Steve Martin
by Simon Ward
There are ever more agencies in sports marketing, but still “plenty of business” for the most successful, while sponsors are increasingly open to creative campaigns, says Steve Martin, global chief executive of UK-based M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. Author
13th July 2018, 10:42

M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment grew out of one of the world’s leading advertising agencies, having been formed in London in 2004, and is now regarded as one of the ‘grandees’ of the sports sponsorship industry, developing campaigns for major brands such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and Reebok.

In 2018, it faces competition from similar agencies that have been founded by rival communications giants, as well as smaller specialists that have emerged in a fast-changing media landscape.

However, Martin, who has headed up the M&C Saatchi subsidiary since its launch, argues that it has remained relevant and at the forefront of the business, not only because of its commitment to the core principles of its parent, but by being creative, as it has expanded to six offices, comprising 180 people, around the world.

He cites the success of multi-platform campaigns such as ‘Wear the Rose’ for O2, the main sponsor of the England Rugby Union team, and ‘Cricket has no boundaries’ for NatWest, a partner of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

In recent months the sports and entertainment agency has been organising activations to support the Fifa World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola for this year’s tournament in Russia.

Former Italian star Andrea Pirlo takes part in the Fifa World Cup Trophy Tour

Speaking to Sportcal Insight at M&C Saatchi’s headquarters in Golden Square in central London, Martin claims that there are now a wide variety of competitors on the international front, saying: “What’s interesting now is the pitch lists, those you go to pitch against, in terms of other agencies. Half of them you’ve never heard of, it’s quite extraordinary.

“There are specialist shops, maybe there’s a PR offering and a digital offering, it’s quite bizarre. It’s not ‘roll up and you’re just going to get M&C Saatchi, CSM, Octagon’ - it’s not like that.”

However, at least in the UK, he still sees the opportunity to stand out, saying: “To me there’s still plenty of business to be had and enough business for everybody to have good businesses, and it’s still a small industry.

“If I see M&C Saatchi pitching in the advertising world, there’s 200 good ad agencies around. There are probably five good sports marketing agencies in this market, so you’ve a bit of a chance to create a solid good business.”

Martin argues that agencies should look at what rivals are doing, but more importantly diversify, in order to meet the needs of clients in a fast-changing landscape.

He says: “We’re very, very aware of who our competition are, but we’re not distracted by it. We can only control what we can control here, and we have to make sure we’re moving with the times, making sure we have the right people involved and making sure we’re launching parts of the business that capture other areas, like the whole lifestyle area of fashion and sport, and health and wellness, to add to our sponsorship activation business. Our experience and live business is growing hugely.

On the other agencies he admires, Martin complimented Two Circles, the UK-based, data-driven agency that is part of WPP’s ESP Properties, saying that it has “found a niche in the way that we tried to find a USP for ourselves,” as well as more traditional domestic rivals such as Synergy and CSM.

Martin insists that, despite the increased segmentation in the marketing industry, there is still a place for the full-service agency, particularly those that offer effective creative solutions.

“We’ve diversified, and added to our offering over time,” he says. “When we started out we were basically just a PR agency that did sport, and had really amazing credentials in that area, and won a lot of business very, very quickly.

“When I look now, that’s about 25 per cent of what we do. We are a full-service agency because of our planning function, studio resource and creative resource. We’ve got client managers for specific clients, so we can really do the lot.

“But it’s horses for courses. We’re not deluded to think we wouldn’t do big PR campaigns, that’s massively important, and we’ve got a lot of clients like that; but then we’ll also do full service for the likes of O2 around England rugby, NatWest around the whole ECB cricket partnership, and Reebok, for whom we do so much more than just the comms function, including the live event stuff.


What we do now is connect brands to their audiences through passions… If you think about it, it’s incredibly powerful to be able to engage with audiences  

“What we do now is connect brands to their audiences through passions… It took us a while to land on that, but if you think about it, it’s incredibly powerful to be able to engage with audiences.

“Sport is obviously huge because of the scale of the audiences, but the clutter is extraordinary. It’s quite noisy, there’s too many brands shouting, it’s hectic, so you’ve got to find a way to navigate through that, and we have an approach called ‘brutal simplicity of thought’ which allows us to do that, which we absolutely stole from the ad agency.”

Martin acknowledges that the M&C Saatchi name and resources are a major selling point for the sports and entertainment arm, but also that it needs to be distinctive, saying: “We’re modular, you can buy us in different ways, and I think that is the beauty of it, because flexibility’s really important, skillset’s really important, and specialism’s really important, so it’s not just buying the name above the door.”

Martin, who is from Northern Ireland, made his name as a senior executive at Adidas, latterly as senior global PR manager, before leaving in 2001 to launch the sports unit of USA-based PR firm Ketchum.

