Over the past decade the advances in digital have transformed the sports industry and how we consume information. How will the industry evolve in the future? How can sports benefit more from digital? And what stops them from doing that?
Today, I’m talking to Lewis Wiltshire, a consulting partner at digital agency Seven League. He’s been in the sports industry 24 years, and works with some of biggest names in global sport.
We talk about how digital is the best lever an organisation has to achieve its objectives and the importance of getting to a point where digital is in the DNA of an organisation.
ABOUT LEWIS WILTSHIRE
Lewis joined Digital Sports Consultancy, Seven League, in 2017 after 5 years with Twitter and 11 years at BBC Sport. He was editor of the BBC Sport website, BBC Sport’s first social media editor, and led the planning for BBC Sport’s coverage of London 2012 on digital channels. He then oversaw the same event for Twitter, as Twitter UK’s first head of sport. Later he became Director of Media Partnerships, Senior Director of Media Partnerships, and Twitter’s inaugural global chair of sports. Prior to working for those two organisations, Lewis began his career as a sports reporter in local newspapers, where he first saw that the future of media would be in digital.
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: 3.3.20 – Ep 53. Lewis Wiltshire – on the power of digital
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.
Over the past decade the advances in digital have transformed the sports industry and how we consume information. How will the industry evolve in the future? How can sports be benefiting more from digital, and what stops them from doing that? Today I’m talking to Lewis Wiltshire a consulting partner at Digital Agency, Seven League. He’s been in the sports industry 24 years and works with some of the biggest names in global sport. We talk about how digital is the best lever an organisation has to achieve i’s objectives and the importance of getting to a point where digital is in the DNA of an organisation. Rather than me introducing though, I asked him first to give us his 30 second elevator introduction.
LW: So, I’m a consulting partner at Seven League. We are a digital sports agency and consultancy working with some of the biggest names in global sport based here in London. I’ve been with Seven League for three years. Before that I was with Twitter for five years. I was Twitter’s first UK head of sport, then Twitter’s first global head of sport and before Twitter, I was with the BBC for eleven years. I was the BBC sport website editor and BBC sports first social media editor. So, I’ve been in sport for 24 years, almost exclusively in digital sport, and yeah. Very…very happy to be seeing you today Tammy and be doing this podcast.
TP: You did a YouTube interview back in 2011 when you were working at the BBC where you said that social media is used for three things. You said broadcast, interacting with the audience and growing reach. Nine years later is that still valid do you think.
LW: Gosh yeah. That…when you said 2011 then I was expecting whatever I said in 2011 to not be valid but actually when you…the way that you say that there, I do think there’s still some validity to that. I think social media and digital is going to change hugely in the next ten years, and in fact, odd as it seems that social media is somewhat the same as it was in 2011, i.e. you use it to reach an audience, engage with an audience, monetise that audience potentially. We’ve had a fifteen-year period arguably where social media has been somewhat similar in as much as it’s been built around a public timeline experience. We had Facebook, two years after that we had Twitter. Two years after that we had Instagram. Two years after that we had Snapchat. Arguably now Tik Tok’s come along but we’ve kind of got used to there being another cab off the rank every couple of years, mostly built around a public timeline experience. We think that over the next ten years that will change dramatically, and the social web will revert to being around interest groups, communities, niche topics. I think we will move away from this idea that I just splurge all of my interests into one place and will move back into a scenario where Facebook groups, Instagram close friends, Twitter comment functionality will start to move back into groups and communities.
TP: How do you stay on top of that all the time, all this changing forces?
