RBR Interview: Michael Lynch, Head of Global Sponsorship Management, Visa, Inc., by Larry Eder

Lynch headshot High Res.JPG
Michael O'Hara Lynch, Head of Global Sponsorship Management, VISA, Inc.

VISA has been an Olympic sponsor since 1986. Since 1995, the person helping
to steer that sponsorship, in several roles, has been Michael Lynch. Now the Head
of Global Sponsorship Management, Michael has built a global sports platform that
keeps VISA in a positive light day in day out.

The alignment of VISA, Inc. with the Olympic movement has been a huge success. Their
most recent commercials, on TV and on the Web, are some of the most popular with
consumers and the trade press. Who does not love the commercials narrated by Morgan Freeman?

Lynch is quite a spokesman: a life long sportsman, and a lifelong fan of the Olympic sports, VISA has, at the helm of their global sports sponsorship, someone who loves and appreciates the culture of sport and of VISA.

In the interview, it is clear that Mr. Lynch is, on task. He is proud of VISA's sponsorship
activities, and is quick to enunciate the role the VISA plays in payment transactions, from
food, to sports tickets, to travel, to everyday activities. As a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team, the Olympic movement and USA Track & Field, among others, VISA is in the right places, at the right time.

As is the RBR practice, we asked Michael for an interview, and he agreed. The questions were sent, and a few weeks later, they were returned. This interview took place the end of March 2010....

Visa Debit logo

RBR, 1. How did you get involved in Sports Marketing?

Michael Lynch:  First came my passion for sports which my parents, coaches, and many brothers instilled in me throughout my childhood years, and which carried on through my years at the University of Notre Dame.   At the time though, I had no idea the field of Sports Marketing/Management even existed. 


Second came my exposure to the field when I worked as an in-house consultant for Timex Corporation where we hired Alberto Salazar and Mary Decker Slaney to promote a predecessor to the Ironman watch I am wearing now, called the Triathlon watch.


Third came my love of Marketing which was the area of business I naturally gravitated to and focused on for my Cornell University Johnson School MBA.  Coming out of Cornell Business School, I planned to work for a consumer package goods company in marketing, but sought the unique field of managing and marketing athletes and sporting events.  The idea of combining my passion for sports and love of marketing for a career was too good to pass up.   I was most fortunate coming out of Cornell in securing a job as the Assistant to the President for the then leading worldwide sports management and marketing firm ProServ, Inc. that represented more than 150 professional athletes and managed more than 150 events annually.  At ProServ, I had the pleasure of orchestrating numerous sponsorship/endorsement deals, including one of my early ones of selling General Mills on the idea of utilizing Michael Jordan on their Wheaties box, which quickly taught me that Sports Marketing/Management was what I wanted to do the rest of my career!


RBR, 2. How long have you been at VISA?

Michael Lynch: Going on 15 years now.  I was first hired back in 1995 to manage Visa's US sponsorship business and now head up global sponsorship for Visa Inc.


RBR, 3. VISA is involved in many sports activities, can you give us an overview of your sponsorships?

Michael Lynch: Well, when people look at the best in the business, blue chip sports sponsorship portfolio, hopefully Visa is the one they see. Over the years, Visa has used its sponsorships to increase its global brand leadership, grow Visa transaction volume, expand acceptance in new and emerging markets, enhance preference for its products and services, and engage our clients. These sports sponsorships create strong emotional ties with consumers at moments of great passion and allow us to deliver value to both our clients and partners, along with cardholders. 


Of course, our two major global sponsorships are the Olympic and Paralympic Games to which we recently renewed through 2020 (includes London, Sochi, Rio, and so on) and FIFA World Cup, with whom we are partnered through 2014.  That sponsorship brings with it exclusive worldwide access to the FIFA World Cup™ (South Africa and Rio) and more than 40 other FIFA competitions and includes global rights in the Financial Services product category to all FIFA World Cup™ activities.  We are also sponsors of the Youth Olympic Games which debut this year in Singapore.  In our Latin America/Caribbean region, we have partnerships with the Copa do Brasil, Copa Sudamericana, and Copa Liberadores which dovetail nicely with the FIFA partnership.


