Senior Director of Partnerships at TIFF J. Frees:” Think about smart conversation between you and the partner, and the audience"

Agnė Raščiūtė

The UK’s Independent Cinema Office has been running the Developing Your Film Festival training course since 2010. It is the world’s only professional development course for people working at film festivals.  The course has so far trained over 200 people from more than 50 different countries worldwide, and takes place in a different location each year. The course is delivered by experts from leading festivals from around the world. One of the experts that partook in this year’s training course is Jennifer Frees, a Senior Director of Partnerships at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

How did you end up in film festival industry?

There were many layers. I did an arts and culture degree with a minor in business in university. From there I worked in production for few years and then worked for a charitable organization focused on women’s issues. Through fundraising and community investment initiatives, I found my passion for building relationships with corporate partners. From there I went on to work for a marketing agency for a short period of time, after that, I did consulting work for non-profits and then was recruited by TIFF. I started there two days before the Festival in 2011. Since then, it has been almost seven years and now I run the partnerships group at TIFF.

What changes in partnerships and sponsorship strategies have you experienced through these seven years?

There have been very clear changes. At the beginning people were a lot more satisfied with just branding, they wanted their logos everywhere, they wanted to see how many logos they had, and what was going to be the volume around their brand. I think there was more focus on brand awareness at that point. Now, I think partnerships, certainly in Canada where it is a very robust industry, has really shifted. We now need to show a very clear return on investment, that’s something we are really focused on. It's less about going in to new prospective partners with a menu of offerings; instead, we are sitting down and talking about mutual objectives and audience pain points, what’s the challenge for the audience where the brand can come in and be a hero for that audience and fix that problem. When I started at TIFF we were called the Sponsorships team and now we’ve changed it to the Partnerships team and it really has to do with the mentality and ethos around our relationship with our partners.

TIFF partnership strategy focuses on brands supporting the transformational experience the audience can have with film. I imagine that many of your partners, as you said, don’t want their logo to be seen, they want to be somehow represented in a more creative way?

We are very specific in terms of what we will and what we will not sell. TIFF does an incredible job and I have to credit my Marketing and Programming teams for keeping us really honest on this. We will not affect our creative integrity for a specifically corporate interest. Essentially, when it comes to selecting films, the programmers really are the core of the artistic vision and exclusively responsible for the programming selection. We have had brands who had come to us in the past, saying, you know we made a film and we want to show it. Well, actually you will have to go through the same selection process as everybody else, we don’t care how much money you are giving us. The reality is that we are programming based on artistic merit, and separately we work with our brand partners to help enhance the audience experience. For us, it is all about creating an optimal, maximized audience experience and looking at how can we take the film experience and elevate it. Actually, we have a new mandate now where all of our brand partners have to do film centric experiences. In the past, we would have some partners who would come onsite and just sample food or they would promote their company and it was not clearly tied to film. We have listened to our audience, we've seen what works best and in terms of the experience, it’s those brands that clearly understand what the film conversation is and they are adding to it, so that’s where we are moving things for our brand partner activations.

You said that you hear your audience. How do you listen to your audience in regards to partnerships?

TIFF’s audience is very vocal, which we love. We do audience surveys and we also work with separate research companies that come and actually speak with our audiences for us, which is extremely helpful, because we receive a lot of great feedback. Data is very important right now, it is part of the research and analysis for our partners’ return on investment. We are really looking into the data and speaking directly to our audience and we hear them. It is actually amazing when you look at partnerships, sometimes it is not the most obvious fit, sometimes not the most glamorous company, but actually they are the ones that the audience needs and loves the most. Our job is to figure out what the fit is and make it feel authentic and natural.

You have to think about what is going to feel really natural in terms of a partnership and what makes sense but also be exciting, tell a story and activate a brand in a unique way. I think the film festival platform is a special platform for brands. It's really rare that you have an experience, like a film festival, where you have in some cases hundreds of thousands of people coming into one place and they are already engaged and excited. They are in a great mood but they are also sitting in a theatre for two hours, they are lining up for an hour beforehand, they are at a party for four hours afterwards. That is a perfect opportunity for a brand to be introduced to them, to interact with them. The film festival environment is where you are open to seeing new things, you are a seeker and you are trying new things. That’s exactly the right moment to come in and say: Hi, try me.

You work with a lot of different partners. I guess all of them want to be exceptional and have all your attention. How do you manage it?

We have almost 150 year-round partners that include our Hospitality Partners as well as our more traditional Corporate Partners. Sure, it is a lot, but I have a big team and they are all incredible professionals with different levels of expertise in different industries. It requires a certain level of skill and an incredible level of professionalism and understanding marketing, arts, communication, and audience engagement. My team has all of those skills and they are able to do their job extremely well.

We try to figure out what is the right place for all of our brands. Data and analytics are very important; you have to know who your audience is and the different demographics you touch, and then you can target your brand to the specific audience. It wouldn’t make sense for us to have a motorcycle brand at a children’s event, likewise it wouldn’t make sense to have a very high-end champagne brand at an event that has a bunch of 20-year-old students in attendance. You need to figure out where your audiences are and then you specifically target the right brands to those places. Here’s how I see it: TIFF is a giant pie and everybody gets their special slice of the pie. That is really how we approach it and ensure that there isn’t too much overlap.

TIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in the world and it usually sets some standards that other festivals look up to.

We pride ourselves on being an industry leader in many sectors. What we are most proud of recently is that we were ahead of the game and leading the conversation on the issue of gender parity. Nine months prior to all of the cultural shifts, scandals and movements, our executive team sat down and made an official decision that TIFF is going to be a leader in this area and that’s why we started a campaign called “Share Her Journey”, where we focused on gender parity and women’s related initiatives in the industry. We decided that minimum 30 percent of the films in our Festival programme will be directed by women. In Canada, only 7 percent of the top films are directed by women, in the US, I believe less than 4 percent. So 30 percent, even though it doesn’t seem like a huge number, it is an absolutely enormous target and we actually surpassed that target at last year’s Festival. I know that we will grow the number even more, with our talent programme, where we ensure that a minimum 50 percent of participants are women.

Does this TIFF’s turn also influence the strategies for partnerships?

Absolutely. To be honest, we are in a middle of major cultural movements, across many different topics not to mention just the gender parity issue. Our partners are aware of that as well and their own industries are dealing with the same issues. I think for them it is exciting to have an opportunity to have a conversation in this creative space, where they can have a really motivating, change-oriented conversation. It is actually a broader cultural moment that they can now be part of on the world stage. I think it is a really special time and I am actually very excited about being one of the leaders within TIFF actively participating in these changes. It’s very motivating to push these issues forward through the voice of our corporate partners who themselves are making this their priority. That is something that motivates me and my team on a daily basis, a culturally diverse team of 18 women and 4 fabulous men.

Let’s imagine that there are film festival colleagues that in a second will step into the meeting with their partnership clients. What would you say to them?

For anyone who is going into a meeting with a partner, you'll need to ask yourself “what's in it for them?”. And I can guarantee the answer will not simply be “logo recognition”. You have to think about what will be a really smart conversation that you can have with the public. It’s important to have one cohesive conversation between you, the partner, and the audience. Those are always the most effective partnerships, figuring out what is going alleviate those audience pain points. Sometimes you can't fulfill all of the needs of the audience as a film festival and that’s where partners can come in and elevate the experience. So, thinking about all of those things, making sure that it is about the audience is really important and understanding what are those drivers, that’s what is going to make a corporate partner shine.

The course is funded by Creative Europe and the British Council. This year the ICO is proud to be delivering the course in partnership with Vilnius International Film Festival from 20-25th March.