Danette Leighton constructed a Marketing Department from scratch as CMO of the Pac-12 Conference
Since she graduated from the University of Arizona in 1993, Danette Leighton has been knee-deep in the sports marketing industry. She realized early in her career that this niche was her passion. In years past, she worked with the Wildcat Athletics Department, the Pac-10 Conference, the Fiesta Bowl, Sony’s Sports Marketing Division and the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four hosted by Stanford. She also spent almost a decade overseeing marketing for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and business operations for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs.
Currently, Leighton serves as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Pac-12 Conference, a role she landed in April 2010. The Pac-12 is a collegiate athletic conference with 12 academically well-regarded universities competing in 22 NCAA sports. The conference has been hailed as the “Conference of Champions,” primarily because it has won more NCAA National team titles than any other conference in history. Leighton was the woman chosen to develop and implement the branding, marketing and communications programs, and to oversee the execution of the conference’s major championships.
Drawing Marketing Team Blueprints
When the Pac-12 (then referred to as the Pac-10) hired Leighton, there was no Marketing Department whatsoever. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott had a unique vision for the conference and wanted to redefine what a college conference could be. He recognized the value in Leighton’s marketing skills and sought her help in bringing his vision to fruition.
“I had the pleasure of being able to build out what we thought was necessary in order to do that,” Leighton said. “I was able to build a marketing team from scratch.”
This task was quite an undertaking. Leighton explained the first steps she took in building the Marketing Department: “The first thing I did was work with Commissioner Scott and our member institutions to make sure we truly understood and defined what our brand is as a conference.”
Crystallizing the definition of your brand is key to marketing and business success. Leighton recommends using research, data and key focus groups to help get clear about your marquee. “What are your differentiators?” she asked. “What makes you unique to others? What are you going to hang your hat on when you’re out there trying to promote who you are as an organization?”
The Pac-12 has defined and built its prestigious brand around three major pillars, the first of which is “excellence.” The conference comprises only truly remarkable schools with major athletic and academic strengths. The second pillar is defined as “West Coast.” This pillar represents two ideas: the Pac-12’s geographical location, as well as West Coast culture defined as “a progressive, modern, forward-looking culture,” Leighton said. “This pillar is a really unique attribute and sets us apart from our peers.” The final brand pillar, “innovation,” is critical to the Pac-12’s function. “We always want to be that organization that looks at doing things differently, that embraces the great institutions we have, and that looks at how we can be much more effective as a league,” she explained.
These pillars are the foundation for every marketing decision Leighton makes. She and her team use them as beacons in their planning and operations, and in helping their member institutions implement best practices.
Harvesting Marketing Skills
Leighton is supremely satisfied with her career as CMO of the Pac-12. It’s a sweet role for which she seems to be uniquely suited. She knows how to make everyone shine. Part of this can be attributed to being raised by a father who was a baseball player at UCLA, as well as a high school baseball and football coach. Another reason is that many of her past roles helped prime her for this position.
She shared the skills and lessons she’s harvested at some of her prior positions. At the University of Arizona, Leighton worked in ticket sales and communications. There, she learned several valuable lessons, including “how to be told no over and over and over again and not give up—a key skill needed for sales,” the value of ticketing, creative marketing on a budget, and how to use the written word as a marketing tool.
As the Executive Director of the 1999 NCAA Women’s Final Four, representing Stanford athletics, Leighton learned how to synthesize and bring all the components of a project together, from sponsorships to game operations. “It was the very first time I was responsible for bringing all the pieces together to run a major championship,” she said.
As for Sony, “This was really where I learned why sponsors invest in sports properties,” Leighton noted. She was able to see sports marketing “from the other side,” which has proved very insightful when she tries to secure sponsors for the conference.
Working with the NBA and WNBA in Sacramento, Leighton learned about building sub-departments and working with diverse brands. “That’s where I first built the in-house agency model that I’m able to have here today at the Pac-12.”