VISA Championship Series, 2009, VISA USA Indoor Champs, photo by PhotoRun.net.

Visa has also been a longstanding proud sponsor of the NFL, including the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, International Games, and a number of NFL teams.  Around the world, we also have a number of other sponsorships including NHL in Canada, NASCAR in the US, National Olympic Teams (e.g., in the USA - USOC), National Governing Bodies (e.g., Canadian Bobsleigh/Luge, US Ski and Snowboard, US Soccer, USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics, and of course USA Track and Field), numerous individual athletes and others.

RBR, 4. How has sports marketing changed, since VISA came on board in 1995? Your first program was the VISA Decathlon program, correct?

Michael Lynch: My first NGB program was, in fact, working with the Visa Decathlon team for the Atlanta Olympic Games, but for Visa, our first venture into the sporting world was the Olympic Sponsorship which began in 1986. The Visa Decathlon program was the program that brought our Olympic sponsorship to life here in the USA.  In terms of change, Visa has steadily evolved its marketing programs to support the brand and deliver value on a global scale to its financial institution clients, merchants and cardholders. Over the years, Visa's use of the Olympic sponsorship to support its business has evolved with its business strategy.

For instance, in the early days of our Olympic sponsorship, efforts centered on using advertising to highlight Visa's global acceptance ("It's Everywhere You Want to Be"). Today, Visa utilizes sponsorship properties across the marketing and product spectrum to drive both high-level brand goals and usage ("More People Go with Visa" and "Go World") and to promote specific product attributes. In 2009, Visa launched its first-ever global advertising campaign: "More people go with Visa" -- a reflection of Visa's evolution to a single, global entity.  And now of course we have the latest and first-ever global marketing campaign - Go World!


RBR, 5. Do you partner with other companies on sports marketing endeavors?

Michael Lynch:  We certainly do. Interestingly enough, Visa doesn't sell anything.  The more products and services another company sells, the better it is for our business, so we are the ideal company for other companies to partner with to drive our collective business.  Visa also is in a unique position in that our products and services move across nearly every spectrum of the sponsorship business - travel, ticketing, entertainment, accommodation, food, and on and on.  So we're not limited to just one product area in that you can use your Visa to pay for most of all the other sponsors' products.  That means we can work with other sponsors in marketing promotions. 

But the greatest strength of these sponsorships is that they provide Visa with global rights in the Payment Services product category that may be activated by our financial institution clients and merchant partners. There are a wide range of marketing opportunities that exist within these sponsorships to help our clients obtain maximum promotional use. Building promotions around these sponsorships can accomplish a wide range of corporate objectives including helping to amplify and drive brand preference and product usage.


RBR, 6. I love your Go World print and TV campaigns, tell us how they came about, and why they resonate?

Michael Lynch: This was Visa's first foray into a global marketing campaign. In the past, we have had national, regional and some multi-regional campaigns, but never a fully global effort.  So this first-ever global Olympic-themed marketing campaign - Go World - was developed to promote Visa's association with the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games globally and to enable us to connect with cardholders and Olympic fans on a worldwide scale.


Since 1986, when we became an Olympic sponsor, our focus has been on the athletes.  Over the years, we have created a unique global program, Team Visa, to help sustain the Olympic and Paralympic Teams and athletes as they prepared for the Games, providing them with direct financial and mentor support, as well as ongoing life skills training like financial literacy.  We knew that using individual Team Visa athletes would be central to Go World.  Their exceptional stories celebrate sport and human achievement and bring fans closer to them and to the Games.  As you've seen, the Go World campaign celebrates athleticism and human triumph by telling their unique stories and providing a deeper focus on these Visa-sponsored athletes.  Their individual stories cross national boundaries and touch us all, and I believe that's the reason why they have resonated so deeply globally.