LW: Well, I’m lucky in that at Seven League that’s actually a service that we provide to clients. So, our team down…reads and downloads literally thousands of…of updates from the industry, from the tech industry every month, and actually one of the…one of the services that we provide for clients is that we…we interpret and download that for them specifically. So, some of our clients subscribe to a service where we…we say look, of these literally thousands of updates from the tech industry that no individual could stay on top of all of the time, these are the ones that are most relevant to your business this month because we know your strategic objectives and we know how to align those to the bits of the industry that are relevant to you. So, I’m lucky that I work here, but I’m also just really passionate about this stuff. Like I have a one hour commute at either end of my day on the train where it’s a good opportunity to kind of like refresh my timeline and look at what’s going on in the world, even just my Twitter timeline has been cultivated very carefully over a twelve…twelve-year period to be reflective of the things that I’m interested in. So, I think I’m pretty good at knowing what’s out there, but yeah, it’s a full-time job just to stay on top of it.
TP: What’s something in the world of digital comms that has impressed you recently?
LW: Gosh, that’s a good question. I think if I look at our clients that we work with at Seven League, the various football clubs, the national governing bodies that we work with, the leagues, I’m pretty passionate about the NFL Academy that we work…that we work with the NFL on for example where they are establishing a pathway for young British kids to potentially go and make it on the NFL. We run the digital channels for that and we’re very proud to do so to be a part of that. You look at the work that we’re doing with women’s sport. We’ve had a three-year association with England Netball. We’ve worked very closely with the Lionesses, and I think the growth of women’s sport has been something which has been a joy to see play out on digital and I don’t think we would’ve played out the same way that it has had it not been for digital. So, I think that there’s almost every day there’s stuff that pleases me. I mean I look to US college sport as an example of a real hotbed of innovation. So, I found myself before the recent college football playoff final in America, looking at LSUs social media and just marvelling at some of the stuff they create, some of the storytelling. So, I think you could find inspiration in many different corners of the web.
TP: On Seven League’s website there’s a quote from you. You say, “I love working in the sports industry and seeing the immediate difference digital can make to organisations and individuals.” What sort of difference does digital make?
LW: I think it gives people a voice and a platform, and I think that is…that has been the biggest change in the media over the last 20 years that athletes for example, no longer need to have a sit down set piece interview with a newspaper in order to get their voice heard, and for that newspaper to a) be interested in the first place in telling that story; and b) tell it in a way that is as the athlete said it. I think now we’ve created a media environment where any athlete has the ability to publish their own thoughts whenever they choose to on their own terms unfiltered to an audience, and I think that’s powerful and not just athletes but…but anyone. I think you look around outside of sport, look around the world and see that social media has given people a voice where previously they may not have had that voice, and I think that’s very special and powerful and of course that comes with a flipside which is that we’ve had a fifteen-year introduction to trolling and you know, the darker side of the social web and what happens when we essentially throw the whole world into one public space and some of it is not what we would choose to see, and that’s been a pretty upsetting experience for a lot of people as well and we shouldn’t ignore that. So, I think both of those things are true simultaneously that it’s given the world a voice and that sometimes that’s used for bad and I do believe that most of the time that’s used for good.
TP: Women’s sport is an exciting growing market at the moment, and you’ve mentioned you work with netball and also the Lionesses. How could women’s sport be benefiting more from digital do you think?
