ITW Consulting's managing director Bhairav Shanth, as the head of the global sales team for the group, has taken on the responsibility of bringing in innovation in marketing and branding to get the best ROI for their clients.
Bhairav Shanth spoke with Sportskeeda about rising sporting trends, facilitating partnerships for the IPL amidst the pandemic and digital acceleration among other things.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business model? How are you tackling the same?
Bhairav Shanth: Just like everyone else, at the beginning of the year, we found ourselves severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as brands were cutting off marketing budgets and we had sports tournaments being postponed or cancelled en masse.
Despite the extremely tough conditions, we dug in and essentially surveyed the market in terms of how to reinvent our business model in the COVID-19 environment and looked inwards to sustain our staff, their talent, contributions, and the efforts they put into making us and our clients grow.
ITW’s core strength is its cross-disciplinary teams - who are capable of providing flexible solutions to clients. We looked at crafting solutions on digital properties and the like to provide new avenues in the absence of live sports as a medium.
What is the sports business trend you are observing in the Indian sports industry? Is it bent toward fantasy/eSports more now?
Bhairav Shanth: The one fascinating epiphany that we have had is that the new era of sports marketing is not really new, it’s just that the COVID-induced disruption has accelerated it a bit. It has shown how television packaging and production can make a sporting event work even behind closed doors with no fans present and that crucial element of broadcasting has taken center stage.
Another thing that is feeding the change is that sports consumption is increasingly getting granulised. Not everyone watches entire broadcasts of sporting events these days, and even when they do, they tend to either use multiple screens or often consume sport in bite-size chunks in the form of highlights, milestones, big plays etc.
Our model to help brands capitalise on this change in consumption behaviour through hybridization, which of course means that fans' engagement with fantasy sports and eSports will increasingly become a part of the bouquet of branding platforms that brands will use.
Tell us about your recent partnerships.
Bhairav Shanth: We have been very active during the build-up to the IPL and most of our activity has been on that front. We signed up CRED and Unacademy as official partners for the IPL.
We have more than 16 partners we signed up for the individual franchises as well, including MPL for KKR, TCL for Sunrisers and Marriott Bonvoy for the Mumbai Indians. Our approach has been to find the correct fit for brands and creating a customised offering that fits the objectives they want to achieve.
What kind of brands do you partner with? Has the interest of brands increased more towards sports? Is it only towards cricket or other sports as well?
Bhairav Shanth: We have worked with over a thousand brands since our inception and almost half of them have been what we call ITW First brands. These are brands that we have introduced to sports in general (and cricket in particular) as a marketing platform.
Over the years we have worked with a who's who of brands really, including names like Amul, Uber, Oppo, Royal Stag, Marriott, Xiaomi, Cycle Agarbathies, Haier, Qatar Airways, Unacademy and CRED. The brands we partner with is a function of our approach.
We provide options for the brand to associate with, be it a tournament, a team, a player or a property, keeping in mind the outcome they want from it.
This customisation and our ability to deliver it through the cross-functional teams we have sets us apart. The interest in brands in sports is higher than it was even a couple of years ago, which is reflected in the growth of the sponsorship market, both in cricket as well as other sports.
One interesting trend we noticed was that many brands wanted to target specific kinds of audiences and demographics, and sometimes, that could be better delivered through non-cricket sports. This is why we started ITW Encore, a division dedicated to helping brands use non-cricket sports as a marketing vehicle and aligning them to the right properties to meet their marketing and strategic objectives.
How has ITW been able to do well in such a tough space?
Bhairav Shanth: ITW has always prided itself in being ahead of the curve in the sports and marketing consulting industry. In the past 6 months, in particular, we have been able to completely reinvent ourselves and our business model to not just emerge from the pandemic mostly unscathed, but actually stronger.
We accelerated the adoption of a digital first model by launching ITW 360 IO, which has a bouquet of digital services to offer. For our major sales pitches, we spoke to clients about specific and tailored solutions as well as longer-term relationships not just focused on the current scenario, which is clearly a disruptive outlier.
That thinking is behind how we stitched together deals with brands such as MPL across properties. We helped Unacademy and CRED sign three-year deals with the IPL at a time when the title sponsor of the tournament had pulled out and the general industry consensus was that there weren’t many takers for the deals.
We also signed a three year deal with Cricket Ireland for marketing their sponsorship rights, once again focussing on the long term view.