Episode 30 is an interview with the Managing Director of iris Culture, Laura Weston.
As MD of a leading sport and entertainment agency she talks about how you can bring a brand to life with sport, the excitement of breaking conventions and why working on the Launch of FA Women’s Super League (WSL) was one of her proudest moments.
Twice nominated for the prestigious BT Sports Industry ‘Agency of the Year’ Award, iris Culture is known for its creative and innovative work for global brands such as adidas, Samsung and Speedo.
Laura worked with The FA for three years launching The FA WSL and supporting the England women’s football team and recently advised her Sydney office on the amplification of Samsung’s sponsorship of Australian netball. Her goal is to help brands understand both the creative and commercial opportunity working with women’s sport can bring.
As a former county netballer and athlete Laura has seen the benefit that sport has had on both her life and career, so is keen to inspire other women and girls.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 01.6.18 – Ep 30. Laura Weston – Pushing the envelope in sports marketing
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
I: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
In this episode I chat to Laura Weston who is the Managing Director of Iris Culture, a leading sport and entertainment agency. She talks about how you can bring a brand to life with sport, the excitement of breaking conventions, and why working on the launch of the FA’s Women’s Super League was one of her proudest moments. Let’s start though by finding out what it is about brands and marketing that really interests her.
LW: I think it was always just the creative process really, I just love the idea of taking a brand which is obviously sometimes quite over complicated, people like to make their brands quite complicated, and they have PowerPoints that are 60 pages long about their brand and what it stands for, which is really important, but I think I’m naturally a simplifier. So, I kind of like just to take that and interpret it for what a consumer would want to hear, and I think a lot of the time in marketing, what happens is, people get very caught up in their own chat and they forget about who we’re actually communicating to, which is the people out there. So, I probably feel like one of my strengths is being a man of the people, almost, a woman of the people, in terms of knowing I think what people want to hear and how they want to hear it, and so convey messages in a way that they’re going to really relate to, rather than making it over complicated or too worthy, or earnest, all those kinds of things.
TP: One thing that I find really interesting about your career is that you’ve worked both sides of the equation, so to speak. You’ve worked with brands, you’ve also worked with rights holders.
TP: What have you learnt by being both sides of that equation?
LW: I’ve learnt that creativity is the thing that should bring them both together and that both sides, they can be very formulaic and traditional, and quite nervous. So, if you’re the rights holder, they just feel very nervous about getting the sponsorship money in and making sure that they give all their rights in the right way, and it’s quite diminutive again. If you’re the brand it’s about getting your brand across in the right way and making sure that you’re ticking the boxes and making sure that you get value for the money that you put across. So, it’s a very transactional relationship when actually, if both parties sat back a bit and thought, “what’s the actual purpose of doing this, what could we produce, what could be the impact of the stuff that we’re doing together”, and actually think of it in a bit bigger terms, or elevate it a little bit, they’d probably both get a lot more out of it.
I think maybe, I’ve noticed this with all clients post the last financial crisis, people have become a lot more cautious, there’s not as much risk, and I think you see that in marketing and especially in sports marketing, that it’s very formulaic, and there’s not a lot of people pushing the envelope and doing something very different, it’s all quite traditional. And unfortunately, now the markets, well I think fortunately, the market’s moving very fast and it is changing, and I think that’s why probably sports sponsorship and marketing has been quite slow compared to other areas in understanding the impact of digital, different audiences for sport, women obviously being a huge one, it’s all still very in their safe place, and they don’t want to break out too much. But I think slowly, it’s starting to happen, and I hope in the next few years you’ll see a lot more interesting work, where the rights holders and the brands have got together and really done something special and interesting.
TP: How do you help that process? How do you get people to push the envelope a little bit?
