W Partners finding groove beyond Cubs roots
Five years after creating W Partners with the owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Ricketts family, Wally Hayward sits in the team’s sleek new headquarters that overlooks one of his sales and marketing agency’s signature deals: Gallagher Way, the 50,000-square-foot entertainment plaza built adjacent to the remodeled Wrigley Field.
Hayward, the well-known former Cubs executive and current W Partners chief executive, didn’t design the plaza that on this July morning during the All-Star break still buzzes with tourists. But it was W Partners that brought the lucrative 10-year, eight-figure naming-rights deal to the Cubs and Hickory Street Capital, the real estate development arm of the Ricketts family. The deal, Gallagher’s first sports sponsorship, raised the brand awareness of the relatively unknown Chicago-based insurer.
The partnership is one of the Cubs’ most lucrative and speaks to Hayward’s strengths as a well-connected dealmaker. He leveraged not only his close ties to Chicago businesses, but also his relationship with the Ricketts family that owns a 40 percent stake in W Partners, with Hayward controlling the remaining 60 percent.
Now, with Wrigley Field’s $575 million renovation nearly complete, W Partners is increasingly focusing on other brands and properties and attracting new business beyond the ivy at Wrigley Field. In addition to Gallagher, other recent wins include the naming-rights deal for the city of Bridgeview for SeatGeek Stadium, home of the Chicago Fire.
“Once we were done with the [Cubs] projects, we could go after other clients and brands not only in sports but in entertainment and culinary as well,” Hayward said.
We like to think we created a model out there and now you have other teams trying to create a similar structure. Not all properties are looking to hire the big agencies.
In an agency market with the likes of Legends, CAA, Van Wagner and Wasserman, W Partners is a three-employee shop with a sales pitch that its size allows for more personal service. In addition to Hayward, the agency counts Sean Wallis as director of partner development and Taylor Dvorak as partnership manager.
National deals have been the toughest to land.
“The Legends of the world always seem to get the first call and they get in early because they have other resources outside their sales rep firm,” Hayward said. “They get in the deals much earlier. But our clients get our relationship and focus. When we created W Partners, there were people that said, ‘Why are you separating out?’ Now five years later, how many people are focusing on that? We like to think we created a model out there and now you have other teams trying to create a similar structure [by starting their own agencies]. Not all properties are looking to hire the big agencies.”
W Partners continues to focus on business-to-business deals as highlighted by its work with Gallagher.
“We need people to have a better idea of what we do and the benefit of W Partners and Wally is that he takes the time to understand our business and our culture,” said Chris Mead, chief marketing officer for Gallagher. “He brings in a no-nonsense understanding that what we are doing has to be both a cultural and business fit. The fact that we get to work with the agency principal is a big part of it. There is nothing hierarchical about it.”
Hayward relies on his deep Rolodex built from running his own Relay Worldwide agency from 2001-09, followed by a stint with the Cubs as executive vice president and chief sales officer from 2009-13 when he resigned to create W Partners with the blessing, and financial backing, of the Ricketts family.
After buying the Cubs in 2009, the Ricketts group moved away from a strategy of selling multitudes of small sponsorships to selling fewer, but larger and long-term “Legacy” deals, spawning the W Partners spinoff to focus on long-term deals.
“We had to rethink the partnership model,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “Toward the end of the process, it was clear to me that we were going to run out of runway for Wally. We would run out of the large partnerships so it just seemed logical to let him take his relationships, expertise and perspective into his own firm and do it for other people.”
Current clients■ Chicago Cubs
■ Hickory Street Capital
■ Choose Chicago
■ James Beard Foundation
■ Nederlander Broadway, Chicago
■ Jam Productions
■ Village of Bridgeview: SeatGeek Stadium
■ Breeders’ Cup
Since W Partners launched in 2013, the company has completed a total of 47 deals, including 35 new deals and 12 renewals. Among the biggest closed this year include Gallagher Way with the Cubs, Gallagher Premiership Rugby title sponsorship with 12 clubs in England, and SeatGeek Stadium, the home of the Chicago Fire and Chicago Red Stars.
Among some of their other previous big deals closed for the Cubs and Ricketts family included Anheuser-Busch InBev, Advocate Health Care, American Airlines, Starwood Hotels, Toyota, and Wintrust.
Though the Ricketts family is an owner of W Partners, the agency operates independently from the Cubs and has its own offices across town from Wrigley Field. Hayward is free to chase other clients in baseball and beyond.
The Cubs are a client while also maintaining their own internal sales division. Last year, the team also created Marquee Sports & Entertainment that consolidates all Ricketts family-controlled partnership, group and event sales for the organization. Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations, also serves as president of Marquee Sports, which was also involved in the Gallagher Way deal on the sell side.
“We are a client,” Ricketts said. “Wally has been a leader in looking at not just corporate partnerships, but also non-traditional partnerships. There is a new window because people have thought more broadly and because activation has become more creative. Defining partnerships by which consumer products are in your park is an old school model.”