LW: I think the athletes, I’d like to see them have the…have the confidence perhaps, if that’s even the right word to…to truly own their own conversation in a digital space. It’s been a joy to work with one particular female athlete as part of the Women’s Sport Trust Unlocked Programme, but with the lioness’s pre-world cup I think we were able to set them up for success. I think at a non-athlete level, at a sort of a governing body level, I work with England Netball I think is something I’m proud of in that again we were able to set them up to take advantage of the success. So, when England Netball won the Commonwealth Games in 2018, we were able to help drive from memory, something like a 2,000% increase month on month to the England Netball session finder on the…on the website by using a space that we were able to carve out on the Google homepage through Google posts that we…that we kind of negotiated with Google on England Netball’s behalf, that they were able to promote the participation element. So, when we…when England Netball won the Commonwealth Games in 2018, we said, what is the priority to…to use this opportunity for, and I think England Netball felt very strongly. Joanna Adams and Fran Connolly at that time felt very strongly that helping women and girls to find places and times that they can play netball would be the biggest legacy of that win, and so, we very deliberately used Google posts and the Google homepage and all of that traffic that came via people googling netball after that win to promote the session finder and then people came in their thousands to that session find page, and we know anecdotally that many of them went on and did find local places to play netball, and what an incredible impact that has been of a wonderful thing that happened at the elite level of a sport that filtered down to women and girls playing a sport and having a physical part, you know, a physical fitness and a participation in sport in their life, and that to me is what digital is and the opportunity to use digital for societal good to say here is an elite female athlete, Helen Housby scoring a winning goal, many thousands of miles away on the Gold Coast to win the Commonwealth Games for England and here is a woman who back home in England is playing netball and becoming physically active again through back to netball or walking netball and the bit that connected those two things thousands of miles apart was digital and that…that to me is a very special thing to be part of.
TP: So, you talk about the athletes, you’re talking about the sport. What…what stops them from taking as best advantage? What stops other athletes, other sports from taking the most advantage from digital do you think?
LW: Knowledge, confidence, budget frankly. I think you need…you need to take digital serious enough to want to invest in it. I think at a sport…a wider sport level, a governing body level, you need many different things to happen simultaneously, but mostly you need the CEO or…and the board to…to want to invest in it and to get to the point where the digital DNA of an organisation changes. At Seven League we talk about digital DNA running through an organisation where the whole organisation becomes a digital first business, and that digital eventually becomes a revenue line rather than a cost line so that we…we take a scenario where CEOs and board level might be saying, how much do we invest? How much is enough? How many people do I need? How much should I invest in CRM versus a website versus an app? All of those are cost lines and then ultimately how do I commercialise this and Seven League one of the things that we do and that we’re proudest of is helping sports turn digital from a cost line into revenue. It’s that sense of, okay, we’ve got…we’ve got digital assets here which can be greatly improved and at the point at which we greatly improve them, how much might they be worth to commercial partners if we know how to strategically and in a sophisticated way, package them and then sell them.
TP: How do you…
TP: …how…yeah, how do you understand worth?
LW: So, I think we’ve…we’ve reached an interesting point in the industry where sports are now starting to understand that opportunity and the how is…is something which they need our help to do frankly because you need to understand what you are able to offer a commercial partner, how to package it. I’ll tell you how it used to work.
LW: So, the way the industry used to work is that two people would do a deal, neither of whom understood digital. So, the two people in the room doing the deal would be someone who’s selling from the sport and then someone who’s buying from the brand, the commercial brand, and the person from the sport would say, well, in addition to this contract we will throw in four posts a month on our social media channels, and the person who’s buying on behalf of the commercial brand will go, great. I’ve got a little bit of an extra value in my negotiations and neither one of them has said what those four posts are going to be, what should they be and why would you do it like that. But they just go back to their respective digital people and they say, the sport person says, hey digital person, this brand has now got four posts a month on your channels, and the digital person says, what will it be? And the salesperson says, well, I don’t know, but I’ve done the deal now so you’ll have to get on with it, and then the buyer from the brand goes back to his or her digital person and says, oh, great, at least you’ve got four posts a month on this massive sports organisation’s digital channels, and that digital person says, well, what am I going to put there? And they say, well, I don’t know, but the contracts done and so you can…
TP: It sounds really effective this, yeah.
LW: …and then the two digital people get together and they say, hey, this is a mess, and us two people don’t understand digital. We’ll make the best of this, and of course in the past what they would then do is say, well, we’ll put it out at three in the morning when no-ones looking, it doesn’t matter because it will fulfil the contract…
TP: Tick box.
LW: …well, now it does matter because the way the algorithms work on social platforms now is that if you put something out at 3am and it bombs and dies and death then the next thing that you put out at 9am when you’re trying to sell tickets to your massive new game that you’re trying to flog tickets for, fewer people will see that post because the algorithm will hide it from them because the algorithm now thinks that you suck.
