Episode 39 in an interview with the Head of Communications, Content & Digital at the All England Lawn Tennis Club – Alex Willis.
We talk about how innovation and tradition work together, creating change within a championship cycle, the challenges of being an annual event, and the importance of remaining relevant in the future.
Alexandra Willis has achieved industry-wide recognition in her use of content and technology to transform the perceptions of a traditional brand in her role at Wimbledon, building an award-winning digital and communications strategy that is at the heart of the long-term future of the brand. Through the combination of a content-first, platform second approach, a data-led audience strategy, and placing value on consistent innovation as well as continuous evolution, Alexandra has led Wimbledon to become one of the most well-respected digital brands in sport. An Oxford and Harvard Business School graduate and Trustee of Greenhouse Sports, she is an alumni of the WEF Young Global Shapers, two-time Drum Digerati and former Sport Industry NextGen and Leaders in Sport Under 40.
Read an interview with her here and here.
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: 15.3.19 – Ep 39. ALex Willis
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: 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.
Today’s guest is the head of communications content and digital at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Alex Willis. Alex has led Wimbledon to become one of the most well respected digital brands in sport. We talk about how innovation and tradition work together creating change within the championship cycle. The challenges of being an annual event and the importance of remaining relevant in the future.
I asked her first to give us a brief overview of her role.
R: I guess one of the hardest things that we have to do in any job is try and explain what you do to people who might not be familiar with it and I usually start by saying, “I work for Wimbledon, the tennis event not the place or the train station.” Because I’m lucky to be able to visit people from different countries and different territories who may not have the kind of national appreciation of Wimbledon that we do in this country. And we stated to, kind of, characterise the role that we play, myself and my colleagues, within the organisation which is essentially presenting Wimbledon’s external voice. So when people see Wimbledon or hear it or think about it or watch it what that looks like and what that makes them feel and that is essentially a very fancy way of saying marketing and communications.
But we think it’s bigger than that it’s, sort of, the character of the place and the positioning of it and people’s relationship with it. Because we think as in most sport, most areas of sport, it should be an emotional connection and people should feel a personal relationship which when you’re a brand, an event, a tennis tournament, a club can be difficult to make it feel personal but we think that that’s really important and that’s, kind of, our job for this period of time that we’re here.
I: You’ve been at Wimbledon is it eight years now, is it?
R: Yes it’s, yeah, it’s about eight years.
I: And this job about three?
R: Yes that’s right. I think, well, it’s sort of symptomatic of the evolution of the broader industry really how my role’s developed.
I: What changes have you seen over the three years that you’ve been in this role, are you doing things differently to three years ago?
R: I think we’re doing things not necessarily with a different ambition in mind, which is this concept of changing the perception of Wimbledon. So that idea that our role is to present Wimbledon’s external voice to bring people in and the reason that we want to do that is change the traditional perception of Wimbledon as just a tennis tournament or just a private members club. I would say that the understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and therefore the resources at our disposal have grown over that time because it links into so many different areas of how you do business. So whether that’s the role that social media can play in helping you generate and grow an audience and therefore fundamentally market to them is it doesn’t just start and stop with doing that it’s actually the whole way that we understand what people think of Wimbledon. So there’s a market research aspect to it as well as just one example.
But I think it’s just being a… As you say the industry has changed so much around us and the way that we operate within the business has moved from being, kind of, an island really which is “let’s have a website and let’s have a social media strategy” to actually “what’s the core of what we do and how we explain what we do? And let’s use everything available to us to do that.”
I: It’s quite interesting, well, from someone on the outside you look at Wimbledon and the traditions and it’s been around for so long and then you think your job being in new media.
R: Yeah it’s funny because you can view the traditions as a barrier to change where actually the way that we’ve tried to position it is that they are our greatest assets because they make us different and they define who we are. And in my experience when you look at the difference between good coms, good platforms, good positioning it’s that sense of purpose and sense of knowing who you are. Whereas when you look at someone who’s just trying to make the most of the new opportunities available whether that’s a new social media platform or a new animation technique or a new piece of technology, if you haven’t linked it back to a core definition of purpose or core sense of identity it doesn’t necessarily make sense to the end user.
So we’ve started to try and…we used to talk about balancing tradition and innovation and we’ve tried to slightly turn that on its head and say that we innovate to preserve our traditions because if we don’t innovate then they’re in danger of becoming obsolete. And actually innovation is a platform to help us elevate them and ensure that they’ll still be here in 50, 100, 150 years whatever it might be.
I: What are, sort of, the ingredients to those good coms and good platforms that you talk about?
R: So we’ve recognised that Wimbledon has this unique ability to pull people in and it’s for very different reasons. So you may think that most people who have an appreciation of Wimbledon do so because they’re tennis fans, the reality is actually some of them are tennis fans and they are such an important part of our audience community and we need to make sure that we look after them. But there are loads of people who love Wimbledon because it’s a sports event and they love the theatre and drama of sport and we aspire for Wimbledon to be one of the best sporting events in the world so we look after them that way.
