"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Monday, 12 March 2012

Interview with Kevin Smith, Bristol City Commercial Director

As an exclusive for my column on social media in football for Bristol City matchday programme ‘Red Alert’, I recently asked for and got the opportunity to interview Commercial Director Kevin Smith. What followed was an enjoyable and informative hour on topics ranging from cider to Twitter, and Wembley to ticket pricing.


The surroundings are not as glamorous as you might expect for the Commercial Director of a Championship football club. Standing outside the main entrance of the club on my arrival, I was surprised by a tap on the shoulder from behind me and even more so when I was led to the portacabin in permanent situ across the staff car-park.

This is the man responsible for generating every penny of revenue for the football club (excluding transfer fees), yet at the back of a compact but bustling commercial headquarters is Kevin Smith’s working home, an office barely bigger than a dugout, but serving its purpose as he surveys the desks and telephones of a busy team of willing and committed fans.

And that’s what they are, fans. In this office the majority of employees were season-ticket holders before they got their jobs. Or they were club legends. Scott Murray is a constant presence, breezing in and out, constantly on his mobile phone as his ongoing dedication to his adopted club continues apace.

The Commercial Director is different however. On the wall are the predictable items of football memorabilia, although sadly they are not yet in the red and white of the Robins. A signed Birmingham City Carling Cup Final shirt gestures towards the high point of his time at the other BCFC, whilst a Matt le Tissier signed Southampton shirt must be the ultimate big-game prize for this Saints fan.