One important aspect of the Go World Olympic campaign was that almost 40% of our total Vancouver spend was dedicated to digital media, and we're very excited about this new digital direction. During the Games, our Olympic ads were watched more than 1.7 million times on YouTube, and a Facebook fan page that highlighted our 33 sponsored Olympians reached over 100,000 fans.  This enabled us to make a special connection with consumers and receive real-time feedback - both positive and negative.   That was a valuable lesson for us from a marketing standpoint.  As I've said recently, this whole social media phenomenon continues to explode and represents a huge opportunity.


RBR, 7. I remember you telling me, in our last interview (1996), that VISA had a very positive response from its consumers and bank partners over Olympic involvement, is that still true?

Michael Lynch:  Absolutely. For the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, we worked with roughly 400 financial clients globally in 34 countries to offer Visa cardholders the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the Olympic Winter Games.  In Beijing, client activation around the summer Games involved more than 573 clients in 41 countries.  That illustrates the universal appeal of this marquee property.


In addition, for every Olympic Games we know that onsite merchant activation is a key strategy to drive host city business activity and promote our sponsorship.  We consider consumer promotions to be the most effective "call to action" in the eyes of the consumer, so acceptance messaging is created to remind the consumer that they can "use their Visa card here."  In Vancouver, we worked with some 3,500 merchants to offer special incentive programs for their Visa cardholders.  Consequently, spending by international visitors on Visa cards at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and in British Columbia was over US$115 million during the 17 days of the Games.  That was a 98% increase from the same period in 2009. 


RBR, 8. You have and continue to have athlete spokespersons? In light of recent issues, such as a golfer, who will remain nameless, has that caused you to reconsider or not?

Michael Lynch: We certainly are aware of these issues, but Visa has been very careful in choosing our athletes. The Olympic Games begin and end with the athlete and we need the athletes to bring our overall Olympic sponsorship to life.  Over the years we have worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes, and fortunately have had little to no issues.  We are extremely diligent in our review and engagement with athletes, but first and foremost, we engage in relationships for the long term.  Because of that we get to know the parents, coaches and the athletes themselves to ensure the proper fit and alignment with the brand.  In the Olympic movement for example, we have decades of experience with key leaders in the movement and the sports which enable us to identify the athletes early on in their careers and get to know their character and capabilities.


RBR, 9. Global sports, such as athletics and the entire Olympic movement, are strong tools for brands such as yourself, will we ever see you in a global marathon group?

Michael Lynch: If I understand the question correctly, when I think of the Olympic Games, the very first sport I think of is Athletics.  It's why, in part,  we have been the longest standing sponsor of USA Track and Field.  So in answer to your question, if the business case is there to drive our Olympic sponsorship, then we may very well do so.


Bernard Lagat, VISA Athlete of Meet, Rbk Boston Indoor Games 2010, photo by PhotoRun.net.

RBR, 10. VISA still uses print, outdoor, digital, television, how do you plan your campaigns? Do you build up two years out?

Michael Lynch: Believe it or not, it's typically a four year process for us.  For instance, we have been working the London Olympic and Paralympic Games well before the Vancouver Games and personally I have made four trips to Russia in the last year to prepare for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games.  And of course Rio is in our sights for both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic and Paralympic Games.


Our campaigns are the manifestation of our then Marketing strategy which is a direct derivative of our overall Corporate strategy.  As the proud sponsor and only card accepted at the Olympic Games, the Games provide a unique and compelling platform to promote Visa's unsurpassed acceptance.


RBR, 11. London 2012, you told me in Beijing, that you were working on that program. Does that mean that Rio 2016 is already on your drawing board?


Michael Lynch: Yes, and were it not for our FIFA World Cup Sponsorship and my travels to South Africa, I would be there much sooner. 


RBR, 12. What is it, in your opinion, about the Olympics, that is such a positive? Has Rogge's leadership, helped?

Michael Lynch: Interestingly enough, we've seen great growth in the appeal of the Olympic Games and they continue to deliver tremendous global exposure and access to virtually every demographic group; they also have delivered tangible and proven business building benefits to Visa, its clients and partners. 

Certainly President Rogge has been a positive influence on the Olympic Movement in his work to create more transparency and open access, fight drug use, and promote a peaceful atmosphere of competition.  The values and ideals that the Olympic Games stand for are as strong as ever.


