March, 2020

Text: Jonathan Davies

TMF Group saw big returns on their athlete sponsorships

TMF Group, a professional services company with presence in over 84 countries, embarked on a new marketing adventure. TMF Group chose two athletes who don’t directly partake in sports, but still have the same amount of exposure and physical prowess. First they started sponsoring Sir Ranulph Fiennes, dubbed “The world’s greatest living explorer” by the Guinness Book of Records. After that success they turned to Pierluigi Collina, arguably the world’s most famous referee, increasing further returns on what was already a high-impact campaign. We spoke with Richard Fitzmaurice, TMF Group’s CMO at that time, and now founder of Logo and Legend.

Return on Investment:

  • TMF Group saw their website’s bounce rate decrease.
  • Event attendance increased tenfold with the first campaign, going from 20-30 people to 200-300 people.
  • The second campaign saw even more attendance increase, with a record of 1200 attendees.
  • Sales gained a strong icebreaker, a better pitch as they could align the brand with a story, and an easy way to get prospects to attend an event. 
  • Increased credibility at much cheaper costs than an advertising campaign

How did you come up with the idea of getting Sir Ranulph Fiennes as TMF Group’s brand ambassador?

I remember I was presenting to TMF Group’s Executive Committee, and I wanted something exciting. Some polish. Sitting in a dark room, I was thinking exactly what that different thing could be. I was looking for ways to raise the company’s profile without spending a lot of money on advertising – especially because, at the time, we didn’t have the budget to run large-scale campaigns across 84 countries.

Then I came up with the idea of sponsoring a celebrity, so we could ride on the coattails of their exposure in an effort to develop a far higher return than you could ever afford with advertising. At the same time, we were getting ready to launch a new proposition called “Quickstart to Market Entry”. As a Professional Services company, we were uniquely positioned to help businesses enter new markets. That’s where the head scratcher came in. Which celebrity aligns with that message? Eventually I came up with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. 

It aligned because, when exploring a new country, Sir Ranulph Fiennes relies on local knowledge to traverse the landscape. When he climbs a mountain – for example, Mt. Everest, which he climbed at age 55 – he needs Sherpas that have done it countless times. This makes it a lot less dangerous, since they’ve been there and done it. As TMF Group’s slogan is “Global Reach, Local Knowledge”, the link was instant.

“Bounce rate off of the website started to improve, meaning people would explore more pages across our domain. Our event attendance also improved dramatically.”

He understood what we were about and got the link between our proposition and how he would support that. It worked. Going on to TMF Group’s global website, yes it is global, but the brand awareness isn’t high. If you see TMF Group’s homepage because you landed there through Google, and then see an image of that celebrity, psychologically that’s a huge benefit. You instantly gain from the credibility of that celebrity for a fraction of the cost that it would be from traditional advertising. 

Did you face a lot of resistance to getting the company on board with this idea?

The bit of resistance I got was dissolved quickly as they started to see the results. Bounce rate off of the website started to improve, meaning people would explore more pages across our domain. Our event attendance also improved dramatically. Before Sir Ranulph, we would get 20-30 attendees at our events. After Sir Ranulph, we would get 200 to 300 people there. That’s because people could now come to hear a story, instead of feeling like they were being sold to. They wanted a story that was inspirational, and if that links to what you do or what you offer, that can be really impactful. No one wants to go to an event and just be pitched to. The link and the value of your product or service should just be implied.

Did the success of the Sir Ranulph campaign help to get approval for the Pierluigi campaign?

Yes. They felt it helped them take everything to the next level in terms of professionalism. Competitors would go “how on earth did you secure Sir Ranulph Fienness and then Pierluigi?”, especially because our industry is not very progressive in marketing and sales. It relies on things that have always been done. This helped us stand out from the fold. Any CEO would take that advantage, as long as it’s affordable.

We later outdid ourselves with the sponsorship of Pierluigi Collina – during that time, we would do events of 1100 to 1200 people. We could never have gotten that without a celebrity helping us. 

