Sports Industry Group
The Big Interview:
SMG Insight

Frank Saez, managing director and founder of SMG Insight, speaks to Sport Industry Group about the power of utilising research, why there are some positive times ahead for rugby, and how good data always has a role to play.

Most major sports sponsors and rightsholders will use a research agency to evaluate their deals. But is it still the preserve of the bigger brands?

No. We know that even the smallest amounts of research can generate meaningful insights. A focused research project that challenges a single assumption about your audience can transform a strategy. Likewise, using data to back up a small hunch you may have about your property gives you the power and legitimacy to really follow through. So size doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to insight.

So is there a difference between what the bigger and smaller players in the market want?

The big sponsors and rights-holders absolutely still want sets of bespoke reports with insights, which inform specific business objectives and satisfy partners.

But for many, especially smaller organisations or those on a tighter budget, syndicated services – real-time dashboard access to data we collect every day in markets across the world – is the way in. They still give you a tonne of data and an almost infinite number of ways of cutting and presenting it – but they are different to what the sports world has previously thought about in relation to research services.

Big or small, the needs of organisations tend to be the same when they talk to us. They want evidence to check on their value, to understand their audience, to make their pitch or to see whether a deal is working. What changes is simply the level of value-added insight they want from the team.

The research industry is being democratised – in the sense that a wealth of data is now available to more organisations. That creates competition as more brands and rights-holders invest in insight but in the longer term that’s great for the industry. Vanity projects will fall by the wayside and what we’ll have is a market that functions much more efficiently, with much more effective campaigns. The more people who have access to data, the better off we’ll all be.

This year saw you launch the 5th annual edition of SMG Insight’s SportsIndex Buzz Report. How is it put together?

The report takes one of the 16 metrics we track sports properties by – Buzz, which is a net measure of negative and positive chatter.

A property’s Buzz score can change every day but for our annual report we take its peak score for the year. And then we rank the 60 sports properties we track in the UK.

What were the main findings from that and how did they compare to previous years?

Rugby is doing tremendously well in the UK right now. Rugby properties made up two of our top three events and there is real value in the market. Another headline was that the Tour de France sustained a performance, which saw it move from virtually the bottom of our rankings to virtually the top, last year.

I think another remarkable thing is the resilience of the Paralympic Games. In off years, the Olympics slide down our rankings but the Paras stay in the higher echelons each time – that tells me something interesting about the values of the Paralympics and how they resonate with people.

Horseracing also has a great story to tell this year – but there are lots of interesting strands in the report which people can read more about for themselves.

Apart from the basics, to many people the world of data and research in sport and sports sponsorship is still a bit of a mystery. How can data and research make a difference to the sector?

We see how our data and our insights make a huge difference to clients every day but I also get why people don’t immediately share our understanding of the issues. It sometimes takes a bit of explaining.

So how does it work for your clients?

Let me see if I can bring it to life a little bit.

Say you are a small to medium-sized sports league or tournament whose title sponsor has decided not to renew. You need to find a new one – but where do you start? How do you narrow down your options from the thousands of brands out there?

One of the first things you could do through data is paint a detailed picture of your audience – their gender, their age, their geographical spread, their income, their wider interests, their brand affinities, even their social attitudes and what they watch on TV.

Having that data puts you in a much stronger position to define your value in the market. If your audience is 35% more likely to buy a luxury car than the wider population, that puts you in a much stronger pitching position when you pick up the phone to Mercedes for the first time.

And what about if you are a sponsor, rather than a rightsholder? How do you help then?

Ok. Well, say you’re in charge of a brand which has just signed a three-year deal to sponsor an international sports tournament, like the Champions League. You know it’s going to provide you with cut-through over that time – but how much, what kind and amongst who? What’s the uplift in perceptions of quality? Are fans more inclined to buy your product than before? Supporters recognise your logo more – but how much more? And are you getting value for money for that?

We can do all that and more – we can rank your team or sport or event relative to your competitors against a stack of metrics; anything from audience size to fan passion. We can compare how you are doing in markets around the world. We can help you gauge reaction – virtually in real time – to your latest marketing campaign or to the scandal your team might have fallen into, so you can pivot your strategy as people react to it.

So what’s new in the research world for 2018?

Like I said earlier, we see this shift towards companies of all sizes wanting to underpin their marketing strategy with data – not just the big guns – and that’s something we’re looking to meet head-on.

As well as that, we find we’re winning more business purely based on the speed at which we can provide data.

Historically some research companies have worked on a model of providing data every six months or even annually. But we think that’s too long to influence decision-making effectively. Much of our data is collected daily, and in territories across the world – and that’s the way the market is moving. People want to track the effects of their decision-making quickly so, if they need to, they can expand or pivot their campaign. In an era of same-day deliveries, companies shouldn’t have to wait 12 months for business-critical data. It helps a great deal in that respect that SMG Insight is part of YouGov – other companies struggle to offer that kind of scale or speed.

How crucial is data to sport moving forward? 

I don’t think its importance can be overstated. If you have access to good data and you’re not using it, you’re taking a massive risk. It strikes me as pretty negligent in today’s market that people might be making multi-million dollar deals based on their feelings. They just don’t have to any more.

You support the International Marketing Campaign of the Year Award at the BT Sport Industry Awards. Is data and detailed fan understanding more crucial than ever when the work becomes multi-territory? 

It doesn’t matter where your market is, or how big it is – good data has a role to play. If you are running an international campaign, the stakes are higher. You need to be sure that you can land your messages in China as well as they land in the States. The best way of doing that is knowing your market and that’s why we want to be part of recognising those who are best at doing that.

Frank Saez (right) pictured with Manchester City FC and Wix, winners of International Marketing Campaign of the Year in association with SMG Insight at the BT Sport Industry Awards 2018, alongside British tennis number one, Johanna Konta

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