CMO50 #7: Barni Evans, Sportsbet
Today’s marketing chiefs are jugglers who must balance a mix of contrasting attributes if they hope to be successful, Sportsbet’s CMO, Barni Evans claims.
“The first is creativity and analytical rigour – you don’t find many people with that good balance, but it’s increasingly important,” he says. “Then there’s people and technology – often, the most technologically savvy may not have the highest emotional intelligence, and vice-versa. Those are two axes to balance on.
“Another is short- and long-term thinking. As marketers, we need to know the commercial impact of our actions on more than an hourly basis, yet we also have to have a long-term vision and understanding of strategic context to be investing for next season, next year and the year after that. So the key attribute is balance.”
It’s the desire for accountability, business leadership and belief in digital innovation that has driven Evans’ career. Starting as a graduate strategic planner at News International in the UK in the 1990s, he spent five years there, rising to online marketing director and launching digital editions of the group’s newspapers as well as the first online fantasy sports competition.
After a stint attempting to “reinvent the world with digital” during the dotcom bubble, Evans switched to telecoms, retaining his focus on digital content, and helping UK football clubs launch ecommerce offerings. He then spent 10 years with Irish betting group, Paddy Power, in 2001, expanding the business in the UK and Europe.
In 2011, the business acquired Sportsbet and sent Evans to Australia, first working with two brands – IAS and Sportsbet – then channelling all investment into the one identity.
Back at News, Evans says the limitation in marketing was a lack of accountability and analytics to help understand its effectiveness. “Then along came the Web, and suddenly everything that was based on intuition became accountable and measurable,” he says. “That facilitated my jump into marketing, as you could blend intuition, creativity and data.
“The other thing a lot of traditional marketers are not as good as they could be at is the commercials of marketing and properly understanding marketing’s role in the overall business, not just soft brand metrics.”
Evans highlights the relationship between marketing and finance as a key cross-functional alliance. “Marketing was historically an untrusted part of the organisation, seen as a cost centre, therefore finance became the police force to hold marketing to account,” he comments. “In the companies I have worked in, we’ve reversed that relationship. Because the marketing team strives to be accountable, and holds itself up to high scrutiny, finance doesn’t need to play that role anymore. Based on a good relationship of trust, finance works hand-in-hand with marketing to better understand the success and failure of any given project or strategy.”
It’s this approach that is more conducive to a constructive working environment, Evans says, as well as a greater willingness within businesses to take risk. “When there is misalignment between functions like finance and marketing, there’s often inertia in business decision making,” he adds.
“As a CEO, having finance and marketing aligned and saying something is a good idea makes it much more compelling.”
Technology and marketing alliance
The other vital relationship for marketing is with technology, and in Sportsbet’s case, the technology team is crucial to developing great products. Evans notes more than three-quarters of the betting group’s new customers now complete their first transaction via a mobile phone, and two-thirds of revenue is generated through mobile.
One significant technology-led initiative in the past year is Sportsbet’s ‘Cashcard’ offering, which came off the back of a quantitative product exploring market growth dynamics. That work identified ‘retail migrators’, or consumers who previously bet in cash but wanted to access more choice through online wagering, as key growth area. The challenge was that these consumers wanted to hold real cash in their hands when they won a bet.
Through real-time integration with banking systems, Sportsbet overcame this barrier by allowing customers to collect their winnings through ATMs.
Another recent offering is ‘Cash out’, allowing consumers to take out their winnings half-way through a game
“These are what make marketing more effective as they’re unique, compelling and robust products, and there’s no downtime,” Evans says. “I have to trust the tech team will create those products. Then we need to do justice to them and understand the consumer benefit. That means marketing has to work closely with developers to understand the sellable components, what consumers will latch on to, and why it’s different to competitors in a conceptual way, before we can tangibly touch that product ourselves.
“There are few businesses that also have to cope with the peaks in digital we do – just think of the volume of transactions during Melbourne Cup Day, and how little advocacy and trust I’d get without that robust product.”
For Evans, innovation both as a business and as a marketer has to come through a consumer lens. He explains Sportsbet takes a two-stream approach: Perpetual innovation on core customer interactions; then more revolutionary product innovation, such as its ‘Cashout’ offering.
The proof is in the pudding, and Evans claims Sportsbet is significantly outperforming the wagering sector with annual growth of at least 30 per cent across all KPIs, including active customers, turnover and operating profit.
