Ambush Stinks

Bill_Cooper_web101 Bill_Cooper_web101 Bill Cooper, Visionary & Innovator

Sure, I am biased, but it stinks.

For about 20 years now, most of the work I have done has revolved around selling or securing the marketing rights of sponsorship properties.

Given this perspective, I generally think ambush marketing is bad for those of us that service sponsors and/or seek to benefit from return on sponsorship investment. And I can weigh in with this opinion with some authority, given that I have been ambushed as a sponsor, defended against ambush on behalf of the Olympic movement and executed ambush tactics on behalf of clients.

Please take note though, that I did not say it is illegal, nor did I say it is not smart or that it might not be derived from the thinking of incredibly innovative and creative marketers. I did not even say it should stop or will stop. But I did say it is bad for the sponsorship sector. And that is because it constitutes an environmental factor that marginalizes the exclusive marketing value sold to sponsors, licensees and/or broadcasters.

When I share this view within the marketing sector though, I sometimes get the sense I have chosen the uncool side of the debate. You see, it is much more de-rigueur these days to start your blog or article with a headline declaring that ambush is smart or that such and such advertiser gets the ambush gold medal for the last Olympic Games. That’s the version of the story that gets the enthusiastic nods or appreciation. Focusing on how it is bad, on the other hand, incites deep inhaling and uncomfortable pauses.

And that is unfortunate, because sponsors, licensees and content partners make the sponsorship sector tick, and you’d think we’d have the stamina to make good on our promises to them in the face of ambush no matter how clever.

Before I dive deeper though, let’s get a couple of things clear. Firstly, this is not a forum for whining about ambush. A sponsor should have the sponsorship assets, storyline coaching and allocated resources to activate a sponsorship in such a way that pretenders in their category will look silly for copying. Secondly, a property should not make promises of exclusivity that cannot be kept. In fact, a property should go so far as to proactively share with a sponsor the kinds of things a non-sponsor can do in order to set expectations appropriately and inspire impactful activation.

But here’s the thing:  as a property, in order to achieve client servicing excellence, it is not enough to simply tell a sponsor to activate better and then sit back and watch their category get ambushed.

I’m known around here for my propensity for analogies, so here’s one for you. Imagine you have a hot dog stand. After diligent permitting and discussion with the city you have secured a fantastic location and you are quite literally cooking with gas. After six months of crazy success another hot dog stand sets up 20 feet from your stand and within two weeks your business drops by 75%.

You have two choices. You either look on in admiration and tell those interested how smart and creative the other hot dog stand is; or, you respond and fight to win business back.

Of course you must explore every avenue. You must of course look at pricing, quality of product, marketing, side dishes and whatever else you can explore to win back your success. But you must also go to the city and determine whether their vendor permit for the competitor’s location is valid or whether they are breaking some bylaw. In short, you must explore all avenues to compete, because business success won’t come from a half-cooked hot dog.

Mitigation of ambush is the same. You cannot simply whine and hope that the law or bylaws will protect your exclusive marketing rights. Nor can you simply admire the ambusher’s work and quietly wish your activation had been better.  You must explore multiple avenues to defend your conversation with consumers.

Our sector’s sponsors are engaged in a competitive race for share of their category and the assets and servicing standards we sell them to help win that race must be similarly competitive. So let’s not celebrate ambushers. Instead, let’s dissect their tactics and get better at beating them in the race.

Ambush in most cases may be legal and it may well be a simple product of healthy business competition. But in a competition you have to prepare for what the competition throws at you and respond to what they throw at you.

Ambush stinks. But it is a competitive reality that can be mitigated. So stop marveling at ambushers, fire up the grill and sell some hot dogs, because you need that other hot dog stand struggling to survive before renewal discussions start.