CMO to CEO: Sportsbet’s Barni Evans on the trappings of the top job

Former marketing leader and now chief executive officer shares lessons learnt 18 months into the top role, and what it takes for marketing to elevate its executive standing

Barni Evans
Barni Evans

There’s a common belief chief executive officers face a career-threatening challenge every year they hold the top job. Sportsbet’s Barni Evans reckons he’s battled at least eight so far in 18 months.

“I couldn’t survive as a CEO if my expectation was perfectionism, or that I’d get every decision right,” he tells CMO. “You are going to get stuff wrong.”

It’s one of the reasons Evans has been working to adjust his own behaviour as a leader to better ride out daily, monthly and quarterly waves of highs and lows.

“Before I took the job, one of the challenges I knew I’d have is moderating my demeanour so my mood was less dependent on business performance on any given day, week or month,” he says.  “As a marketer, I’d feel brilliant when the business performed well, and average when the business performed badly. I suspected it’d amplify as a CEO.

“As CEO, you have to be stable, resilient and moderate your mood. That has been a challenge when you miss budget one month. You have to force yourself to stay positive and upbeat.”  

It’s just one of the many lessons learned by the former CMO and CMO50 #1 since being promoted to CEO 18 months ago. Evans was a member of Sportbet’s senior leadership team for six years before the step up, initially joining as marketing director in 2011 before rising to commercial officer in October 2016. It’s an executive tenure that already saw him accountable for a lot of company strategy and delivery before becoming CEO, he says.

It’s also arguably why Evans’ CEO remit is less about fundamentally taking the business in a new direction, and more about sustaining momentum, consolidating Sportsbet’s position as a market leader and responding to significant changes in the external environment.  

Such forces include hefty hikes in consumption tax that saw Sportsbet pay double the amount of tax in the last year; changing regulations such as the national consumer protection framework and restrictions on national advertising; and sizeable consolidation in the industry. The most notable example is the Tatts Group/TAB merger, but William Hill’s market exit and Luxbet’s closure in 2018 have also shaken things up.  

“All together – the doubling of tax, significant regulations increase and significant consolidation within the industry - meant doing what we had previously done well, may not be the means by which we continue to succeed,” Evans says. “Evolving in the environment was the best way to describe my brief as CEO.”

CMO to CEO

For Evans, key attributes making marketing chiefs great CEOs stem from the emphasis on customer orchestration.

“As a marketer, you have to be obsessed about customers, understand what makes them tick and know what they want from a communications, experience and service point of view,” he says. “I’m not suggesting other disciplines outside of marketing don’t have customer empathy, but it’s absolutely essential as a marketer you do. I bring that to the table and most marketers do the same.”

The second marketing trait is an orientation to growth. “There’s not a single marketer satisfied with a business shrinking or sustaining its current size. We want the graph to go up and it’s in our DNA to drive growth,” Evans says. “That is an appropriate trait for a CEO - to have an expectation and drive to make the business more successful next year than this year.”

Yet Evans is the first to admit to several gaps as he rose to CEO. “In hindsight, while it may not have been by design, part of the portfolio I took on as chief commercial officer plugged in gaps at that point,” he comments.

“As part of that expanded remit, I ran product, trading operations, risk management around responsibly gambling and our partnerships program. They’re all things I had inkling of as CMO, but certainly there was a steep learning curve. I hope my subsequent elevation to CEO was made easier by the fact I had a wider perspective on the organisation and knew more than the pure marketing mix.”  

Yet in rising to CEO, Evans found himself facing more gaps, notably on the financial side.

“The other big gap was technology. I knew about martech, but didn’t know much about infrastructure and what it takes to run a large technology-driven organisation, which ostensibly Sportsbet is,” he says. “We trade sports, but it’s all underpinned by technology.”  

These strengths and weaknesses have influenced the allies Evans spends more of his time with across the business.

“As a marketer, do I need to spend as much time with my CMO? Not really - we have an intuitive understanding and efficient dialogue,” he says. “It means I can spend more of my time in areas I don’t know so much on – such as with my CIO and CFO. That CEO/CFO relationship is a very important one.”

For Evans, another major emphasis CEOs must have is the people remit. “A CEO needs to really understand what’s going on in the organisation, have a feel for the culture,” he continues.

“I need to make sure the organisation feels when I represent us externally, or when I make decision internally, that I do it with the full representation and understanding of the workforce, not just parts of my old portfolio. So my relationship with my chief people officer is really important to stay connected.

“But really, it’s the leadership team in its entirety that’s essential. I’ve lost count of the 100s of mistakes I made in my last year as CEO. I suspect I only know half of them. As a unit, my leadership team has been brilliant and cohesive. Individually, each executive is not only great at their jobs, but at helping me be competent in mine.

“The quality and cohesion of the leadership team is most important factor in whether a CEO can survive.”

Up next: How Evans is putting his stamp on the CEO position, plus why he thinks marketers are struggling to win over CEOs and boards

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