LW: I think you just have to give them, you have to set the vision up and say, “look, what’s the possibility, what if we did it this?” You’ve kind of got to break them away from the PowerPoint and the constant looking at brand wheels, or looking at rights pages, and the numbers and all the stats, and the return on investment, and just try at least for a little bit think about possibilities and bringing things to life, and demonstrating the importance of having real world interactions, and doing something of value.
A lot of brands now talk about authenticity, like you know, we want to be really authentic, and they don’t really understand what that means. But being authentic means, you actually not just say things, you have to do things, and you have to give people value by providing a service, or something that they are passionate about, and really getting involved in their lives a bit more, and again, I think people have just been a bit sceptical of doing that. So, often it’s just about starting slowly and doing a little project and demonstrating, “look, this is what it could become”, and inspiring them that way, and then you can kind of grow and grow and grow. And that’s one of the things I think we’re quite good at here in Iris is getting in on a small project, whether it’s a small little PR project which might be small income, but then we grow it and we see the potential of it, and then we take them along the journey with us, which is cool.
TP: Is there a project or activation that you’ve been particularly excited about or proud about?
LW: There’s lots, I mean, personally it will always be the stuff that we did with the FA WSL to launch that, because although it was ahead of its time and I don’t think actually the sport was ready for what we were suggesting, which I’ve learnt that now much more. I think at the time I was probably a little bit, I was very ambitious with the sport but it the infrastructure wasn’t really there across the clubs, to be able to really roll out a fantastic marketing campaign, it was still very much embryonic. But as part of our work with the FA, we got Rachel Yankey on the front cover of Stylist Magazine in her kit, and that remains my proudest moment in 20 years, because it just said something so important about women’s sport, to have her as the most capped England player at the time on the front cover of a leading women’s magazine, who we’d had so many discussions with, trying to get them to see the importance of these kinds of sports women, and we’d been dismissed quite a lot. So, the fact that Stylist took it on and put her on the cover was amazing, so I think that personally.
Professionally as well, there’s been other ones where we’ve just really been innovative, so we worked with a small brand called Neo, which is part of Adidas, obviously a big brand, and we just, they didn’t have a lot of marketing budget for it but we just did lots of innovative things on social, and we did the first ever socially created fashion show at New York Fashion Week, which was a great idea. So, basically, it was a fashion show, the brand was aimed at kids, or teams, so rather than just do a standard boring show, we got the kids to be able to make all the decisions about the fashion show, so which outfits they wore, which models we chose, what make-up they had. And then we had lots of influences flown in from all over the world and they sat on the front row, and they were able to take part in the fashion show. That for New York Fashion Week was really breaking a convention, and I love that. I love going into a category where there’s loads of conventions of how things should be done, and breaking it, and saying, “actually, why should Team Vogue sit on the front row, actually we want this influencer to sit on the front row, because she’s really passionate about fashion and she’s really huge in Japan, and she should be on the front row, not just the standard people. So, that was just, every campaign we did for Neo was really innovative, pushed boundaries and used different technologies that haven’t been used before to really generate a lot of impact, so it was cool.
TP: What makes things go wrong? What hinders the effectiveness of a campaign?
LW: People not being brave enough sometimes, I would say, too many people involved. So, often the sign-off process it can be really long, it’s really difficult because at every stage someone has a comment and an idea can quite quickly go from being something really interesting to something that’s watered down to something that’s actually a bit rubbish [laughs] and conventional, because everyone’s gone, “oh, what was that word, should we be doing that on that channel, or oh, should we be using that celebrity”, or whatever it is, everyone puts in their two-pennorth and it becomes weaker. So, the strength I think sometimes of my team is that we’ve got a lot of people who are very hybrid and that means they’ve got lots of different marketing hats, so they understand what it is to put on a great event, they understand how to get something talked about, they understand organic marketing, so getting things talked about and seen and shared. So, that means that you don’t need many of them in the room, you don’t need lots and lots of agencies, you don’t need to spend lots and lots of money, you just need some smart people who get that, and you can create some great work.