So, it does matter when you put out at 3am, and so, what’s happening right across the industry is that things are becoming more sophisticated and sports will say, okay, we’ve got these digital assets. We know that they reach this number of people on a medium basis, measured across the year, segmented into type. So, that might be the team sheet graphic, that might be the…the…or you might bundle up all of the match day content. That might be then be training ground content. It might be any number of ways that you can kind of segment and package the content into types and then say, if we know that our content is going to reach within these segments this number of people in general on average by medium, whatever you…however you calculate it, what is that worth to a commercial partner and we know at Seven League because we do this stuff all the time and we benchmark that that is worth X to a commercial partner, and it’s one of the most…it’s one of the newest and most valuable services that we provide. So, it’s a relatively complex modelling process to go through, but it’s…it pays for itself for most sports.
TP: Is sport ready do you think?
LW: Yeah, I think to do that now I think they are, yeah, and I think most of them are. I think you need a…you need your content and your platforms to have a certain level of sophistication in order to do that. We…when I worked at Twitter, we always used to say that if your content was bad and you spent money promoting that content, all you would do is send more people to bad content and so what you needed to do first was fix the content, and the same applies here in that if you’re trying to commercialise your digital channels and they’re bad, all you’re going to do is try and…you’re trying to sell a bad product. So, you get that right first. You fix the channels first. You make sure the content is good and engaging and reaches as wide a possible audience and engages that audience and then you can commercialise it, so…and I think most…most of the sports industry is getting to the point now where they’re either ready to commercialise or they’re ready for an organisation like us to say, here’s how you do the last bit to get to commercialisation.
TP: What do you see as your biggest challenges in your role?
LW: Helping sports understand that digital is not the measure of success by itself. That simply winning on digital is not…
…you’re asking the wrong question or you’re fighting the wrong battle. Digital is the best lever you’ve got to achieve your organisational objectives, and one of the processes that we go through when we go into in an organisation is to say, what is it ultimately that your organisation is trying to achieve? What’s your vision? What’s the mission of your organisation and once we have the vision and the mission, we can build smart objectives that deliver that? So, smart being obviously specific measurable achievable relevant and timely. So, basically measurable is what we’re saying. Measurable objectives that will for digital that will deliver that vision and mission and you know, as we always say, digital is the best lever you’ve got, but left to it’s own devices which believe it or not still does happen that you know, an unwise CEO will say, I don’t really understand digital myself, but I know it’s important and there’s a clever person in my organisation who looks after it. There’s a very good chance that the clever person in your organisation that looks after it doesn’t know what your CEO vision and mission is for the organisation, and therefore doesn’t know what the digital is trying to achieve, and if that’s the case it will fail.
TP: What keeps you awake at night?
LW: At Seven League we talk a lot about the future of sport and frankly I think all sports have a challenge in front of them because I think there is a new generation, new generations that will…,that are coming, that are already here, that will come soon that will have an unprecedented volume of demands on their attention, whether it’s gaming, whether it’s the mass proliferation of streaming options, whether it is social networking. Whether it is almost any aspect of the digital revolution that has put in front of young people, certainly an unprecedented and almost unmanageable array of options for their time, for their leisure dollars. So, I got into a bit of a debate on them, both Twitter and LinkedIn actually where over the weekend when I posted about the speculation, whether true or not that the six nations may or may not go over to Sky, and my view is that…is that people are really simplistic about that. Like you know, Sky was bad for cricket and then…and Sky would be bad for rugby, and actually I don’t think Sky was bad for cricket and I don’t think it would be bad for rugby if rugby chose that path. I think that the situation is much more nuanced and complex than that and I think that the sporting landscape will be…is more challenging now I think for every sport, and the idea that somehow TV which is in itself a notion of…that’s changing almost beyond recognition. I mean TV will mean many different things but the idea that TV is the sort of sole driver of participation, I just don’t think that’s true anymore. I don’t think that the idea that a kid sits down…who may not previously have been interested in cricket would sit down and watch a whole day of cricket if it was on BBC2 like it used to be in the 80s, and then take themselves off to a local club. I just think that’s nonsense, and you know, kids these days will find things on digital and so, actually the notion of which particular bit of TV somethings on is…you’re almost missing…missing the point.