M&C Saatchi Sports & Entertainment developed on the back of major sports events such as the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the 2002 Fifa World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and on the entry of new sponsors into the market, and received an early boost in 2005 when the 2012 Olympic Games were awarded to London.

Martin claims the agency brought flair and creativity from the advertising world to a sponsorship market that had been dominated by traditional companies, and remains loyal to this DNA, saying: “We have this constant desire to evolve and change and add things to our portfolio in terms of our offer, so we were genuinely the first to call ourselves ‘Sport and Entertainment’ [having started out as M&C Saatchi Sponsorship].

Creative campaigns, backed up by planning, insight and reliable data, are an increasingly important offering in the sponsorship sector, with brands and rights-holders now seeing the value in exclusive content.

Martin says: “We are an editorially-led agency that has not relied on media-buying or advertising above the line, and that has allowed us to create campaignable ideas that can live and breathe through media relations, through social media, through live experiences, through retail, through whatever.

“If you look at our work with O2 around England Rugby with ‘Wear the Rose’, that was a creative concept that had 15 different strands that the business got behind, that the digital team got behind, that the retail team got behind, that the advertising team got behind, that the sponsorship team got behind, that the PR team got behind, that the B2B team got behind.”

The 'Wear The Rose' campaign, a creative concept with 15 different strands

O2, the mobile phone operator that is the long-term main sponsor of the England rugby team, launched ‘Wear the Rose’ in 2015 to encourage fans to wear replica shirts featuring the team’s emblem, and the campaign has since been rolled out across multiple media platforms, and extended to the women’s side.

Sponsors are much more open to creativity than they were in the past, according to Martin, who says: “What there used to be would be a brand would do a sponsorship deal per se and there would be a set of rights it would get, and you would simply activate around the rights - we have tickets for this, we have access to these players – and that quickly became hygiene [sanitised].

“I think what we recognised was, and you get this from working with brands, you get challenged to come up with award-winning campaigns. Those are briefs that happen 18 months before, they don’t just happen. They’re pitch-winning things. So much hard graft goes in upfront, but I think, rather than being hygienic, let’s activate these rights and add a huge creative layer on top that you can build equity in - and ‘Wear the Rose’ has become that. That’s been three or four years and I hope ‘Cricket has no boundaries’ will last for a long time.

“The haphazard nature of marketing is such that I’ve always felt brands become a bit schizophrenic and every six months they get a bit bored and come up with something new and I think the sports brands are the worst at it sometimes."


I’ve lost track of what Nike’s campaigns are all about. It was ‘Just Do It’, now there’s all this strange marketing jargon...

The former Adidas man adds: “I’ve lost track of what Nike’s campaigns are all about. It was ‘Just Do It’, now there’s all this strange marketing jargon, whereas something that you can build equity around over time becomes very campaignable and you’ve got to stretch yourself creatively to do that, and keep it fresh and dynamic with innovation and new ways of connecting.”

On the changing trends, Martin says: “Live is massively important for brands and there is huge potential with live experiential because you can bring along 100 people to a live experience, but they’ll share it with 10 million, which is why you’ve seen the rise of influencer marketing.”

Following its launch, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment branched out quickly, opening an office in New York in 2006 to support its work with Reebok, and where its client portfolio has expanded to include the likes of Red Bull, Oakley and TaylorMade.

The agency landed in Sydney in 2008 on the back of a pitch for Qantas, and its clients in Australia now include Optus, Commonwealth Bank and Audi.

Martin is pleased with the progress made in what he described as “very traditional sports sponsorship markets”, and there has also been expansion to Berlin and last year South Africa, via the acquisition last year of Johannesburg-based agency Levergy, and Los Angeles, with the opening of a new office covering the west coast of USA.

He says: “It’s about being in the right places and not the wrong places. A lot of agencies got seduced into going into Brazil with the [2014] World Cup and [Rio 2016] Olympics. I think they got a bit burnt. We held back because although M&C Saatchi have an ad agency in Sao Paulo and have done quite well, it was a bit like a circus coming to town and then leaving, and I’m really pleased we didn’t go in.”

On the likely next target markets, Martin says: “We’ll definitely look at China and we’ll probably look at the Middle East too. Every time I fly into Dubai I can’t believe how many sport and entertainment events, experiences and brands are there.

“Our model helps a bit because what we do if you look at the mantra of M&C Saatchi when it broke away from Saatchi & Saatchi [in 1995], the whole underlying philosophy of the company was to create a federation of entrepreneurs so we want people who have a vested interest in their businesses and have equity in that business. You’ve got a great name above the door, but you can then build your own team and the autonomy’s very, very strong.”

Sportcal