There are loads of people who love Wimbledon just for the atmosphere and the environment and whether that’s the way people dress, whether that’s the fact that we’ve got royal patronage. Whether that’s the fact that there’s this association with food, whether that’s strawberries, whether it’s cucumber sandwiches or all the things that have become stereotypical. Another one of our traditions picnics, whether that’s the Pimm’s or whether it’s just that you’ve got a relationship with Wimbledon because you grew up watching a certain player and for me it was Agassi. I used to watch Wimbledon at home and I’d watch Agassi and I’d think “Oh I’m gonna watch this event because that person‘s there.”
So I think the answer to your question in a roundabout way is identifying why there’s a relationship between you and your audience and finding the right way to celebrate that, nurture it and tease it out. Rather than drawing two broad strokes which would say we’re a tennis tournament we’re just gonna go after tennis fans ‘cause arguably we’d not be realising the true opportunity that there is and that comes back to Stacey’s point about entertainment which is there’s so much choice everyone’s trying to play in the same space which is entertain people, catch your attention, deepen engagement. So we need to make sure that we’re maximising the true breadth of our product really to try and do that.
I: How do you that when Wimbledon’s two weeks of the year, those 50 other weeks as well how do you go about…is it a two week splash, do you have a whole year programme of content? Talk to me about that a bit.
R: Yeah so that’s been a really interesting almost internal dilemma because as you say Wimbledon’s an event that happens for two weeks a year and it’s never as good as it is when it’s on funnily enough ‘cause there’s no tennis. So we’ve had a bit of back and forth around should we be aspiring to be the best tennis news website that there is and be alive and kicking covering tennis everyday of the year through some, kind of, Wimbledon lens? Should we be completely silent and only be alive for the two weeks? And I think what we’ve settled on is some kind of happy medium in the middle as you often do which is throwing 80% of our effort at growing the peak of the fortnight because as we’ve said that’s when Wimbledon’s at its best. Recognising that there is appetite for Wimbledon in the build up to the championships during the grass court season and immediately afterwards when there’s grass court tennis is still in the public consciousness because if we’re not going to celebrate grass court tennis then probably nobody else will.
So we’ve called that broadening the reach for six weeks but being strict enough with ourselves to acknowledge that we can’t really go beyond that six weeks because then we’ll start to drift into areas where we’re not at our best. And then the last bit is probably keeping a steady drumbeat of activity for those who really want it and who would appreciate it. And so for the past couple of years we’ve had an always on programming strategy if you can call if that for our most engaged group of fans because they are interested in what our foundation is doing in the local community or what our education programmes are doing for local schools or how the ground staff renovate the courts. But that’s never going to be a huge audience but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the appetite for doing that kind of thing.
So I think it’s the same kind of theme it’s trying to decide or define where your best efforts should go and then sticking to that and not getting tempted into “Oh we must celebrate World Water Day.” I mean we will celebrate World Water Day because we have a partnership with Water Aid but not feeling like you’ve got to do everything under the sun and actually being focused has been, I think, one of the keys for us.
I: You’re very animated when you talk about your job and what you’re doing here at Wimbledon what gives you the most buzz out of your role, what do you enjoy the most?
R: Oh good question. I mean, I think we’re all privileged to work in sport and I feel particularly privileged to have been able to be here at Wimbledon during a time of huge change. And I know we’ll come onto it later but genuinely one of the things I’m most proud of is the way that we’ve managed to play such an important role in that change which is how Wimbledon is perceived. I think if you talk to people about what they think of Wimbledon today they would say “they try and push the boundaries, they try and embrace new challenges rather than being stuck in their ways and just resting on the laurels of what it’s always been as an event.”
But I also think showing that there’s a different way of doing things that there is no one way to do anything and we’ve surprised people in the industry by that ability to again combine innovation and tradition but it goes further than that. Being able to create change within a championship cycle is something that is a challenge because we’re naturally a risk averse organisation and that’s right for this place but showing that it doesn’t always have to be that way that’s, I think, that’s also something that‘s worked well for us. But there’s lots of things, I mean, it’s a great place to work.
I: Yeah, what’s your biggest challenge that you’ve had?
R: Biggest challenge is time. I think as you said the world is moving so quickly and being a, sort of, an individual with, kind of, restless pursuit of doing more stuff. Being forceful enough to say “We just have to draw a line under it here because we can’t keep adding stuff to the list.” And that is one of the challenges of being an annual event because you do have to draw that line and say “This is what we’re gonna do for this event in this year” even though somebody may bring out some new thing that would just be brilliant. It’s like when you’re playing a card game and you put a card down and you turn over the deck of cards and you get the perfect card and you just think “oh” because we do have to say we’re gonna wait till next year. So time is probably the biggest challenge.
If you’d asked me a few years ago it would have been understanding of the role that this space plays in the bigger business objectives but I think that’s something that’s much, much better understood now.
I: Is there anyone you look at what others are doing in this space, is there anything out there that impresses you that others are doing?