TP: I want to go back to, you mentioned your work with the FA, launching the WSL, women’s sport has moved on massively since then.
LW: Yes, yes.
TP: How do you see the marketing of women’s sport changing, or do you?
LW: Yeah it is, it’s the one barrier that we’re struggling to overcome. It seems like the media are listening now and they are making a change, the athletes couldn’t do more than they’re doing in terms of performance, but the brands and the sponsorship element just don’t seem to be getting it. I think it’s actually interesting now that you’re seeing the clubs themselves taking it over, so people like Man City making a big difference, because they’re owning it themselves, which is great. I think us working for the FA, that’s what we always wanted, the FA had to be the leader of it at first, and the clubs absolutely weren’t ready because they didn’t have marketing people in most of the clubs, or if they did, it was someone who was part-time, and they weren’t really focussing on the women’s as much as they should be. So, it was very difficult to activate something through all of the clubs at once and come to them with ideas, because it just wasn’t working. I think for the clubs to do it themselves has been much more effective. It frustrates me, I just see the creative potential of it all as well. The numbers of women participating are going up, the coverage is there, the audience is there, it’s like, what else do you need?
TP: So, how could a brand benefit from it?
LW: Well, they’re going to get amazing exposure and the old adage was, there was no audience for it, and obviously, that’s just been blown apart now because we’ve seen all the broadcasting figures of the Women’s Rugby World Cup Final beating Liverpool and Arsenal on Sky, and you kind of go, well we’ve got that scale, we’ve got that audience, it’s a broad audience of both men and women, which is great for brands because a lot of them aren’t necessarily targeting one or the other, so it’s broad reach. So, it’s frustrating that we haven’t quite got there but I think the tide’s turning and I think this year we’ll start to see a lot more interesting work. I think people will be held to task a little bit more. Brands that have got women who work across men’s and women’s sport who maybe haven’t activated their women’s rights as much, I think, are starting to take notice and understand that they could probably get a lot more value out of it if they did.
TP: Talking about getting value out of it, generally what are brands looking for as far as their measures of success when they’re going into a partnership?
LW: A lot of the time it’s viewership, they do want awareness which is fine, but a lot of brands are actually pretty well known so actually, it’s more around engagement and making sure that you can engage your audience. They’re very much about wanting to tell their brand story so in this age of authenticity, in this age when they want to show that they can have meaningful connections with their audience, they want to look at what does their brand stand for and how can they bring that to life? And sport obviously, because a lot of the time what they’re talking about is their inspiring or they’re innovative, or they’re very similar words often, but they’re all to do with those kinds of words and feelings. So, inspiring, well you kind of go, there’s no probably better way of doing that than through sport, but how you bring that to life has to be a little bit more interesting and engaging than maybe perimeter boards, or a bit of chat in the programme. So, I think if you’re saying that you’ve an inspiring and innovative brand, you have to demonstrate that and there’s a great opportunity within sport because it’s so much more flexible, and people are willing to listen, and people, particularly the athletes themselves, are willing to get involved and engage and make it authentic, which you wouldn’t get that opportunity with other rights, whether that’s music, or fashion, or male sport. So, it’s a sort of open door, I think, for people to go in and retry things.
TP: How do you think marketing will look like in ten years’ time?
LW: The million-dollar question! I’d be really rich if I knew that. I think, I mean, there’s lots of chat about it at the moment because obviously Martin Sorrell, who has been the god of advertising, has just stepped down, so there’s been a lot of chat over the last couple of days about the big global holding companies, and will they survive? I just think it will come down to expertise and people that really understand audiences, and I think you will see probably brands going for specialists a bit more again. So, they’ve probably gone a bit more general over the last few years and I think now they’re starting to understand the importance of going… You know, if you’re a fashion brand going to someone who really gets fashion, rather than a generalist. So, I think there’ll be a lot of that, there’ll be a lot more niche players, I think it will be better because it won’t be so London centric, or I certainly hope that will be the case, because I think there’s a lot of…
TP: Is that because you’ve just moved to Liverpool?
