The Air Miles and Nectar founder, knighted for his work in bringing the Olympic Games to London, tells Judy Attwell about his sports ventures and the challenge of securing sponsorship.
Never let it be said that Sir Keith Mills shirks a challenge. A quick glance at his CV suggests he is marketing's less flashy answer to Sir Richard Branson, what with his string of risky, but successful, business ventures and a love of sailing.
Like Branson, Mills, the founder of the Air Miles and Nectar loyalty schemes, relishes a battle, whether it involves competing for advertising accounts, as it did in the 1980s, or, more recently, managing London's bid to host the Olympic Games. Mills handled that particular trial, he says, by treating it as 'the ultimate pitch'.
Life for the 61-year-old ought to have calmed down now, a chance perhaps to reflect on his latest achievement: a GBE (Knight Grand Cross) in the New Year's Honours list, a reward for his efforts on London 2012.
However, slowing down is not on the cards for this son of a Brentwood factory worker, who left school aged 15. Having made millions from the sale of Air Miles and Nectar, Mills reinvented himself as a sports public servant.
He is now juggling a not-for-profit sports sponsorship initiative - the British Sports Marketing Bureau - with attracting brand sponsorship for Olympic legacy charity Sported, which he founded in 2009.
Which London 2012 brand activation stood out for you?
Procter & Gamble's 'Mums' campaign was outstanding, tying back to its core customer profile. Lloyds TSB did a great job using its sponsorship of the Torch Relay to build relationships with communities right across the UK.
Do you think the Games convinced brands of sport's marketing power?
Well, they haven't yet signed the big deals that we hoped for. If you ask UK Athletics if it has signed a replacement for Aviva, it will tell you it hasn't. Ask the British Olympic Association how many sponsors it has signed post-Games, and it will tell you it hasn't signed any. It's not happening.
Is that the impetus behind setting up the British Sports Marketing Bureau?
When you look at previous Olympic Games, they generated vast amounts of sponsorship. But when the Games ended, commercial support for sport fell off a cliff. If we don't put something like the Bureau in place, the commercial sector will abandon sport in droves, like it did in Sydney.
So what will the Bureau look like when it launches?
The idea is to have it running by April, and start delivering commercial deals by the end of the year. It will be a not-for-profit company, governed by an advisory board made up of representatives from sport and the commercial sector. Before Christmas, we went out to all the sports bodies and said: 'We need an indication of your support.' I hope that we'll get there.
It has been rumoured that some rights-holders, such as athletics, don't want to be involved with the Bureau ...
Most of the large sports have said: 'If you come to us with a proposal about an element of our rights we haven't already sold, we are very prepared to listen.' What they don't want us to do is go out and represent them because they have their own commercial teams.
What will these deals look like?
For a company wanting sports to reach a particular market sector, we will negotiate with individual rights-holders that can deliver against that brief and structure the contract for the company.
How does the Bureau dovetail with Sported?
Sported is just one of the assets that might ostensibly be packaged and made available to Bureau clients (see box).
As for the Bureau, are you prepared to walk away from the concept if you don't get the key sports on board?
Yes, but sport will be the loser. Is it difficult to get a large number of organisations to do something? Yes it is. It was very difficult getting 20 companies to support Nectar.
You sold Nectar back in 2007. Which of the newer loyalty schemes impresses you most?
The bigger programmes - Boots Advantage, Clubcard, Nectar - continue to grow and succeed. But it's time for a new approach because those programmes are at least 10 years old. Nobody has really developed a better loyalty mousetrap.
Do you think single-retailer schemes are destined to plateau?
Yes. The economics don't work, in my view. As an individual retailer, you can't deliver enough value on your own for the consumer to get engaged enough to change their behaviour. The Advantage programme is incredibly expensive for Boots, and likewise, Clubcard for Tesco.
You're chairing the Marketing Society Awards this year. Is that to keep your hand in?
Yes. I'm fascinated to see, both from the agency side and the client side, how marketing challenges are being dealt with.
Inspired by his work on the London 2012 Olympics, Sir Keith Mills set up a charity called Sported in 2009, as an umbrella body for sports clubs and charities helping disadvantaged young people.
'Our line for the Games was ‘inspire a generation,' Mills says. 'I was determined we would introduce some new initiative that really delivered on that promise.'
Mills and his team were themselves inspired to discover clubs and charities using sport 'to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people, who are challenged because of where they are socially, or have an issue with crime or drugs or have a disability', but struggling to get funding.
'They [the clubs and charities] operate under the radar, struggling with local authority cuts that are taking place,' Mills says. 'I felt we could turbo-charge what we call the sport-for-development sector and really help these clubs grow and reach out to more people.'
To get sported off the ground, Mills donated several million pounds of his own money.
Having established a national infrastructure for sported, and with some 2000 clubs on board, the next job was to raise the charity’s profile.
With Draft FCB and McCann Erickson on the agency side and The Sun as its national media partner - the paper's campaign for sported began on Monday 28 January - the hope is that sported can emulate the success of Help for Heroes.
'We need to increase the number of volunteers and mentors that work with sported as well as increase the funding that we can make available to them,' Mills says. 'Over the next 12 months we'd like to raise the profile of sported in the way perhaps that Help for Heroes raised their profile. The Sun did that and is very much committed to putting sported on the map and the work that all of our clubs do.'
For more information and to help go to www.sported.org.uk
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