The Irish marketing and sponsorship industry lost one of its brightest lights this week following the sad death of John Trainor (52), the founder of ONSIDE, the country’s leading sponsorship consultancy.
John is credited with instilling a level of rigour, discipline and professionalism not seen in the Irish sponsorship world before he founded ONSIDE in 2005.
Since then, the hugely important role that sponsorship plays in the marketing mix for brands and the impact it has for rights holders, sporting organisations and the communities they serve has been immense.
Outside the wheeling and dealing of the sponsorship world, John was a good friend and mentor to all who knew him, a great boss to all who worked with ONSIDE but, most of all, a loving husband to Eithne and proud and adoring father to three sons, Jake, Harry, and Olly.
Before establishing ONSIDE, John worked in market research and cut his commercial teeth with the research company Amárch.
“John was our first employee when we launched Amárach back in 1998, and over the next seven years he helped grow the business and our team, demonstrating his unique combination of tenacity, commitment and passion for clients and the work we did for them,” says Gerard O’Neill founder and CEO.
“He had a strong entrepreneurial streak and I wasn’t at all surprised when he decided to launch Onside in 2005. John will be sorely missed by all of us who had the opportunity to work alongside him,” he adds.
As ONSIDE expanded its footprint over the next 18 years, John would come into contact with and advised many rights holders, brands and industry colleagues both in Ireland and internationally. In fact, the year after setting up ONSIDE, he joined the board of the European Sponsorship Association (ESA), serving on it from 2006 to 2017. ONSIDE and its clients would later to go on to win numerous awards at the annual European Sponsorship Awards as well as many other awards festivals, including Cannes Lions.
“It was a great sadness to hear of the passing of John Trainor the other day. John had been a fellow ESA Director a few years ago representing the group of sponsorship professionals in Ireland during the international growth of the European Sponsorship Association,” says Nigel Geach, vice-chair of the ESA.
“His forthright views and commitment were refreshing and contributed to the emergence of a very strong Irish sponsorship representation in the Association. He was well regarded and liked and our paths crossed in many professional ways in our respective businesses, as we both were striving to grow independent consultancies amongst international clients. Our personal association goes back some 20 years and the success of ONSIDE Consulting will be his continued legacy. John will be sorely missed, of course, by his family but also his many friends in the close-knit sponsorship community.”
But it was his and ONSIDE’s work in the Irish market that would bring him into contact with many well-known rights holders and brands the length and breadth of the country and internationally too.
John was also passionate believer in the power of sponsorship to not only help brands achieve key business objectives and deliver better financial outcomes for rights holders and sporting organisations but also to help improve communities around the country, including his beloved Galway and, closer to home,Tuam.
“John was the founder of not only Onside Sponsorship but in many ways of the insight industry that powers the sponsorship sector in Ireland,” says Rob Hartnett, CEO of Sport for Business.
“For the last eight years we have worked closely together on the Onside Surveys, including exclusively with the Sport for Business membership. We became co-workers and friends. His name was a bye-word for meticulous research and considered analysis. If it had first the John Trainor and then latterly the wider Onside stamp of approval that was good enough for rights holders and sponsors alike,” he adds.
“In November we recorded a Podcast looking at the world of Sponsorship. The conversation that took place before and after the record button was pressed will stay with me for a long time when he spoke about his illness, about the impact on those around him, and his motivation to create a business that was bigger than him alone. At the time I listened in the hope that this was a reflection on darker times that had passed but now we have the darkest moment of all,” says Rob.
“He will be missed terribly in a professional capacity and by those who knew him best at a much deeper personal level. He was a special person with a collection of special gifts that enabled him to become an integral part of what is now a more than €200m industry. I am a better person for having known him and worked with him. I am not alone,” adds Rob.
John’s tenacious deal-making abilities and his determination to get a deal across the line is summed up by Padraig Power, chief commercial officer with the IRFU.
“The Irish Sponsorship community is a poorer place with the sad news of John’s passing,” says Padraig.
“I always believed John to be the ‘Godfather’ of sponsorship in Ireland. He was a wonderful ‘matchmaker’. He owned the space between rightsholders and sponsors and he was so comfortably able to advise both in a way that did not compromise himself.
“I used to marvel at how he could inch negotiations this way and that until a deal was arrived at. He knew instinctively that a deal was only a good deal when both parties were happy. His advice was always based on a nugget of an insight and it was always delivered in friendly and unpretentious way. He was also a friend, someone who was so generous with his time to so many people and a joy to be around. He will be missed. From all at the IRFU, we offer our sincerest condolences to Eithne and his family,” Padraig adds.
