Experiential Experts: Jenny Strachota

For the third installment of Broad Cove’s Experiential Experts series, I was thrilled to connect with Jenny Strachota. I worked closely with Jenny when we were both in the Omnicom family and she has always been one of my favorite professionals in the experiential industry.

For the last five and a half years, Jenny was Vice President, Affinity and Experiential Marketing Manager for Associated Bank. During her time at Associated, she was responsible for affinity partnerships and experiential marketing activations with the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Wild.

In our interview, Jenny shares her perspective on the importance of expertise in sports/partnership marketing and the importance of finding the right agencies, properties and athletes to bring your brand to life for fan engagement.

Brad: So wonderful to be talking with you, Jenny! Let’s start by telling our readers about how you got started in experiential marketing and your journey to overseeing experiential activations for Associated Bank.

Jenny: It’s great to connect, Brad, and I appreciate you giving me this opportunity! My experiential career started in 2002 when I was hired by GMR Marketing to fill an open Account Coordinator role. At that time, I was 22, straight out of college and thrilled to be joining GMR which was known in the Milwaukee area as a fun, “work hard, play hard” agency. My first client was Jim Beam Brands which included national sampling programs and major sponsorship activations. I quickly found myself getting a private tour of the Jim Beam distillery, attending the Nightclub and Bar Show in Vegas and promoting DeKuyper Pucker Appletinis on cruise ships. Needless to say, I fell in love with experiential marketing!

I continued my career at GMR for the next 12 years working with clients in all sorts of industries - CPG, retail, entertainment and sports. During my last five years at GMR, I had the opportunity to work in the endurance sports industry executing major sponsorship activations for PowerBar. This included the Boston and New York City Marathons and several Ironman events including the World Championship in Hawaii. Side note – I absolutely love Hawaii and was able to attend this event several years in a row. Kailua-Kona is amazing and I am happy to provide recommendations to build your trip if you need it. Ok, I digress.

Brad: Let’s leave that for Broad Cove’s upcoming series: “Things I Will Do After COVID.”

Jenny: Sounds good! Anyway, the PowerBar work is where my love for sports and event activations merged and ignited my passion for partnership and sponsorship marketing. Luckily enough, I was contacted by Associated Bank regarding their open experiential position and the job description felt like a great fit and the right move for my career. I also wasn’t leaving GMR too far behind, since they were the experiential agency that Associated Bank was using for their sports activations. I was now the client!

At Associated Bank, I managed the partnerships with the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Wild and Wisconsin Badgers which included negotiations and contracts for the execution of naming / image rights, checking and credit card product rights, stadium assets, on-site activations, commercial production shoots and athlete inclusion. These partnerships were crucial to the bank in terms of household acquisition for the checking product portfolio and they gave us the ability to create and execute checking incentive promotions like the Milwaukee Brewers Christian Yelich Bobblehead and Opening Day Tickets. The biggest challenge for our team at Associated was building these partnerships into strategic, integrated marketing campaigns that were authentic each year and engaging to our target sports fan. I think we made huge strides and not only created unique on-site activations but were able to digitally pivot when the pandemic took over in March.

Brad: In your work on the brand side and in the sports world, where is it critical that you have work performed by subject matter experts?

Jenny: Honestly, at Associated Bank, it took a village of subject matter experts to create and execute the integrated affinity campaigns. It was one thing to develop the strategy and individual sales driving tactics, but it was a whole other ballgame – see what I did there?

Brad: I did. Home run, Jenny. Home run.

Jenny: Thank you so much. Anyway…it was another thing entirely to capture the creative toolkits and logistically plan for the promotions and sales driving efforts. We had a creative and advertising agency that was responsible for creative, messaging and media; an experiential agency responsible for event activations and sweepstakes; a sports agency evaluating sponsorship ROI; and, a sports management team to manage athlete partnerships. SMEs were everywhere and were critical to our success!

Brad: As a brand-side marketer assembling a village of agency SMEs, what are you looking for?