Your sponsorship of Sir Ranulph bordered an athletic sponsorship. With Pierluigi, you were basically sponsoring an athlete. What made you make that switch from exploring to sports?

It was more about the messages. We had a lot of success around Sir Ranulph Fiennes, but wanted to raise the bar. We had to push messages around Compliance and respecting the rules of each country TMF Group operated in. The only name I could come up with that would resonate with this, was Pierluigi Collina. It was a bit of a strange one. Within two days I managed to get his email address. Within four days we were Skyping. On that call, I got to know him and he said: “I’ve looked at TMF Group and I know what you do. Did you know I actually used to be a Finance Director?” Queue the “Match made in heaven” music. Not only was the message aligned, he could understand and articulate what TMF Group did. Talk about a match made in heaven.

“We did one event in China where we planned for 1000 people in attendance, but closer to 1200 turned up.”

What about social media?

Because our event attendance was now off the charts with Pierluigi, we started seeing incredible movement. We did one event in China where we planned for 1000 people in attendance, but closer to 1200 turned up. Even people that weren’t invited came along because of Pierluigi Collina. I remember rows of people standing in line for a selfie. That takes your event up a notch, because people aren’t just hearing about your products and services or your opinion on the market. They’re actually having an experience. You’re building affinity between prospects and your company. They’re going to show their friends and family that they met this famous person.

I went on LinkedIn the next day. The amount of selfies with Pierluigi Collina and “Thank you TMF Group” messages was unreal. 

What was Sales’ position in all of this?

They value anything that can act as an icebreaker. Any reason to call a prospect or re-engage with a client is something a good salesperson will be all over. Inviting someone to a private lecture or private dinner with an inspiring person like that – it’s probably one of the easiest calls they’ll ever make. It just gives the opportunity for them to pick up the phone, have a nice conversation and start to build a relationship on a personal level. 

If your incentive can give your prospect or customer an experience they will remember – e.g. the selfies and autographs – your sales will grab on to that with both hands. I remember them putting it in our pitches as well. ‘This is TMF Group. These are our brand ambassadors’. If you’re a sales guy, would you rather have brand ambassadors that help you tell the story of what your company stands for, or do you just want to talk about products and services? I feel any sales person will pick the former.

What would you advise companies that want to sponsor an athlete?

There’s a basic play. “Joe Blog’s plumming supply supporting their athlete and is proud to do so” will give your content some hits on the web, and affinity. But to get the most out of it, there has to be some sort of synergy with the message. Whatever that can be. Drill it down to what the athlete represents. If it’s a paralympic athlete, it could be a story about overcoming adversity. It could be something that highlights a particular aspect of their sport. For example, a pole vaulter and a scaffolding company has a natural match – there’s something there to work with if you think of “reaching new heights”, or similar slogans. Look for that creative link. I think it can work for any company, you just need to find that link and run with it.

“My advice to an SME would be to pick a local athlete that you have synergy with.”

What would you advise an SME looking to sponsor a more local or national athlete?


If you stereotype a little, SMEs are typically heavily focused on their local markets. Local athletes get most of their press coverage through the local press, websites and sport clubs. There’s a source of local pride there. My advice to an SME would be to pick a local athlete that you have synergy with. Don’t just plaster your logo on their clothing. Get them involved in your social media channels like your Facebook page, Instagram channel and maybe even TikTok. Your local audience should have seen their face or heard their name somewhere. Even if they didn’t, if it says “Joe Blog’s local athlete from this team who grew up on this street and went to this school”, there should be some affinity with that athlete. That would make it more affordable too. That’s why I wouldn’t be put off if your athlete is more local, I actually think that’s an advantage – if it ties in to the channels you’re going to use.

If you’re an SME and can’t afford a celebrity athlete, what would you do?

The benefit an SME has is that it can be quite humorous. They can develop a bit of local humor or local “in-jokes” that would work with their clientele. It could be a plumber that’s trying to raise awareness with average Joe down the average street. Doesn’t need to be complicated.