Honing Important Qualities
Leighton believes that two of the most important characteristics a leader can possess and embody are integrity and humility. Interestingly, a so-called failure during her career served as a very valuable supporting lesson.
When the Sacramento Monarchs folded as a result of a business decision, Leighton felt that giving the season ticket holders closure was simply “the right thing to do.” She opted to hold an open forum to allow the public to express their opinions and feelings about the loss of their team. Leighton shared: “I knew it was going to be difficult, but in the end, it was one of my best experiences, and I knew that I had lived up to what I think is most critical—and that’s having integrity.”
Along the same vein, humility might not be prevalent in sports marketing, but Leighton thinks it’s paramount to long-term success. “It’s a real unseen advantage when you recognize humility. Looking at your operations through the lens of humility is really, really powerful,” she said, “and it’s something I try to instill in our team.”
The Pac-12 team as a whole has to carefully balance “pounding its chest” over its victories with sportsmanship and humility. Leighton shared how they try to do it: “It sounds cliché, but you’ve got to lead by example. Hopefully my team knows that if I make a bad decision, I will own it. If there’s a better idea out there, I want to hear what that idea is. If you’re marketer, being arrogant is not an endearing approach to anyone who’s trying to consume your product.”
Because integrity and humility are critical to providing quality service, Leighton encourages all budding leaders to try to consciously exemplify these traits. In doing so, your team will be apt to follow suit, making your business or organization all the more solid and dependable.♦
The Five Arms of Pac-12’s Marketing Department
Leighton built a unique marketing “in-house agency” at the Pac-12. It comprises five distinct departments, each staffed with top-notch individuals with complementary skill sets:
- General Marketing – This department incorporates tasks such as event management, branding, advertising, graphic design, licensing, promotions, etc.
- Public Affairs & Communications – They take care of communications and public relations both on and off the court/field.
- Operations Unit – This unit is in charge of making sure everything operates according to plan. “The football doesn’t just automatically roll onto the field,” Leighton quipped. “It takes a small army to make sure a big event takes place.”
- Ticketing – This arm is unique to a conference. They are in charge of handling ticket sales and operations for the Conference’s major events and facilitating best practices with the member institutions.
- Business Operations – This sub-department oversees new initiatives and analyzes data.
Favorite quote “Success in not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill
Books I recommend’: “The C.O.R.E Journey” by Dianna Wright, Ph.D.
Anything that brings you joy. I enjoy reading books with my daughter.
Things I carry with me: iPhone, photos of my family, lipstick, everything a mom would carry (which feels like an arsenal)
Apps on phone I can’t live without: Pac-12 Now, Uber, ESPN SportsCenter, Pandora, my social apps
I can’t start my day unless: I have a cup of coffee.
I don’t consider my day done unless: I am organized for the next day.
I start my day by: Taking our two dogs outside.
Favorite leader: Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott
My definition of retirement: Traveling the world with my husband, and spoiling my future grandchildren.
I unwind from my day by: Learning about my daughter’s day.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is: Live and work to your personal values.
It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is: A glass of good champagne or sparkling wine.
Danette's Key Partners:Trapeze (Video production) | PulsePoint Group (Strategic communications, social media) | Joe Lewis Company Inc. ( Event Design + Production)
Professional profiles, photojournalism, and legal writing are Sunny's specialties; her personal, creative, edgy approach makes her stand apart in the industry. Her clientele has included over three dozen law firms around the country; international businesses such as LiveStrong and Howcast; American favorites like Family Fun and Natural News; and regional publications such as Rutherford Woman and Conch Color.
As a mom of six, fitness enthusiast, and self-employed business woman, she stays busy in her island home with her middle school sweetheart and husband Michael, and makes time to travel regularly. If she's not jogging on down the islands, shooting an event, or writing up a storm, you can find her at Sunfire Creatives or on Facebook.
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