R: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many and it, kind of, depends on what particular thing, I think the MBA many people would view as a stretch achievement. Stretch achievement? Stretch target because of their ability to affect change so quickly and their ability to do it without worrying about upsetting lots of different things. But I would say the Women in Football group for taking a stand and creating a campaign, the ‘What If’ campaign was fantastic. Because not being afraid to put yourself out there I think is brilliant and then what that then did and got loads of people to, sort of, spiral off off the back of it and help play their part in creating a debate. I think there’s loads of smaller organisations who don’t have money who’ve created content that shows that you don’t need money to create content. The list goes on it’s, sort of, endless.
I: When you think of your role, what are you trying to achieve yourself?
R: That’s a really good question. I think I would say the best credit that I could be given would be to have created a new way of doing things, started to do them myself and then enabled others to do them. Because there are so many examples of organisations that have fallen down because they had one person who was the change maker or one person who was the face of it. And I think about Richard Branson and Virgin, for example, and actually there are those organisations that have been around for ages and ages and they went through different people who helped generate different milestones within those organisations but you don’t know about the people after the fact you just know about what the organisation did. So being able to bring people with you in what we’re trying to achieve and then actually effect what you’re trying to achieve, achieve it would be the thing for me.
I: And in your role how do you measure impact, so how do you know that you have achieved what the business wants you to achieve?
R: So one thing would definitely be internal buy in and understanding and over time coming up with ideas and good ideas, not necessarily being presented as “well we don’t have time or capacity to do anything else” but actually “this is materially gonna impact our chances of success.”
I think another one would be the reaction externally. So and that can range from silly trivial things like awards and industry recognition but also appetite for people to want to come and work here or appetite for people to come and want to work with us and help break new ground and do new things.
And then the last one is a hard line business objective, we’re trying to tell a story of why Wimbledon is one of the premium sports properties in the world and therefore it should be on TV and it should have the world’s best brands associated with it and it should be a sold out event. So if the work we’re doing isn’t tied into that then again it goes back to that, kind of, being a bit on an island not really being taken seriously.
I: This podcast is about success. It’s about performance, different people’s views on that, you’ve alluded to it already but what is success for you personally and are you successful?
R: Well, I guess others have to judge our own success but success for me would definitely be the ability to define a problem, define a route through the problem, deliver the problem and then be able for it to just carry on without you. So if the problem that anyone is looking at is “how do we remain relevant in the future?” But that’s probably been that number one driver and I think where we are Wimbledon but I think where sport is more broadly is being able to say with much more confidence the industry is doing the right thing to make sure that we are gonna be relevant against this massive consumer change in behaviour that’s going on around us. And you see that from the Football World Cup. You see that from attendance at events like Wimbledon, at things like the appetite for the Netball World Cup, which I think has been doing really well. So it’s been encouraging to, kind of, live it through our own microcosm of here but also just see it being played out more broadly in the industry.
I: Any predictions for the industry?
R: Predictions for the industry? I think we’re gonna continue to see big changes in leadership and it’s started already with obviously what the premier league is going through and different compositions of organisations and their leadership. It’s a bit of a buzzword but ‘diversity of thought’ in terms of having the right people in your business. Certainly something that Wimbledon has experienced is you can love tennis and work here but you shouldn’t have to love tennis to work here because you should be the best at what you do. And whether that is be the best gardener or be the best retail merchandiser or be the best finance executive and certainly the, sort of, professionalisation in sport professionalisation of sport in terms of its recruitment pipeline is starting to go that way, I think, at least.
I: I’m just gonna end up with some quick fire questions.
R: Yes here we go.
I: What did you eat for breakfast?
R: I had a banana.
I: Favourite piece of kit? And you can use kit however you want to define it.
R: Favourite piece of kit? Favourite piece of kit would be headphones because music’s great and any time I get to listen to music I always feel better.
I: Sporting hero?
R: Sporting here? I mentioned Andre Agassi earlier and he is definitely one of them but one of the people that I remember watching as a very young person was Denise Lewis, she is just I think amazing.
I: Why amazing?
R: I think her ability to make what was clearly an unbelievably difficult task look easy but show it was difficult at the same time. And I think she’s also been a fantastic role model for many athletes in how you stay involved in the industry but not just through broadcasting you can do all sorts of things as a former athlete. And I hope that lots of athletes look at a broad spectrum of things when they decide to retire.
I: Most useless piece of advice you’ve either been given or given to somebody else?
R: That’s a great question. Most useless piece of advice I’ve been given ‘cause it got me in a lot of trouble was avoid using clichés because sometimes when you search for a word that isn’t a cliché there are unintended consequences. But also because often a cliché is what somebody needs to hear to understand something and simplicity in whatever we do is a great tool.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: Greatest passion outside of sport? Oh that’s a great question. Reading and I wish I did more of it.
I: And best performance enhancer?
R: That’s another really good question. Helena Bonham Carter wasn’t answer…asked these questions. Best performance enhancer humour.
I: Humour brilliant. Well, it’s been wonderful talking to you today, Alex, thank you very much.
R: Thank you I’ve loved it.
I: 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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