Jenny: I think it is crucial for brands to find the right agencies with built-in SMEs that will truly partner, strategize and ideate with them, not just for them. I have seen a lot in my 17 years and the best agency/brand partnerships are those where the brand does their research and doesn’t just choose the largest agency, in the biggest city with the most clients. Sometimes it takes a passionate, more hyper-local agency to solve for the business need. And most times it takes an advisor or SME from the marketing industry to help identify where that starting point is to be able to see through the clutter. There are a lot of amazing, specialized agencies that will claim that they can do it all. But most agencies do their best work when they are playing a more focused role and are set up for success.

On the sports side and specifically with sponsorships, you need experts that can identify the ideal asset mix not just based on the properties' standard inventory, but also what added value opportunities might exist based on the business needs. It is also incredibly important to consistently evaluate the sponsorship to make sure negotiations and contract extensions are in line with ROI.

Brad: As someone who has held senior roles on both the agency side and the brand side, do you have any recommendations for brand marketers who are conducting an agency search? Are there specific things that they should be looking for?

Jenny: When looking to evaluate agency expertise, I have a few recommendations:

First, always ask for references or examples of previous work. It also makes sense to ask for examples of previous work that is relevant to your space or RFP need and shows large, mid-size or small ranges. Most brands don’t want to be the smallest fish at an agency so it’s important to understand what other types of clients the agency represents. If you are a smaller brand, maybe it makes sense to find a smaller, more focused agency.

Second, make sure to get an understanding for the client service and account team structure. One thing that is really important is to have consistency with the team that is working on your projects. Agency turnover is normal to a point, but you should understand what type of environment you are walking into. Also, most agencies bring their A-team to sales pitches and may wow you with all sorts of experts that might not even work on your business afterwards. Transparency is key.

Third, partner with an advisor who has experience in the industry and can identify a set of experts as a starting point. Most brands struggle with RFPs – identifying the internal team to lead the RFP, writing the RFP, figuring out the right time to RFP and selecting agencies to participate. Picking an agency that will be your partner and help you grow your business and bottom line is important. So, shouldn’t the RFP process have the same level of importance?

Brad: I recently had a conversation with a bank CMO who said the most important part of agency selection was finding the right, demonstrated expertise. Do you agree with that take?

Jenny: Absolutely. When you find and use the right subject matter experts, it shows in all facets of the work – design, messaging, placement, engagement, and most important, the bottom line. Experts know the right time and place to connect and engage with the right audience. With experts, it isn’t about what’s cool or trendy. It’s about what makes sense and will deliver results.

Brad: What if you miss the mark in selection and end up going with an amateur? What are the risks for the brand and the work?

Jenny: The risks with using amateurs could be all over the spectrum - missed deadlines, missed goals, generic work that doesn’t connect to the brand, lack of engagement and possibly even negative social feedback.

Brad: Is there a project at Associated that stands out as an example of outstanding collaboration amongst a team of experts?

Jenny: The most recent project that comes to mind was the development of the Associated Bank flagship experiential branch in the Titletown district across from Lambeau Field. This was the first ever experience-focused branch for Associated Bank and a huge undertaking as we had eight months to build it and open the doors in time for the start of the Green Bay Packers season in September. The collaboration of experts included Rinka+ in conjunction with IEI General Contractors, Inc. for the construction, the Green Bay Packers and the Titletown District and GMR Marketing for the creative design and installation of seven different interactive experiences. Yes, I said seven experiences. Makes me exhausted all over again just thinking about it. I led the internal management of GMR and the Packers in conjunction with our real estate team that managed Rinka+ and the contractors. There were a lot of moving parts so it helped that all teams were communicating frequently, accountable for their deliverables and deadlines and setting realistic expectations for completion. You know you are working with experts when they can wear multiple hats, proactively identify potential problems and always have contingency plans or solutions on hand.

Brad: Such an outstanding project and you hit the nail on the head regarding the importance of clear and timely cross-functional communication, mutual accountability and expectation setting. They are all so crucial to a high-quality collaborative effort. How about an example of when a project was clearly harmed by a lack of that expertise?

Jenny: I have a few stories but one in particular was with a very large client while I was at GMR. We were working on a quick turnaround project for the World Maker Faire in New York. The client insisted that we use their creative production agency rather than a trusted vendor that we had suggested through the GMR network. In my experience, when you are dealing with tight timelines, it always makes sense to go with experience even if it costs more.

