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In a rare example of a marketing #fail, Mimecast used last week’s Alternative Legal IT Conference (at the Crowne Plaze Heythrop Park) as a masterclass on how not to sponsor an event. There really is no such thing as a free lunch – or at least the drinks that go with it!

It was in the event schedule: Brassey Bar sponsored by Mimecast. It was announced at the end of dinner. There were pop-ups dotted around the venue’s Brassey Bar announcing it was sponsored by Mimecast. And, just in case anyone still hadn’t got the message, on every table was a little notice (pictured) announcing the Brassey Bar Sponsored by Mimecast. Enough already, we got the message.

What did conference delegates get from this sponsorship? Free drinks at the bar? Or maybe free drinks subject to a tab or time-limit? Or even free drinks, as long as they were either house wines or specified bottled and draught beers? We’ve all attended enough events to be familiar with the options and permutations.

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So what did we get? Er, we got absolutely nothing, nada. It may have been a sponsored bar but in this instance, it was a sponsored bar where you had to buy your own drinks.

Not altogether unsurprisingly, this did not exactly go down well with an audience of thirsty legal IT directors. However, the Mimecast people on the ground had an explanation: it was all the fault of the organisers and what all the notices, pop-ups and announcements should have said was that the bar was branded by Mimecast. The organisers however said “no” – the word used by Mimecast was sponsored.

“Ah but,” countered the Mimecasters, “we’re not allowed to provide free drinks because that would be illegal under the Bribery Act!”

“Bollocks,” came the reply from the now increasingly irate delegates. Not least because the bar was also open to other legal IT vendors, as distinct from being an exclusive Mimecast invitees-only event.

Impasse, until some of the IT directors started calling up the Mimecast support desk to complain that given all the money they paid in support contracts, it was disappointing the company wouldn’t buy them a few beers in exchange and did they know MessageLabs offered a comparable service?

At this point someone rather more senior intervened and suddently a budget for the bar was located (so much for the Bribery Act then) and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, not before Mimecast had secured their reputation as the Scrooge McDuck of the corporate sponsorship scene and were the butt of all the best jokes when the conference resumed the following morning.

So, what did we learn from this? For IT vendors, the message is don’t sponsor something unless you are prepared to put your hand in your pockets – and certainly do not dig the hole you are in any deeper by trying to split hairs over the distinction between sponsorship and branding. For IT conference delegates, the message is simpler: if you are going to a Mimecast event, expect to have to pay for your own drinks.

PS: the writer had an early start the following day so went to bed without accepting drinks from anyone.