LW: Yes, but more so because I think you just get, in terms of diversity, you don’t get a diverse group of people working in marketing, you get a lot of very similar people working in marketing who live in London which, in itself, is a bubble, and don’t really get what happens outside the M25. And how can you be a marketeer if you don’t really understand that, if you’ve never literally been north of the Watford Gap, which I have interviewed people who haven’t. And you kind of go, well, you’ve got to have a broader view. Yes, globally there’s lots of globalisation and a lot of the work we do is globally on brands, but in the UK itself, you’ve got to have an understanding of the broad audiences that we’ve got here and diverse audiences, and really engage with those people to understand how to do marketing. It’s kind of really ridiculous to think you can do it without knowing what people think.
TP: What’s success for you?
LW: It’s changed a lot [laughs], it’s changed a lot. Success originally was being successful at work. I think I had a slight northern chip on my shoulder that I had to work really hard. I think I’m a strange kind of product of the eighties I think, I was like I just have to work as hard as I possibly can and get to the highest point I can as quickly as possible, and in my twenties, I was obsessed with getting on to the board by the time I was thirty, which I did, but didn’t do much else than that, because that was my life. And I think as I’ve gone through my thirties and now into my forties, success is a lot more to do with doing things I’m genuinely passionate about, making more time for family, making sure I have got a proper balance, and I think a bit of that’s come from having kids, a bit of that’s come from being a bit burnt and making some bad decisions along the way of prioritising the wrong things. But now, balance is key, making sure I’m doing stuff that I really care about is really the number one success factor for me at the moment
TP: Any place you see yourself in ten years’ time?
LW: I would love to be somewhere in women’s sport, whether that’s at a brand or at an organisation that is just making waves, doing really interesting exciting work, and really making a difference. I think that would be my plan, don’t tell my boss [laughs]
TP: Do you want me to delete that bit? Just going to end up with some quickfire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
LW: What, sports kit
TP: Any kit you want.
LW: Ooh, hmm, my trainers, my Adidas trainers, I’m a PR to the end.
TP: Sporting hero?
LW: Ooh, I mean, it was Flo-Jo when I was growing up because I was a sprinter. A bit of Steven Gerrard because I’m a Scouser, but recently, Helen Housby
TP: Any why Helen?
LW: Because I’m just a netballer at heart and I just thought she was amazing in the World Cup, just seeing netball played at that level was just so inspiring, when you’ve played netball you really realise how good they were, so yeah, she was amazing
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have been given, or given to somebody else?
LW: Oh God, useless piece of advice? I don’t know if people have really given me advice, what have people said to me? My mum says to me quite a lot, “make sure you brush your hair” [laughs].
TP: It’s not necessarily useless advice.
LW: It’s pretty useless when I’m talking to them about something quite big. A conference this afternoon I’m talking to these people, “I think you should make sure you brush your hair”. It is important but probably pretty useless. And to other people, I’ve just had really helpful advice I think [laughs]. I’m not sure my husband would agree with that.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
LW: Drama, theatre.
TP: Going to it or playing it?
LW: I teach at a drama group on a Tuesday night, children, so that is my other… I was conflicted, all my life I’ve been conflicted between sport and drama and I never knew which way I was going to do go, so I used to balance both of them, and I lost both of them I think for a few years when I was working too hard. So, now I’ve decided to get both of them back and that’s why Women’s Sports Trust and also my drama group, Little Stars, who will be presenting Peter Pan in June [laughs].
TP: Tickets available?
LW: Tickets available next week actually, yeah.
TP: And the last question, best performance enhancer?
LW: Um, enthusiasm, as long as I feel enthusiastic I can do anything.
TP: Thank you very much Laura.
LW: Great, thank you
TP: Thanks for listening, you can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.
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