Profile: Sara Donaldson

Sara Donaldson received an OBE for her part in the millennium celebrations and is a key figure in the London 2012 bid. She tells Claire Bond why passion has been a critical ingredient in its presentations to the International Olympic Committee.

For Sara Donaldson, project and client development director at the brand experience agency Live, no two days are ever the same - and with clients as diverse as Camelot, London 2012 and the Cabinet Office it's easy to see why.

Donaldson recently completed a hectic programme of events for the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) visit in February and is now preparing for a well-deserved break in the French ski resort of Courcheval. "You work flat out and deliver something that you're very proud of, then take a week's holiday and come back re-energised," she says.

Although she says she feels ten years older at times, at 36 she leaves a trail of successful projects in her wake. But as a teenager she aspired to the bar, and in 1987 joined a law course at Stirling University. "Within one semester I decided I couldn't possibly contemplate being a barrister so I switched to marketing," she says.

University involved a stint as president of the sports union and led to a job at the British Universities Sports Federation. It was a hands-on role with the World Student Games organisational team that sowed the seed for her events career.

In the mid-1990s she moved into account management and event production for London Events Agency, working on projects as diverse as the BT Swimathon and the London Heathrow Youth Games.

In 1997 she was appointed national programme director for the New Millennium Experience Company with remits such as the Marks & Spencer Children's Promise charity and BAA's The Millennium Youth Games. "The charity took off in a way that we had never anticipated. It just captured people's imagination and raised £23m in the UK during an 18-month period," she says.

International interest resulted in her going abroad to advise on the creation of further Children's Promise charities: "We ended up presenting to the South African president Thabo Mbeki. When I started out I never imagined that I'd be able to use my experience and skills to do something that would have that much impact."

Three years later Donaldson received an OBE for services to the millennium celebrations. "The whole team worked incredibly hard in very public circumstances. We'd wake up every day to hear stories about how dreadful the Dome was, and actually a lot of what we were doing was phenomenally good and making a massive difference to a lot of people's lives. So it was surprising but also gratifying to have that recognition."

Having joined London-based agency Live in 2001, she is responsible for some of its most complex projects as well as those involving significant media activity and live broadcast.

Preparing for the recent IOC visit was one such project. She and her team started working with the 2012 bid committee in November 2003, and Live's campaign began when it organised the bid's launch event at the Royal Opera House two months later. "It was a big media event, with an audience of around 450 people including the Prime Minister, Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell. We had just over a month to pull it together and we've done a great range of things since," she says.

Live's package of presentations has been delivered around the world by bid chairman Lord Coe and chief executive Keith Mills. "We had 17 presentations across the two and half days. The British passion for sport is one of the key themes of London's 2012 bid and so we needed to make sure that our presentations were as passionate as the messages we were trying to convey."

Although her job stretches far beyond the nine to five, away from the office Donaldson can currently be found converting a derelict Kent barn into a home - proving, if proof were needed, that she'll always be ready for a challenge.


What draws her to events ... You have to remain calm and ensure you can deliver flawlessly. That's what is exciting sometimes, the mad paddling that goes on under the surface that people can't see; the sticky tape that sometimes holds things together.

Working with the public sector ... I think it's a fallacy to say that the public sector is too tied up in bureaucracy. The people we deal with tend to have a lot of delegated authority and are able to make decisions. They know what they want and are happy to work with us to deliver that.

The perception of event marketing ... Our experience is it's a growing sector and people are increasingly prepared to move away from traditional marketing methods and I think that's what makes this industry so exciting.

The importance of measurement ... We are currently investing in the development of an ROI (return on investment) model. And what that will demonstrate is the value spent on brand experience compared to the value of spend in the more traditional mediums such as advertising, direct mail or PR.

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