Inside and Outside the Box: sponsorship strategies of white-collar business

When the usual sources of potential funding have been tapped out, documentary producers, like those of other stripes, look to the suits for help. It used to be that the mandate of a particular program determined whether producers and broadcasters would...
October 1, 1997

When the usual sources of potential funding have been tapped out, documentary producers, like those of other stripes, look to the suits for help. It used to be that the mandate of a particular program determined whether producers and broadcasters would pitch the corporate. These programs had to be specifically tailored to a particular business or, at the very least, possess some tangible association. But corporate sponsorship has evolved.

There are still institutions who align themselves only with programming which draws a direct line between project and product. One such institution is Royal Bank of Canada, one of the country’s leading financial companies.

‘If we were looking at sponsorship, and we’re talking television here, we would want to look at programming in the financial services area,’ says Patricia Straker of Royal Bank. To this end, Royal recently sponsored Just Ask, three programs aired on Life Network, a Canadian specialty cable broadcaster. In addition to obligatory opening and closing billboards, Straker put the banks’s name and services front and center in another manner – guest analysts on the program’s panel were Royal Bank employees.

Being courted is nothing new for the institution; it receives approximately 800 sponsorship proposals a year, 5% of which are for tv production. But producers hoping to tie the knot with the banks better know their business, because, as Straker notes, ‘We have to have something that pertains to our business.’

For other organizations, the relationship they endeavor to build with clients is achieved through philosophical rather than practical associations. The Farmer’s Insurance Group, one of the largest and oldest insurance companies in the U.S., recently lent their name and US$3 million to San Francisco-based High Road Productions (executive producers James C. Crimmins and Carmine Santadreain) and pbs-presenting station kqed, San Francisco, for a series of three one-hour specials entitled The American Promise.

While a series aiming ‘to bring viewers face-to-face with volunteers and visionaries who are making America better by working the democratic process’ seems a considerable stretch from the buttoned-down world of insurance, Diane Tasaka, Farmer’s director of corporate communications, speaks of the brave new world of sponsorship.

In Farmer’s case, the idea for the program came not from an independent producer, but the company’s then chairman and ceo. According to Tasaka, ‘[He] was lamenting the state of America, and how everybody is so lawsuit-happy and how people don’t seem to be able to work out their differences. And he turned to us and said, ‘Do something about it!”

Given the go-ahead, Tasaka’s division began searching for an outlet which would leverage Farmer’s charitable efforts in a positive way. The first step was finding an independent producer, who ‘took this germ of an idea and really developed it into what this series is today.’ Initially, Tasaka admits, ‘It was really on a wing and a prayer. We dedicated some upfront money for research to do this.’

While the content and direction of the program was continually evolving, the team was certain of two things: ‘We conceived right from the very beginning that we wanted to not only fund the entire production, but also do the outreach. We developed a whole outreach program surrounding The American Promise and that was also unusual for a corporate sponsor.’

So rather than focusing all its attention on three consecutive Wednesday nights, Farmer’s looked long range: ‘This was going to have to be at least a ten-year project, and the film would just be the kick-off. Really, where the rubber hits the road is what we do in schools.’ To this end, Farmer’s spent a year developing a teaching guide consisting of a reformatted 9 x 20 minute version of the program as well as lesson and student-activity plans with the participation of educators from across the country.

The cost of the school package is nothing, but Farmer’s is not yet on its way to sainthood. Tasaka readily admits that The American Promise works as a sales tool. ‘When corporate sponsors do things, they don’t just do it to be the good guy,’ she concedes. ‘They also do it because there are some indirect benefits. For us, this is very indirect because we are very low-key in terms of how we present our sponsorship. Teachers don’t like commercials in the classroom. But we hope this will rub off on teachers and students who will remember that Farmer’s brought them this thing.’

With its first coproduction deal, Farmer’s has entered a new full-time business. Says Tasaka, ‘Now that we’ve done it, we get proposals all the time from other pbs stations.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.