TP: Could digital erode live sports spectatorship?
LW: Well, I think that’s the challenge, is getting people into venues and getting people to play sport and so your question was a good one of what keeps us up at night, and that would be it. It’s what does sport look like 20 years from now? What will…and as yet I’m…I’m born generation whatever we’ve ended up calling that generation person, will they play netball? Will they play football? What options will they get at school to play sport? What…what will local clubs look like at that time? How do we continue to drive a physically active, physically sort of healthy population and what part can digital play in that, and you know, I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that digital can…it’s certainly part of the solution, not part of the problem. Actually, let me rethink that. maybe it is part of the problem as well, but I certainly think its part of the solution, and we like to think that it could potentially help save that situation and continue to get kids physically active.
TP: So, what’s success for you?
LW: So, I thought about this question because I knew that you’d ask me, because we talked about it before and you said that was one of the things that the podcast was about, and I really…I kind of almost struggled with this. The concept of what is success really and how would one define success on behalf of themselves or anyone else, and so I came back to the thing that I talk to clients about, Seven League clients a lot is that is making it measurable and it’s…success to me is setting a target and then achieving that target. So, when we talk to clients about having smart objectives, specific measurable achievable relevant and timely objectives, that to me is saying I have a vision which might be to become the best sport in the world and my mission might be you know, to create an environment in which everyone has access to my sport, but the objectives will then be very measurable, and to me the vision or the mission might be quite subjective, quite high level but the objectives will be…will be very measurable and I will know if I’ve hit them and therefore that to me is success and therefore, I was kind of thinking well, so, actually success is just setting out to achieve something and then achieving it, and in that sense, success could be you know, I want…I want to become the CEO of this organisation and I want that organisation to win the champions league, or it could be I want to call my mum tonight and remember to call her because I haven’t called her for a week, and actually the success of either of those things is the same. It’s just I’ve set some…I’ve set myself a target and I’ve achieved it. So, success to me is that.
TP: So, did you have a planned out smart objectives for your career?
LW: Well, my career has…so, the funny thing about my career is that each of the last two times I’ve left a business to join another business, the one I would join after that next one didn’t exist yet.
So, when I left newspapers to join the BBC, Twitter didn’t exist, and when I left the BBC to join Twitter, Seven League didn’t exist. So, there’s every chance that my next employer or my next employer but one won’t exist yet, and…and so, yes, I have…I have objectives for my career. I love the sports industry. I would like at some point in my career to work for a rights holder. I have worked for a platform and I’ve worked for a broadcaster and I’ve worked for an agency. So, I worked for broadcaster/website at the BBC, a platform at Twitter and an agency at Seven League. I have loved all three, and I’m fairly open minded about where my career goes, but I know it’ll always be sport and I know it will always be digital, and I’d like to experience as much of the sports industry as I can. That might include a [unclear 25.00] at some point in my career, but certainly at the moment what I love about the job I do now is that when I was at the BBC, a social media editor, I was responsible for one brand on all of the platforms and then I went to Twitter and I was responsible for one platform and all of the brands, and now at Seven League I’ve got all of the brands and all of the platforms. So, I do like the diversity of the client roster that we have and the ability to take any of our clients and figure out where we can best help them. It’s the most open role I’ve had in that sense.
TP: Just I’ve got some quickfire questions…
TP: …but before that, is there anything else that you wish I’d had asked you?
