold-in as a sub that has depth of experience in a certain area. Often, it is white-labeled and the collaborative happily does the work behind the scenes, but does not present.

Despite the short-term symbiosis, there is a love/hate relationship between agencies and collaboratives. Over time, the collaborative model will most likely win head-to-head pitches, given that they can save on overheads while providing the same/greater amount of expertise and service.

The biggest potential downside of a collaborative is turnover of personnel (but not expertise). Most collaborative team members are searching for a more stable, full-time position, including benefits. This should be expected and promoted by the heads of collaboratives. To combat this, collaboratives often bring in a wealth of experience in the same area, so that if one team member heads off, another one fills in immediately.

Additionally, most collaboratives ask their team members to complete any current projects as part of their contract, which typically only last weeks to a few months, in most cases. So, while the roster of the team could ebb and flow over time, the depth of experience and expertise remains constant.

Another consideration that a user of a collaborative must consider is to determine any conflicts and protect exclusivity. The collaborative openly services all sides of the sports ecosystem, so there is an expectation that any conflicts of interests would be disclosed and avoided (similar to larger agencies today).

In 2021, there is the chance to work smarter through tough times, without fully retreating. This collaborative services model provides faster impact, lower risk, and the ability to continue to prove the value of sports, for fans and brands, as we head into the…don’t say it…new normal (ugh). Stay strong. Stay safe.

Brian Bolten is a consultant with sports industry collaborative firm NextUp Partners LLC 

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