I grew up in the countryside of several countries and worked on farms during most of my school holidays. This fostered in me a deep connection with nature. I felt (and still feel) free, inspired and sharply alive in natural surroundings. These senses were heightened during a three month ragged expedition across Spain and Portugal with a donkey. The original plan was to cross the Sahara with a camel, but the final choice proved easier and cheaper for a hapless amateur. I found Margarita beside a bar in a dusty Andalusian town and left her several weeks later in considerably improved surroundings.
Some months after the expedition, in a rather damper bar in London, inspired by my adventure and still looking for “something different” to do with my career, a friend said that he had heard of a job in Formula One. This was something different. Guessing that nature and expeditions were not viable career choices at the time, I applied for and got the job with the Williams Formula One team, as assistant to Sir Frank Williams. Thrilling though the sport and the lifestyle were, it did not give me the same visceral buzz that nature provided. However I did notice that Sir Frank funded his powerful passion for racing through corporate sponsorship. I wondered if I could fund my passion for the natural world using that same power of sponsorship.
As a result I went about learning the sponsorship craft. I had spells as marketing manager for Damon Hill in the year that he won the Formula One title and then joined Mark McCormack’s International Management Group, for whom I ran the Asian Motorsport Division out of Hong Kong. In both cases, I was packaging, selling and managing sponsorship properties on a global and regional scale.
Damon Hill's Williams FW16 (1994) and FW15C (1993)
Aged 28, with little to lose, I felt ready to try out my plan. I wanted to break the donation culture of conservation organisations because I felt that if they could create mutual value through sponsorship benefits, then the sums changing hands would be larger and longer-term, ultimately benefiting the natural world in a far more impactful way. Conservation organisations have traditionally been suspicious of this approach because it requires more work and they prefer to focus all funds directly on projects rather than a proportion on sponsorship delivery. In my opinion, this is a false economy because the numbers donated remain small in the traditional model. The growth of stakeholder pressure on corporations to behave more responsibly in relation to the environment has led to improved reporting and government legislation. These are essentially defensive measures.
I started Transfrontier International Ltd in order to help corporations turn those pressures into positive forces through planned associations with natural world projects. A good project/corporate synergy could provide striking and arresting content on which to hang marketing activities, such as PR, hospitality, branding and advertising. In this capacity Transfrontier have developed a proprietary brand development system which takes account of business needs and links; current brand attributes and increasing connections with desired audiences. It bridges the gap through the creation of targeted messages, accompanying natural world content and focused media channels.
Transfrontier had some good early success with the multi-million dollar Toyota World of Wildlife. This consisted of 26 x 30 minutes sponsored TV programmes about the natural world, drawing on the BBC Wildlife archive. It was sponsored by Toyota and aired in over 140 countries over 6 years.
However, nothing runs smoothly and before long the recession hit and corporates focused their attention on core activities. Sponsorship investment either reduced or became less inventive. In response, I took a backward step and advised Orange, RBS, Ferrari and Usain Bolt on more conventional large sports sponsorship projects, which at the least, kept my top end sponsorship skills well-honed. In order to re-invigorate my plan though, I needed to have a deeper knowledge of the subject matter. I needed to be a sponsorship expert and a conservation expert. As a result I returned to university to study for a PhD in Biological Sciences.
Beyond the personal benefits I mentioned earlier, nature delivers society and our economy with many critical benefits including: clean water, fresh air, living and mineral resources, as well as psychological and physical benefits to individuals. This interconnected system has built-in resilience through its massive scale, complexity and diversity. Although, as there are an increasing number of us and because we require more resources, we are depleting nature’s ability to provide these benefits through a range of mechanisms. One way to slow these processes is to expand the amount of protected and regenerated space. Fifteen percent of the earth’s land and 3% of its marine surface are set aside as National Parks and conservation areas. However legal protection is not the same as practical protection and management of large areas with limited funds requires substantial technological assistance. So my doctoral research focused on questions of how to improve practical protection of these areas.
I studied the movement of migrants, smugglers and animals across the US-Mexico border in protected areas with covert cameras. It became clear that the vast 700 miles of border barriers are doing little to prevent human movement into protected areas and lots to prevent wildlife movement. Using these covert observation techniques, I helped the Zoological Society of London to develop a set of technological early warning tools to prevent poaching in African and Nepalese national parks. To achieve this I had to assemble a collection of specialist technical sponsors including Google, Iridium and Microsoft Research. These sensitive and complex technologies took a year to plan, fund, build and deploy and when they were finally placed in the field, they were camouflaged as rocks, tree branches and even elephant dung! The current deployment sites have seen no poaching incidents in over 9 months, which is some kind of success. But as ever much greater scale is required to impact the current poaching crisis.
The Wall : U.S. Mexican border
Technology can be a great platform to meaningfully leverage corporate capacity in the natural world in the mutually beneficial ways described above. However, we need to scale up the response to natural degradation enormously and this means massive amounts of funding, which I believe more than ever, can be best met through this innovative approach to sponsorship.
Pictures courtesy of Flickr - Wonderlane: The Wall, US border, separating Mexico from the US, looking east, along Highway 2, Sonora Desert, Mexican side. Damon Hill's Williams and the 'countryside' shot courtesy of Wikipedia.