CFO World

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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Putting his stamp on CEO

That doesn’t mean Evans hasn’t taken the opportunity to put his stamp on being CEO. The first thing he did was devise a new set of values for the organisation. To do this, he took the leadership team offsite to talk about the future, what was changing environmentally and economically, and what values Sportsbet needed to succeed in the next 2-3 years.

“The most important thing we added was ‘reflect, learn, improve’ – this is specifically designed to be willing to critique your own and your team’s performance objectively,” Evans explains.

“It’s about not just looking for success, but elements of failure and learnings. If you are willing to look for underperformance, your learning will be much faster. Then if you’re willing to share that with colleagues and peers, their learning will be faster as well.

“Collectively as a team, we had some great successes and we had stuff-ups too. Recognising those as part of our learning I hope has brought the team closer together.”  

One such learning was during the Spring Carnival, when Sportsbet faced substantial technology outages, and its core mobile app crashed a couple of times. Evans admits that hurt the business.

“For a short while, people were down in the dumps and wondering what the implications would be. It took a while for us to convince ourselves that in world where we reflect, learn and improve, we should take it on the chin, not point fingers and have each other’s backs,” he says.  

Read more: Panel: How Sportsbet, Aus Post, Tennis Australia and Catch Group are harnessing AI

“People will only publicise their failures if they know the organisation will support them in doing so. They need to know the organisation has their back. When we went through those tech issues last year, everyone got behind their colleagues and team members, and I feel we are stronger as a result.”

On the celebration side, the Australian Sportsbet team has built out a highly successful product called ‘Same Game Multi’, a revolutionary way to place bets on sports. It was developed and delivered by technology, trading and product teams, then picked up by the CRM and marketing teams.

Today, it has many manifestations and is a massive differentiator for Sportsbet. It’s also been exported globally, with European and US colleagues now using the same platform.

“That’s become an incredibly strong proposition for us locally and globally, and it was developed in Melbourne,” Evans says.

As he points out, Sportsbet Australia is part of a global organisation. Earlier this year, the global entity rebranded from Patty Power BetFair to Flutter Entertainment, a move designed to reflect significant industry change and get itself on the front foot.

“Part of that is marking a desire to behave more effectively as a global organisation,” Evans says. “I’m spending much more time with my EU and US counterparts than my predecessor would have done.

“As all operations develop, and we are confronted by the same headwinds, our position as a global operator should be a real asset. I should be making a valid contribution globally, but I should also derive value from the global entity back into the Australian market.”

Gaps preventing CMOs becoming CEOs

Ultimately, what’s stopping CMOs from getting to the top job is both commerciality and an ongoing emphasis on proving something worked, Evans says – even when most executives know you can’t possibly get things right 100 per cent of the time.

“You need to have the integrity to analyse your work effectively, then the numeracy to decipher forensically whether something worked or not, and if it did, how, or if not, what didn’t work so you can change it,” Evans comments.

“CEOs, CFOs, boards, just don’t trust marketers enough. And it’s because they know not everything does work.”  

For Evans, breaking this mould requires marketers to foster a relationship with executives and boards built on commerciality and honesty. He believes it’s not only doable, but beneficial to all and paves the way for the experimentation marketers need to take big, bold bets.

“I knew several times a year, I’d need the board to trust my instinct on something. Quite often we’re doing something for the first time, which means there is no precedent,” Evans says by way of example. “I’d have to say to the board, we’ve got some data, done some modelling and have some insights. But truth be told, the margin for error in predicting how it’ll go is so wide, you’re going to have to trust my judgment.

“In that moment, they’ll only say yes if you’ve accumulated a track record of reporting faithfully to them on what is successful and what wasn’t.”

So how does this impact what Evans now wants from his own CMO?

“Our natural tendency is to want our successors to do and say and behave exactly as we did. But that’s really bad for two reasons,” he responds. “One is that the world is changing and we need to get better at different stuff. Two, people need to play to their strengths.

“If my CMO doesn’t have the same strengths in capabilities I did, but has strengths in other areas, then I need to be mindful of that. It’s another reason why I spent less time with the CMO – he needs to find his own space and rive his own agenda.”

Forward looking

Meanwhile, Evans’ top-line priorities for the next 12 months are to deliver the best product, value and marketing in the gaming and betting sector. Specifically, this includes launching a new iOS app, its first in five years.

“The app is the most important distribution channel we have. So that’s really important and a major product offering,” Evans says. “Personalisation is also really important. We have more than 1 million customers, so giving them a relevant experience to them is critical. That’s very data heavy and a technology heavy task.”

Then there’s continuing to provide value for money. Given the extra $115m in tax Sportsbet paid this past financial, driving growth and remaining profitable while driving value for money is vital, Evans says.

“The worst thing is to pass all that tax on to customers - they’d be getting a materially worse deal. So finding the balance between driving growth, profitability and customer value is a massive challenge,” he adds.  

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