He’s Got Game

November 30, 2016

Behind the leadership of Sean Hanrahan, ESPN is breaking new ground in the media industry

By Matthew Schwartz

Sean Hanrahan, SVP of marketing solutions for ESPN Customer Marketing and Sales, is at the forefront of change at the sports media juggernaut. In 2008 he was instrumental in reorganizing the company’s customer marketing and sales groups into the first multimedia salesforce in the media industry.

Now Hanrahan is blazing a new trail: In addition to leading the integrated sales and marketing, promotions, and creative group, he now directs the brand marketing group. “We like to think of ourselves as innovators across the company and the merging of brand marketing and marketing solutions is just another way we are innovating in the industry,” says Hanrahan, who joined ESPN in 2000 as VP of sponsorship management and promotions. “I would imagine that, over time, other companies might follow.”

The merging of brand marketing and marketing solutions is designed to strengthen brand messaging and integrated marketing throughout ESPN’s empire, which includes 32 television networks, 13 websites, 90-plus broadband networks, seven radio stations, ESPN The Magazine, mobile and consumer products, and events management.

Activate recently caught up with Hanrahan, a member of the BAA Board of Advisors, to learn more about his game-changing efforts at ESPN. 


Q: How has merging of the marketing solutions and brand marketing teams changed the dynamic for creating and delivering marketing campaigns? 
A: We’re no longer just trying to drive collaboration. Now there is someone who is overlooking an ESPN property and can see opportunities that present themselves in both marketing solutions and brand marketing and how they can benefit each side of the house. Over time, there are great career development opportunities, as the brand marketing folks get to experience the business side of ESPN and the business side of ESPN gets to understand how brand marketing campaigns come together and how we should meaningfully talk to our fans. A good example is our recent “College Football Playoff” campaign, which was developed with Wieden+Kennedy New York. It’s under the heading, “There Are Many Roads to the Playoff.” The anchor of the campaign is this convenience store, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere, and all these fans and mascots from various schools competing for the playoff converge there. By virtue of being a convenience store, it’s a tremendous setting for us to integrate a variety of sponsors from the College Football Playoff. When you have sponsors like Dos Equis, Gatorade, and Hershey’s candies, we have the opportunity to deliver great value. But we’re also being true to the [ESPN] brand and messaging to our fans in that we’re giving them a compelling reason to stay with us through the regular college football season as well as the playoff (which starts in January).


Q: Why does marketing solutions at ESPN play such an integral role in developing creative and multiplatform opportunities for your customers?
A: It plays an integral role because most of our advertisers want to get close to our content. We’re live sports. We’re a lean-forward experience. We’re engaging. It’s a great advertising environment for a brand. So, when you roll all those together, advertisers [are able] to go beyond their traditional media schedules and get closer to our content. That’s what our marketing solutions group is designed to drive. [Internal] research shows that when we do these kinds of integrations, in combination with advertising, it helps provide a lift to our brands’ overall KPIs, whatever they may be, and helps with measures such as awareness, favorability, and purchase intent.


Q: What have been the major challenges for sales and marketing alignment?
A: The brand marketing group’s mission is to drive more engagement from fans with all our platforms; more viewers on television; more folks going online or engaging with our mobile platforms, reading our magazine, etc. To have [the brand marketing group] still focused on driving engagement with our fans is very important. Aligning with ad sales also presents other opportunities, like the one I described with the College Football Playoff campaign, where you can create value on the sales side of the house. The ESPN brand, unlike a lot of other brands in the media industry, is a brand unto itself and resonates with fans and has an emotional connection with them. Sales has to work cohesively with marketing, and that’s what we’ve been working on over the past year. 


Q: How does having a multimedia salesforce enhance your clients’ brand messaging overall?
A: The fortunate thing is that we sell like our fans consume. They are multimedia consumers across all platforms and we sell the same way. We know from our research that advertising is more effective when it surrounds on all [media] platforms, and each platform does some things better than others within the purchase funnel. Television is terrific at generating awareness and reach; the magazine does perhaps a better job at favorability than television; and audio and digital affect brands differently. So when you surround a fan with your [brand] messaging, your advertising is more effective and you drive more sales. Hence, it leads the marketing solutions team to develop ideas that are integrated. For instance, a consummate sponsorship like College GameDay Built by The Home Depot — which has been with us for 16 years and whose sponsorship has continued to evolve — is a true multimedia platform. It’s not just about the three hours on the Saturday morning television show. It’s about social content, digital [channels], the magazine — they all work together to complement each other. And because we are a multimedia salesforce and we develop multimedia ideas, it’s easy for the salesforce to take those ideas to market.  


Photo credit: David Yellen


This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Activate magazine.

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