SBJ/Aug. 11-17, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

Award-winning U.K. firm tells its story with data

The BT Sport Industry Awards in London is European sport’s big, black-tie, red-carpet affair, attracting a celebrity-laden crowd that looks to honor and celebrate the year’s best. Among the industry cognoscenti, the SIA Agency of the Year category is the evening’s most sought-after, and marketable, piece of silverware.

This year’s event sprung a surprise when data specialist agency Two Circles took the award over a field of more traditional sports marketing agencies. But what’s particularly notable in this case, beyond simply the win, is what Two Circles did to get the winning vote.

Matt Rogan (holding trophy) and Gareth Balch with rugby’s Courtney Lawes and Owen Farrell
Photo by: BT SPORT INDUSTRY AWARDS

This is a story about storytelling.

Across the industry, many of the generalist sports agencies are becoming hard to tell apart, offering a mix of PR and traditional sponsorship activation work. Two Circles is telling a different story, with a promise of helping sports rights holders make the most of their substantial amounts of customer data.

“In an age when every agency and brand is talking about data, Two Circles won a BT Sport Industry Award by proving that they live, breathe and understand it inherently,” said Nick Keller, chairman of the Sport Industry Group, which presents the annual awards.

Matt Rogan, who runs Two Circles along with co-founder Gareth Balch, calls it a big growth area for the entire industry. His hope is that Two Circles’ data-led approach will further the argument that sponsorship needs to be more than a media buy.

“We are able to prove the potency of sport as a marketing vehicle, based on evidence, not intuition,” Rogan said. “That will fundamentally change the way in which sponsorship and ultimately TV rights are transacted in an increasingly digital landscape.”

Two Circles use the many sources of customer data held by their clients to drive their marketing plans. This allows professional clubs to combine ticketing, retail and hospitality data; match-day survey results; and digital traffic to understand each customer’s behavior on an individual basis.

“Data isn’t a sector of the market,” Rogan said. “It’s the underlying proof point of all of the work that the sports marketing industry does. It answers the old question of all marketing: which 50 percent of this activity is actually working? It provides irrefutable, unquestionable evidence of changing customer behavior. There’s nowhere to hide any more.”

Balch and Rogan co-founded Two Circles in 2011. The firm now has 45 employees and an enviable list of clients.

Two Circles’ focus is entirely on the rights holder, and the agency is accumulating an enviable roster of clients running the gamut from clubs and leagues through to venues, mass-participation events and the commercial side of federations. The company, founded in 2011, has 45 employees, and its first clients were big ones: Premier League club Manchester City and the England and Wales Cricket Board. It has since expanded to include other Premier League clubs, Ascot Racecourse, Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body for tennis in the U.K.

A recent deal with La Liga club Valencia CF speaks to the firm’s European expansion outside the core U.K. market, as well.

“Our partnership with Two Circles has yielded excellent results; their agency proposition is unique in that it delivers financially measurable return on the performance of our data,” said George Foster, head of marketing and communications for client Surrey County Cricket Club. “The data-driven strategies we have developed as a result of our work with Two Circles have led to award-winning campaigns with record financial results across ticketing and membership. Data can now fulfill its potential as a fundamental pillar in all our sales strategies.” 

The decision to specialize on the rights-holder side puzzles some people in the industry, who see the greater budgets on the sponsor side of the equation. On the contrary, Rogan is comfortable with the current strategy.

“When we get it right, it works for the brand and the sponsor anyway,” he said. “That means the brand ups its direct marketing and digital activation spend with the rights holder — which is spent at least in part on us, as an outsourced member of the team. So we’re delivering for everyone anyway, and it’s just really clear whose side of the fence we’re on.”

Rogan’s confidence stems from being at the front of a disruptive trend that is changing the expectations of sports fans, who want to enjoy the same levels of service they get from major retailers and best-of-class online providers. The cost of delivery of personal experience has decreased, as well. “Technology is now cost effective in this space,” he said. “Five years ago, it would have been a blocker. Now, it’s an enabler for even midsize properties.”

More broadly, Rogan is excited to see a greater range of skills being employed in the sports sector, and he is meeting more people with high levels of corporate marketing experience at brands and rights holders alike.

“They are perfectly aware of the level of data-driven accountability now possible,” he said. “The rest of the world started to leave behind logo views and cost per thousand years ago … but sport had not moved on.”

It’s a shift that means that the holy grail of sports marketing — identifying the link between cause and effect — is in sight.

“There’s often a perception that this area is called CRM [customer relationship management] and therefore an expensive CRM computer system will make the problem go away,” Rogan said. “But a system in itself never solved anyone’s challenges. There are thousands of disgruntled and embarrassed CEOs around the world who were upsold the wrong technology and are watching their customer base decay as a result. Those making strides now are those brave enough to say, ‘We need to change this.’”

Disruption has arrived in the sports marketing sector. You can, literally, count on it.

Richard Gillis is a writer in London.

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