Towards a new era of online sponsorship

Emily Griffin and Kim Homenuk are senior vice-president and senior account executive, respectively, at Toronto-based sponsorship agency Arts & Communications. Whew! We made it. Now that it's clear the online world isn't going to drown in a sea of unorthodox...

Emily Griffin and Kim Homenuk are senior vice-president and senior account executive, respectively, at Toronto-based sponsorship agency Arts & Communications.

Whew! We made it. Now that it’s clear the online world isn’t going to drown in a sea of unorthodox zeros, we can celebrate the New Year with relief.

With our technological house in order, it’s time to turn our attention to the real Y2K bug: online sponsorship. Specifically, what it is and how it’s time to embrace a new era in its use.

Traditionally, online sponsorship has been used to refer to what is, in essence, content-funding – whereby an exclusive advertiser supports a distinct (often titled) area of one-way information. The content almost always reflects the nature of the advertiser’s product or service, as well as the nature of its target audience. Excellent examples abound – such as Claritin’s Pollen Forecast on The Weather Network’s site, or Pampers’ Online Parenting Institute.

More powerful than banner ads, these so-called sponsorships sort through the multitudes of Web users and position the company directly in front of a target audience that is seeking this information.

A very sensible strategy, but one we would argue is only the first step in the evolution of a successful corporate presence on the Web.

Since the root of Web use lies in information gathering, these didactic informational displays will always have an important place in this medium. But as Web users become more sophisticated in their online habits, we can expect them to demand more than a virtual information kiosk with de facto signage.

To cut through the increasing clutter of Web advertising, it’s time to embrace a different kind of online sponsorship – one that more closely approximates its off-line cousin: making an emotional connection with your target audience by enabling them to participate in a desirable, positive experience that reflects their interests.

Speaking at a recent conference about online marketing, Michael Cleary, vice-president of marketing with Procter & Gamble Europe, described consumers as being in ‘lean-forward mode’ when they are online. They want to be engaged, entertained, and stimulated – not just informed.

With this in mind, smart companies will take a holistic approach to their online presence, not only advertising on sites where their target audience seeks information, but also by providing rich, interactive content in an arena where company and user can share a pleasurable experience. This participation and two-way communication begins to build an important relationship, and gives shape and life to the company’s online persona. is a great example of how a corporation has embraced a more ‘experiential’ relationship with Web users. Powerhouse chip-maker Intel and well-known art institutions like the Whitney Museum and the Smithsonian have come together in a creative partnership that expands their reach to a broader audience. They’ve tapped the rich visual content of exhibitions and supplemented it with diverse multimedia entertainment that includes ‘Make your own art’ activities and chat rooms. Users explore not only the creativity of artists, but their own as well.

The benefit to the participating art institutions is clear: They reach a global audience who can explore the museums’ collections regardless of geography, and who are provided a refined online experience that enhances, rather than diminishes the power of visual art.

For Intel, the benefit is just as valuable: the company is connecting with a savvy online audience that’s embracing complex graphics and multi-layered information – precisely the kind of consumer who demands the advanced processing capability presumably offered by Intel chips. At the same time, Intel has managed to align itself with an engaging, enjoyable experience that succeeds on the richness of visual images, superior sound and complex multimedia – a key element of the Intel brand message.

While off-line properties like art galleries, museums and sporting events are a great starting place for a more sophisticated approach to the online experience, we anticipate the growth will be in activities developed specifically for the Web.

Canada has a wealth of talent able to develop innovative Web destinations. These virtual curators are creating projects that provide ideal venues in which a company can make a meaningful connection with its online audience.

Among the emerging ideahouses creating mind-bending projects that inspire, captivate and entertain is the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) new media division, MediaLinx h@bitat.

At Arts & Communications, we are currently working with the CFC on one such project. Based on the conviction that Canadians have diverse, valuable stories to tell each other and the world, The Great Canadian Story Engine is an interactive Web project built around the age-old tradition of storytelling. Scheduled for a spring launch, it is a fitting project for the CFC, whose mandate is to train Canada’s future storytellers.

The Story Engine site comprises stories written and submitted by Canadians using the tools of digital technology. Online tutorials teach users how to share their stories in their own words and images, while project partner CBC supplies sound and video archives to provide historical context. Using vehicles that encourage visitors to connect with each other, the site builds a virtual community across the country, and around the world.

Meanwhile, a digitally outfitted bus travels to museums and outdoor festivals across the country, promoting the Web site and generating stories at the grassroots level. This ‘living engine’ enables those who do not have access to computers to participate, and provides training to educators who, in turn, teach others in their community about digital communications.

The two elements together create a meaningful online space in which Canadians can share their stories in context, stories that become interwoven in the fabric that makes up the Canadian identity.

With superior use of technology, an engaging and stimulating platform, and an innovative off-line component, The Great Canadian Story Engine represents the next wave of online sponsorship properties. And for sponsors that want to position themselves as bringing communities together, encouraging consumer participation and advancing the use of technology in communications, their involvement in bringing the Canadian tapestry to life will resonate powerfully with their audience.

Like its off-line counterpart, online sponsorship is most successful when the property fits with the interests of the sponsor’s audiences, reflects brand values and otherwise blends seamlessly into the overall communications strategy. Ideal properties even provide a subtle platform for showcasing the product.

Versus Technologies’ E*Trade has done just this with, an entertaining site co-presented with and The Globe and Mail. Using play money, users register as day traders, availing themselves of the learning tools of, up-to-the-minute market data, and E*trade’s actual trading platform. Throughout the game, users can win prizes (real money, this time) while learning the ins and outs of online trading. There’s even a nifty charity element involving The Globe. The site succeeds by enticing users with an entertaining diversion, while providing a great hands-on opportunity to explore the products and services of the site’s partners.

These are bright lights in what we hope is the dawn of the next era in online marketing.

These companies have recognized that the traditional content sponsorship model – which amounts to an electronic information poster – must be complemented by interactive, participatory online strategies that compel users to pause and participate as they flit from site to site. Because flit they do; several studies now prove that it takes only seconds to capture – or lose – the attention of a typical user.

Canada has the talent to create properties online that will captivate this capricious and impatient consumer with engaging content. Aside from creating a marvelous gateway for future personalized communications and permission marketing, such destinations will respond to consumers’ ‘lean-forward’ mode with substance, and enable the sponsor to build a meaningful relationship with its target audience around a shared interest. In this way, online marketing strategies bring brand values to life, and start to realize their potential to affect real-world behaviour.

And that’s a brave new world, indeed!

Web sites referenced in this article can be located at:;; www ;; and You can reach the authors at Arts & Communications at (416) 966-3421 or visit their Web site at

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group