In the past, it was often the case that sponsorship deals were struck purely on a company chairman's whim. Love of an event led the way to a costly association for the brand, but which would have only negligible PR spend applied, just days before it actually took place.
Thankfully, times have moved on. Sponsorship has become a more advanced marketing medium, taking the association to the consumer and ensuring the much-demanded impact on the company's bottom line. But what still needs work is a consistent early role for PR.
According to Steve Martin, managing director of M&C Saatchi Sponsorship, the most successful sponsorships are those that make PR the lead communications tool.
'There are two goals to any sponsorship - to make it famous and to make it work economically for the brand.
PR is central to both these goals and should be involved right from the beginning,' he says.
Martin estimates that currently this is the case in only half of sponsorship strategies. 'PR needs to get in even before the deal has been signed, where different strategies are being considered. Without viable, well-thought-out PR, the sponsorship has a significantly reduced chance of working.'
PR has a vital role in convincing clients of the need for early input.
But there is a feeling that if PR is to be trusted, it must work harder to understand these types of association. Alun James, managing director of the sports and sponsorship division of FourGritti Communications, says PROs must adapt their outlook.
'PR is typically involved once the sponsoring organisation and the marketplace has been analysed and a sponsorship has been identified, developed and negotiated,' he says. This can mean leveraging a sponsorship without time for all the elements, such as personal appearances, promotional days or media access.
But James believes agencies must not blame others for being left out: 'PR consultancies have to demonstrate more knowledge, expertise and insight in order to be an active partner. PR can play a vital role but agencies need to earn it rather than demand it.'
Sue Newton, brand PR manager at npower, needs no convincing. She appointed Lexis PR in January to promote this summer's Twenty20 cricket tournament - and npower's sponsorship of it - with the aim of involving the PR arm as early as possible.
'Doing the basics is relatively easy but the challenge lies in how to take it further and give meaning to the personality of the brand,' she says. 'Getting PR involved early is key.'
Guy Patterson, Lexis Sport group account director, is in charge of the project. 'All brands want more exploitation of their sponsorship beyond awareness. One of our tasks has been to secure definite ROI. We've run customer insight reports showing the emphasis should be on business customers.
This is the sort of work that getting in early allows,' he says.
Scottish Courage has also just enjoyed a successful first year backing horse racing's Grand National with its John Smith's brand, and PR played a vital part, according to Nigel Pollard, head of PR and sponsorship.
'ROI requires the sponsorship to be activated through every part of the marketing mix,' he says. 'Our experience with the Grand National was that this was an event that really understood the needs of a sponsor and how to get the maximum value through PR. Sadly, not all event owners are this switched on.'
It is this lethargy towards PR on the part of event owners - many of whom believe that once the sponsor is signed up the work is done - that has prompted some brands to create events where they have control.
Red Bull is one such firm, having created events such as the SoapBox race, FlugTag and Art of Can. The brand sponsorship activity revolves around having the PR team in-house, says Fiona Mollett, head of comms for Red Bull UK.
'The team is involved from the start of any project and helps shape the media value of the activity. In the early days, sponsorship was managed by the events team and PR would be brought in at a much later stage. Having PR fully integrated doubled results.'
The same early bird principle is being applied externally by Shine Communications, which is handling surf clothes brand Quicksilver's own 'Roxy Jam' surf event this month in Newquay, the European leg of the Women's World Championship tour (see pic).
As it is the first time the event is being held in Britain, Quicksilver wanted a much bigger reach. 'We had a dedicated person working on this in January,' says Shine director Greg Jones.
'And the longer lead-time and ability to take part in better strategic conversations are really paying off. We've had more time, which means being able to think outside the normal product placement routes. This has included setting up a partnership with The Lavender Trust, which promotes breast cancer awareness. We've commissioned artists to make plaster casts of the busts of the surfers, and it is getting coverage from The Guardian, The Observer and Sunday supplements.'
According to Cake CEO Mike Mathieson, who works with Reebok, PROs can learn from these new case studies: 'Even in the highest-profile sponsorships there is the same pressure for word to spread. Nothing truly gets off the ground unless the PR accompanying it is first-rate.'
For Reebok, Cake has an evaluation system to measure how successful its various vehicles are. PR is linked into this. Mathieson says the best strategies are those that take anything up to nine months 'considering every angle before signing a deal'.
Of course, sponsors do not always have the time to formulate a considered PR approach. Many deals are signed only weeks before the event occurs, making the role of PR much more limited.
Business process services brand Xchanging's first sponsorship of this year's Boat Race, for example, was finalised only seven weeks before the event. Such a short run-up presented many challenges for Alastair Lamb, Xchanging head of communications. 'It was very difficult due to the short timescales and the fact that the event was on Easter Sunday,' he says. 'Because of this, the focus was on the sports pages rather than business or lifestyle, which we will look at for 2006. In year one, this had to be our primary goal as there is always a time lag when taking over as a new sponsor.'
But for M&C's Martin, while getting involved late is not the best answer, it is precisely the ability of agencies to react to last-minute deals that should also play to their advantage. While preferring early involvement, late deals are something they should also promote themselves as being able to manage.
He adds that late sponsorship is a 'nightmare' for advertising as last-minute deals make it difficult to buy media slots. This, he believes, is a scenario where only PR can make a significant impact.
'While brands are generally being cleverer and thinking of strategies earlier on, the ability of PR to make an impact so close to an event may be one of the reasons why many sponsors still don't consider it until this late stage,' Martin concludes.
Taking sponsorship early is every PROs dream, but it is still squarely up to them to make it happen.
HOW EARLY WERE THEY?
Promotion of the sponsorship of local running events, such as the Liverpool 10k, appears in local press and the running titles almost as soon as that year's race is over.
XCHANGING: THE BOAT RACE
This year's Boat Race was without a sponsor until the last moment. The Amateur Rowing Association co-wrote the official programme, sold to crowds along the banks.
NPOWER: TWENTY20 CRICKET
Lexis PR has been working on the cricket account since the start of the year and will be organising cheerleaders on the day giving out promotional vouchers.
JOHN SMITH'S: THE NATIONAL
A new trophy was commissioned for John Smith's first sponsorship of the Grand National. Scottish Courage PR head Nigel Pollard says: 'We wanted to be new.'
RED BULL: SOAPBOX RACE
Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz has said he spends 'two days a week thinking of wacky ideas to promote the Red Bull brand'.