RBR, 13. VISA has been a long time sponsor of USA Track & Field. Can you tell us how that developed?

Michael Lynch: It was one of the very first deals of Visa's Olympic Games sponsorship. In addition to the global rights that come with our key sponsorships, we believe that it's very important to have locally relevant assets.  We are very proud of being USA Track and Field's longest standing sponsor and our relationship provides a huge platform for Visa to bring it's Olympic sponsorship to life in the USA, as well as during the non-Olympic years.


Tirunesh Dibaba finishing 5,000 meters, Rbk Boston Indoor 2010,

photo by PhotoRun.net.

It enables us to support Track and Field athletes throughout their journey to the Games. One of our first ever Olympic sport affiliations was our support for Decathlon, as we've discussed, and we're proud to have helped elevate it into the national spotlight.  Since that time we have supported a number of new and emerging sports including women's pole vaulting, beach volleyball, hockey, and many others.


RBR, 14. Your VISA challenge has been exciting, how did that idea come about?

Michael Lynch: If you mean the Visa Championship Series, it's a wonderful opportunity for us to help establish a series of events that bring together the best in the USA and the world for a season of Track & Field. It creates a national platform to raise visibility for the sport, but more importantly gives American Track & Field athletes the chance to compete on home soil.   USA Track and Field designed the Series and we saw it as a great way to support the sport and bring brand recognition to our sponsorship, as well as help the athletes.


RBR, 15. How do you expect VISA card holders to respond to your programs? Do you want to have them buying all of their running shoes on VISA cards? What is the goal?

Michael Lynch: Our business is actually quite simple - we are about transactions.  We do not ask people to spend more, but when they do spend, why not use the safest, most convenient and secure what to pay - Visa, it's better money for better living.  Not only that, if you do so, you are helping to enable Visa to continue it's support for USA Track and Field, it's athletes, and mission.  It's as simple as that.


RBR, 16. In all of the recent economic crisis, VISA seems to have stayed above the fray, how do you account for that?

Michael Lynch: Well, first you have to understand that Visa connects cardholders, merchants and financial institutions around the world with products and services that make payments more convenient and more secure.  People feel safe using their Visa cards in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.  Visa has been an innovator from the start - the global marketing programs are evidence of that.  But we have extended the utility of our products and services to new merchant segments and geographies which has enabled more people in more places to enjoy the benefits of using their cards. I think it's as simple as security, innovation and acceptance of our products and services. 


RBR, 17. Okay, just between us, what is your favorite sporting memory? Who have you met that put you over the top, as a sports fan? You've been to the Olympics, USATF champs, Olympic Trials, Nike Prefontaine Classic, give us a memory that is true sports geek?

Michael Lynch: I have so many Olympic memories that I tell our staff with each and every Games to savor the moments and take away memories that will last a lifetime...that is what makes the Olympic movement so special. 


My very first Olympic experience was the one that had the biggest impact on me and got the Games in my blood, so to speak.  My dad loaded up our family station wagon with four of his eights sons at the time to attend the Montreal Olympic Games for standing-room only tickets to an afternoon track and field event.  What captured my imagination the most was the world coming together in peace to share the great bond of sport. 


Outside of the Olympic Games, I would have to say playing golf with my dad, or going to my two daughters sporting events, be it soccer, basketball, track, volleyball, or Irish dancing.


RBR, 18. What is your favorite sport? Do you run? Golf?

Michael Lynch: I've always enjoyed running and have done so all my life.  Running 10Ks was in fact how I met and fell in love with my wife of 20+ years, even though she was doing sub 6's and running much faster than I was.  I try to run almost every day and couldn't think of a better cardio workout.


Beijing Olympics, August 2008, opening ceremonies, photo by PhotoRun.net.

Special thanks to Michael O'Hara Lynch, for his time and enthusiasm for the world of sports and VISA.

Special thanks to Nancy Panter, who provided RBR with VISA information, and survived my spam protection!

For more information on VISA, please check out www.visa.com.

For more information on USA Track & Field, please check out www.usatf.org.

For more information on the Olympics, please check out www.olympics.org.  

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