Peter McKenna, stadium & commercial director of Croke Park, also knew John well and worked with him many times down through the years. “Sport is about heroes. Heroes are about courage. John was the embodiment of courage. He has left a wonderful legacy. We were privileged to have known him,” Peter says.
“John Trainor was gent, a giant and a genius rolled into one Tuam man,” adds Enda Lynch, CEO Badminton Ireland.
“Having initially worked with John in 2001 on Bank of Ireland’s Host Town Programme in the two years leading up to the Special Olympic World Games, when he was in Amarach and I a young pup in Slattery PR, I saw his brilliant skills first hand. Again, in Vodafone and when I worked with Digicel in Haiti, John was at the end of the phone / email with a good word of advice, a lead, or an insight worth its weight in gold.
“It was during my time in O2 where John showed his true genius. Given the spend and the properties (the Irish Rugby Team, The O2 – the newest and most expensive toy in town – and Cork GAA), the pressure was on immediately to demonstrate a return on investment to the business. We were lucky to work with great agencies, but John was the lead in showing just how successful the sponsorships were,” says Enda.
“With his gentle hand leading along the way, the awards circuit beckoned and we cleaned up – a Cannes Lion, multiple ESAs (of which John was immensely proud) multiple All Ireland Marketing Sponsorship and Team of the Year Awards, a Kinsale Shark, you name it. And none of it (or a celebratory ESA awards night in Amsterdam which won’t be forgotten…) would have been possible without his unique way of showing how sponsorship mattered in pounds, shillings, pence, hearts, and minds.
“Despite the recession, John remained a huge support when I was struggling to find Munster Rugby’s new jersey sponsor and was a guide a number of times in realising the value of the assets we had. But more importantly than all of that, he was a wonderful mentor who was always available at the end of the phone. Every call was answered, with ‘Well Sham’ as the opening words. He always managed to shoehorn Tuam into a conversation!! He was a guide, a support, a voice of reason and a challenger when that was needed – he always knew what the right approach was.
“To Eithne and the boys, and his team in ONSIDE of which he was so proud – hopefully the many words being shared this week from across the industry internationally will give you some solace. Rest well John – hopefully there’s a great naming rights to enjoy wherever you come to rest.”
While sports organisations loved working with John for his integrity, commitment, professionalism, and his ability to magic up deals, sometimes out of nowhere, he was also widely respected in the marketing departments of many leading brands.
“John Trainor was the best of us,” says Paula Murphy, group director, brand and sponsorship with Bank of Ireland.
“I never left an interaction with John where I did not feel that I had learned something. He had an outstanding ability to instil confidence through his encyclopaedic knowledge and insight, and with his gentle way of sharing a passion for the work we were doing together. If John said it was good, that was the best stamp of approval,” she says.
“His integrity was a byword – few could have held the trust of sponsors, rights holders, media owners and more the way John Trainor did. He was justifiably proud of ONSIDE, and his inspirational professional contribution to the world of sponsorship is unrivalled – but his personal contribution to the lives and careers of the people he met was even more so. His particular encouragement and advice for younger colleagues setting out was immense,” Paula adds.
“During his illness, John said to me that he wasn’t too worried about his mobility, because really, he considered his mind to be his most important asset. But – for once – he was wrong. It was always his heart that was bigger than anything else. Suaimhneas síoraí dá chroí uasal,” she says.
If there was one leading brand in particular – there were many- that ONSIDE and John was associated with then it was Diageo which worked closely with John on numerous projects down through the years. Rory Sheridan, head of partnerships, culture and entertainment with Diageo pretty much sums up the respect and admiration with which he was held within the wider marketing and sponsorship universe.
“On the morning of Tuesday 6th February, I was greeted with the very worst type of news…the passing on my good friend, John Trainor.
“I first met John twenty-two years ago, when I was a nipper having recently joined the sponsorship team in Diageo’s marketing department. John worked for another agency back then. A couple of years later, he set up his own small agency called ONSIDE, created to give brands and rightsholders a forum to meet and forge formal business partnerships, based on mutual business objectives, and respect- all based on brilliant insight, provided in spades by the maestro, JT, as I always called him.
“JT always created an environment of trust and mutual respect and was an expert in the ‘art of the deal’. He was an honest broker, whom people trusted, admired, and respected without question. The sponsorship industry has lost its captain, but being the navigator he always was, JT has steered his vast crew in the right direction bound for clear blue waters.
“The West’s Awake, the West’s Awake. Slán, old pal.”