Brad: Amen. Hard to put a price tag on trust.

Jenny: Absolutely. When my team arrived onsite in NY, I went to find the main POC from the vendor who was supposed to have already put in 8 hours of work. It was a complete mess! I found the lead having a nervous breakdown in a backroom because he “wasn’t sure they would be able to pull off the build in time”. If there is one thing you can’t do in experiential marketing, it is panic! You have to be able to focus, think on your feet and be solution oriented because we all know it is very rare that things will go 100% according to plan. Well this vendor had no contingency plans and no solutions. My team and I stepped in and became production team members – we were framing out the structure, we were planting flowers, we were sourcing product and making runs to local stores. I feel confident that had we used a trusted vendor I wouldn’t have made five trips to Home Depot and spent hours calming the client down. We ended up pulling it off and also received a Maker Faire award. Good times…well, good times now of course!

Brad: I talk to a lot of young marketers who are early in their career journey and want to eventually be recognized as a thought leader or expert. What advice do you have for those folks?

Jenny: When it comes to marketing, there are so many varieties of marketing and different industries to become a subject matter expert in. So I would say that the first thing is to find your sense of purpose and your passion point. Being a SME isn’t about regurgitating stats or forwarding articles, it really is about the passion and experiences you have for and with that subject. I was able to take my love of sports and develop a passion for the endurance sports industry – but not because I was a participant myself which I think is important to understand. Yes, I dabbled in triathlons and running but my true understanding and knowledge came from working on a client that was supporting and sponsoring events and as a spectator at these events. I loved seeing athletes meticulously prepare for races, so I researched industry products, training techniques, athlete styles because I wanted to understand not only the endurance industry but also what fueled athlete participation and consequently, the brands and races to support that mentality. I read athlete blogs, studied the science behind the nutrition products and asked my clients a lot of questions. I became an expert at active listening not only to my clients but also to the athletes that were giving feedback on products. This all paid off as I was able to become an authentic part of the endurance sports community and it led me to provide relevant solutions and new business opportunities for the client.

Also, I am sure you have heard the term “knowledge is power”. Well, I was born and raised on this mentality…and it also helps that I love to read. So I would highly recommend doing as much research as possible when you want to develop expertise. That is one thing that will always be there when maybe the experience and opportunity isn’t.

Brad: So, I have one last question. I am a big believer that the most valuable education you can get on your pathway to expertise is the education you get by working alongside other experts. Are there any experts that you want to spotlight that have helped you in your journey?

Jenny: Absolutely, there are actually several agencies and firms I would like to highlight:

Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers Sales & Partnership Services Teams: It was obvious to me when I started working with both of these teams five years ago through Associated Bank that we were working with some of the best in the business. I gained a comprehensive understanding of sponsorship negotiations and contracts as well as asset inventories and the strategic utilization of those assets to drive business. I think what really blew me away on the expertise side was their ability to adapt during COVID and continuously provide solutions to brands and partners in order to make sure the value of the sponsorship stayed intact.

GMR Marketing: What Gary Reynolds built at GMR was truly remarkable and I appreciated every experience and opportunity I had there. GMR was my baptism by fire into the experiential industry and I learned from some of the best and also met fantastic experts – Gary, Brad Bergren, Marc Smathers, Steve Jarvis, and you! It also led me to my passion for sponsorship / partnership marketing.

Lammi Sports Management: I worked with Brian Lammi and his athlete management team of experts during my time with Associated Bank. Together we negotiated and contracted top-level Packers players to represent Associated Bank in several marketing campaigns. Brian and his team are incredibly dedicated to not only finding the right talent but making sure that each program is turnkey whether it is focused on experiential, social media, PR or standard hospitality appearances. His understanding of authentic and relevant athlete partnerships for brands is next level!

Brad: Thank you so much, Jenny, for sharing your time and insight. If folks want to learn more about you or about your expertise, where can they reach you?

Jenny: Thanks again for the opportunity and I really think what you have with Broad Cove Advisors is such an innovative solution for all brands as they navigate the growing number of partnership options and agencies. It’s so important for brands to find the right fit and I know your expertise will help provide a starting point and guide them through the search process.

If anyone is interested in continuing conversations with me, they can find me on LinkedIn.