“We’ve all been guilty in the past of loving our own ideas and championing them through a product delivery process,” he says. “But then you get to a product that isn’t as wanted or needed as you’d hoped.All our innovation and every decision goes through a consumer process, big or small. Once you have ticked things from a consumer point of view, it’s got to be material and make a tangible difference.
“There’s scope for competitive advantage within the world of innovation when you integrate consumer perspective and technology. And most forms of innovation will benefit from automation as well.”
An example of this described in Evans’ CMO50 submission is a process called ‘hyper timely customer management’, which ensures Sportsbet’s mobile app is optimised every minute. Detailed quantitative data predicts the most popular event for customers up and down the country, and prioritises display of that event.
This process enables a seamless customer experience across several variables: Sporting code; event Location; timezone; and customer location, he says.
Challenging marketing’s approach
Over the next 12 months, Sportsbet’s brand focus will challenge marketing in yet another way; namely, through responsible gambling initiatives. In November, the business launches a TV campaign for the ‘take a break’ product, the first time a control mechanism has been sold to the betting public as a product feature, Evans claims. This will be followed by further products aimed at helping people gamble more responsibly.
“This will be the first of its kind where we are actively marketing to people to not bet more,” he says. “It’s an interesting challenge... I’m pleased with the organisation and team’s buy-in, because it’s counter-intuitive to begin with. But we need to be a trusted brand, and build sustainable relationship, and from this we’ll get competitive advantage. That might mean a short-term knock, but we have to have the confidence to play that longer-term game and invest in our customers for the next year and year after.”
Evans’ other focus is on scalability through people. He notes it’s only a matter of time before consumers have completely personalised experiences in an ecommerce environment.
“To deliver that, we can’t keep doubling the workforce year-on-year. So how we manage teams to collaborate internally to create that level of automation of personalised experiences that are meaningful and compelling for consumers, is a very exciting challenge,” he says.
Evans points out Sportsbet’s marketing team does almost everything in-house, including hundreds of TV campaigns a year.
“We do that for speed – our track record for getting an ad on-air is 27 minutes, which you can’t do with agency partnerships,” he says. “That team has grown from 20 to 75 in the last few years.Keeping the pace and energy going relentlessly without burning people out, and keeping people engaged and the roles exciting, is a focus for me.”
As a demonstration of the team’s creativity in his CMO50 submission, Evans also pointed to its work providing “patriotic entertainment” around major sporting events beyond the field of play. In 2014, this included wishing the Socceroos good luck in the World Cup by urging Australians to ‘Keep The Faith’, floating a 1-tonne ‘Christ The Redeemer’ balloon across major cities.
This year, Sportsbet poked fun at the Poms before the Ashes by launching a search for the England team’s ‘Missing Balls’.
Another way Evans hopes to sustain Sportbet’s dynamic culture is by giving his two 2ICs, who are responsible for brand and creative, and media and data-driven marketing, respectively, the opportunity to switch places for 18 months.
“That’s scary to us, as inevitably you’re going to get a short-term hit in productivity, but we’re willing to take that because it’s an investment in our people to have a more rounded set of skills, and more empathy in each other’s roles, working in tandem,” he says.
Going beyond marketing
Like many CMOs in the CMO50 list, Evans has also had to go well beyond the traditional marketing remit to foster innovation at Sportsbet. In his submission for the 2015, he highlighted his work to transform the relationship between bookmakers and the racing industry from adversaries to partners.
“While both parties compete for discretionary consumer spend and time, the products they offer to facilitate this consumer expenditure are inextricably linked,” Evans’ submission stated.
To facilitate this, Evans led efforts to engage in positive dialogue and collaboration with the racing industry around commercial opportunities which also benefit the consumer. By developing a constructive relationship with Racing Victoria, for instance, Sportsbet secured the rights to broadcast Victorian racing via its iPhone app.
“This became especially valuable to Sportsbet customers when Sky Racing discontinued its coverage, meaning no racing was shown on television,” Evans said. “Sportsbet became the de facto destination for people wanting to watch races from Flemington, Moonee Valley and Caulfield.”
This innovation provided Racing Victoria with a new, mobile, distribution channel for its product, while the betting industry secured a new product to drive audience engagement. Consumers get to watch their beloved sport, free of charge, wherever they are, Evans said.