LW: Gosh, no. I mean you know, we talked about women’s sport and you know, obviously I know you Tammy, through the Women’s Sport Trust and we’ve connected on the unlocked programme where I’m lucky enough to be an activator. I think what I would say is as passionate as I am at Seven…and we are at Seven League about…about women’s sport that I hope that women’s sport is able to take advantage of the opportunities that digital has, and that we are able to help in our own small way to steer women’s sports into…into that, into a success.
TP: Do you see specific hurdles that women’s sport has to overcome to enable that to happen?
LW: I think there are hurdles and I think I am realistic, and I’ve seen enough of perhaps the darker side of the internet to know that there are certainly platforms or parts of platforms that don’t always necessarily feel like a safe space. I think unfortunately we do live in a…we live in a world where perhaps female athletes have to be more mindful of what they…what they you know, in terms of you know, perhaps physical security and kind of what they talk about where they are and stuff like that. But I hope that we can together as a sports industry continue this incredible momentum that women’s sport is on to not be naïve about the hurdles or the sort of pitfalls, but also to not be…to not have the negative stuff dictate to us what we can and can’t achieve, right? So, that we can together push through those barriers and get women’s sport to a place that we all believe it deserves to be, should be, has a potential to be, will be, and I’m truly excited about the aspect to have a digital place. So, that’s where I feel as a guy, as a you know, but you know, that…that has someone who’s I hope an ally and a passionate sort of believer in women’s sport that where I can feel that I can add benefit is saying that I think I understand the digital landscape and I think this is where we can take this thing, and I think it can be really…really big.
TP: Looking forward to that. Just going to end with some quickfire questions, yeah.
LW: Quickfire, yeah, yeah.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
LW: I don’t eat breakfast.
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
LW: Phone. Current phone, Samsung, gone away from iPhone for the first time in a generation…
TP: What turned you?
LW: …I got fed up with iOS a bit and I’ve really…I’m really enjoying life on Android. It was a good move for me.
TP: Sporting hero.
LW: Too many to mention. Can I mention a few?
TP: Yep, but I want to know why as well.
LW: Okay, I grew up idolising the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL and there were a couple of players there, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana who I grew up idolising. I’ve been lucky enough to meet both of them in adult life. In…I would say in the…during the course of my career, London 2012 obviously stands out as a defining moment for a lot of us in our careers and a…and Jess Ennis…so…I know this is quickfire round, but just to explain really quickly.
TP: Not particularly quick is it?
LW: This is not quickfire, no. On Saturday the 29th, last Saturday just gone…
I said on Twitter, 29th of February is a bonus day. We get one every four years and it’s always in the same year as the Olympics so, we should all [unclear 29.36] an Olympian today…
TP: Oh, yes, I remember seeing that post.
LW: …and I…and I said, [unclear 29.40] Olympian and say how their life is positively impacted…their career has impacted your life and I said Jess Ennis just because of that super Saturday that to me her achievement in 2012 was about more than just her achievement. It was about bringing a nation together and then gosh, any number of footballers, cricketers and other sports people.
TP: A useless bit of advice that you have been given or you’ve given to somebody else.
LW: Like bad advice.
TP: That you should never have followed.
LW: I don’t…can I give good advice?
TP: Yeah, go for it.
LW: Why would I repeat bad advice? I’ll tell you the good advice that I truly believe that I tell my kids this, is hard work beats talent. If you can throw your backside out the door every day at six o’clock when it’s pouring with rain, windy, dark commute into London, if you can do that and turn up ready to go, ready to work hard, ready to give everything, be committed, be bright and breezy, you know what? That is so much more important than talent and I think that has taken me further than anything…any talent I may or may not have.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
TP: Best performance enhancer.
TP: Graft. Thank you, Lewis. It’s been brilliant talking to you.
LW: Thanks Tammy. Thanks a lot.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a questionandperformance.com.