As we walked through the office (this was 1pm on the day of the Leeds match) there was a tangible sense of excitement that a big match-day brings. The overnight freeze had led to a large-scale postponement of local football matches so the ticket office phone-lines had been buzzing all morning with fans wanting to guarantee their place. One of the team reveals she’s turned down ticket requests by a Stag party from Leeds. Understandably, not every penny is critical it seems. The best estimate is that the crowd will be the second-highest of the season at between 15,200 and 15,300 (at 15,257 it was almost exactly midway). There was a sense that this was a team in every sense of the word.
"Let's just say the cider isn't too much of a shock to the system!"
My first question, with Kevin being an ‘outsider’, was how well he had settled in the West Country?
“Very well! I’m very lucky as I grew up in Cornwall, my family are all from the South West and I went to university in Exeter between 1997 and 2001 so I love the place. Let’s just say the cider isn’t too much of a shock to the system!”
Kevin officially works for Ashton Gate Limited and reports into Chief Executive Guy Price, although his role is not a board position. I identified early on that the three main income streams are tickets, advertising/sponsorship (including hospitality) and retail.
Kevin expanded “We’re really careful not to use the words‘brand’ or ‘customer’ as football’s different, but essentially my role is to maximise the income from those streams and make Ashton Gate as good a business as it can be.”
Kevin Smith, an important cog in the club's fortunes
When you consider the club has accumulated losses of nigh on £30m over the past three years, it is clear Kevin and his team play a critical role, but even for a football fan, is this just another commercial job, largely detached from the goings on of the football side?
“I talk to my team about controlling the controllables. No, we can’t affect results but everything we do has a direct influence on Derek (McInnes) and the board’s spending power and their ability to do more in the transfer market, pay higher wages and attract better players. I encourage my staff to get involved in everything, and via tools like Twitter, ensure everyone’s a part of the Bristol City family.”
"I spent three days at Silverstone but didn’t see a car,
all that time at Ascot but I didn’t see a horse"
On the morning of the interview I’d spotted one fan tweet Kevin with a question about working for the football club and it occurred to me that this would be many fans’ ideal job. Kevin has worked for his boyhood team, Southampton, so how exactly did he end up working in sport?
"My advice for anyone is to mean it. Immerse yourself in anything you can to do with sport. No-one’s going to phone you out of the blue and say “You like football don’t you? Here’s a job”. At university I positioned myself everywhere I could. I fried bacon at Silverstone, worked behind the bar at Exeter racecourse and worked at Cheltenham and Ascot too. All of it went on my cv but it wasn’t at all glamorous – I spent three days at Silverstone but didn’t see a car, all that time at Ascot but I didn’t see a horse. When the Commonwealth Games came around in Manchester in 2002 I just had to be a part of it so I spent three days at the company that is now Ticketmaster stuffing envelopes.
Then when I left university the father of a good friend of mine set up a business that effectively took corporate hospitality space from sporting venues and sold it on. For three years we did anything and everything: Twickenham, Lord’s, the Ryder Cup. We worked all hours as we had no clients, no black book but grew by flicking through the Yellow Pages and building tailor-made hospitality packages. This was when we started getting to go to the best sporting events in the country. Even if it was peering around a pillar, craning our necks, we got to go and it was great!
One of the companies we helped was Southampton FC for the 2003 Cup Final at the Millennium stadium – this was something on a scale they didn’t know how to handle so we helped them out with tickets, transport and that sort of thing. This was how I gained some contacts at St.Mary’s and when an offer came my way to work for the Saints it was probably one of only two jobs I’d have left the business for (the other being green-keeper at Augusta National golf course).
After a while there I took some time out of football at the Rose Bowl (the home of Hampshire cricket) It was very much an up and coming venue; the stadium development and the ultimate aim of hosting test and one-day international cricket meant it was an exciting opportunity. Although it was hard as a fan to leave St.Mary’s, from a career point of view the club was on a downward spiral, League One was around the corner and I knew it was a move I had to make professionally if I wanted to maintain my presence in the world of sport."
This hard-nosed acumen would serve any commercial director well, not least in the world of football where passion and runaway emotion can so often lead to the heart ruling the head on crucial matters, and perhaps demonstrates why Kevin has been so successful in his relatively short career to date. When the next big opportunity came around – to join Carson Yeung’s new team in the Premier League at St. Andrews, it was another easy decision. As Head of Commercial Operations at the highest level, Kevin got an insight into what it means to be in the Premier League, with last season’s visit to Wembley an obvious highlight.
“For the Carling Cup final we sold 68 boxes and 2,500 hospitality tickets. It was something I learned a lot from in terms of forecasting extremes as the club had never known anything like it”
To try and get a feel for where City stand, I suggested that the set up at Birmingham – recently relegated from the top flight, must have notable differences.
“Not really”, Kevin said,“We’re certainly not years behind. During David Sullivan and Karren Brady’s time they probably were commercially advanced, they used the whole city to generate income and publicity, something we haven’t really done successfully. However, in terms of the set-up the operation is now of similar size and even financially, there’s not a massive difference in income generation.
But it’s tough out there. The days of picking up the phone to local businesses and flogging advertising hoardings for a couple of grand, just like that, have gone. Everyone’s looking for what they’re getting for their money, everyone needs value – and rightly so. The big advantage City have, certainly over clubs like Birmingham, is the lack of a serious commercial rival. They had Villa obviously, Wolves, (West Bromwich) Albion, Coventry just up the road. We have no-one in our league in this area so the potential is massive if we can get it right."
That word we’ve all heard so often before, ‘potential’. Luckily Kevin didn’t throw ‘Sleeping Giant’ into the conversation but the talk naturally turned to the hoped-for new stadium at Ashton Vale. We’ve all been told at every opportunity that Ashton Vale is essential to bring in additional revenue, so what specifically is the Commercial Director planning for if – hopefully when – the club finally makes its move?
“First of all there’s the new stadium factor. There will be a general increase in attention and noise and, as a direct result, attendances. Brighton is an oft-quoted example but very few clubs will match their phenomenal increase. Typically a club can expect a 30-40% increase and that would be a great start.
Some rudimentary mathematics means this would equate to approximately £2m per annum on tickets alone.
The possible move to Ashton Vale would transform the club's earning potential
Kevin continued “It would reinvigorate the support. New facilities enable us to offer a better match-day experience. Fans come to the ground earlier as we can put more on for them. We can make sure there are enough kiosks and toilets for Mum’s and Dad’s to bring their kids, and their kids’ friends.”
"If someone has a choice between going to the toilet
and buying a pie, then nature calls!"
I interjected by suggesting that naturally, the earlier they arrive, the more money they spend.
“Exactly”, replied Kevin, “It’s the little things. If you haven’t got the facilities or the ability to shrink queues then at half-time, if someone has a choice between going to the toilet and buying a pie, then nature calls! If facilities aren’t good enough you do the first and don’t buy the pie. It also has to be good value. If your experience is a good one you’re likely to do it again. If you get chucked a cold pie by a grumpy server who grunts at you, you’re likely to think twice.
These are the important things we’ve got to get right at Ashton Gate over the next two years and then if we get the approvals we can take those learnings across to Ashton Vale. We need to understand behaviours and if we can get the processes and philosophies right now, the move will be even better.”
Whilst at Birmingham, the club had what Kevin believes was the first Social Media manager in football and said the need for a structured approach to this new method of communications has become clear to all. Many companies feel the need to justify spending on social media with a return on that investment, but Kevin acknowledges it’s not something you can necessarily monetise, or should try to.
“It’s just another way of engaging, a great new communication tool. As Commercial Director I can talk on a 1-to-1 basis with fans and get genuine feedback on what we’re trying to do.
Five years ago email was king – the club bombarded everyone with everything. We’ve made great strides over the past few months to be more specific and targeted. If you’re a season-ticket holder we don’t send you emails offering membership or tickets any more.
What we can do –should be doing – is targeting season-ticket holders with special offers, making them feel special and adding value."
Despite the stated need for structure, City don’t have their own Social Media manager, instead preferring to share out the responsibility for the Facebook and Twitter accounts amongst key personnel, whilst many individuals use Twitter extensively. So how is this controlled at Ashton Gate?

"All staff are actively encouraged to be on Twitter, but there’s a very clear policy across the club, be it staff or players and that’s very important. QPR have found that out to their cost with Mr.Barton.

The official account is exactly that. A few people have access but usage policy is clear. However we want to dispel secrecy – Scotty Murray is great for it as he has so many followers and if there’s an important message he can get it out there but critically we don’t want to be pushy. It’s important to use for changes to kick-off times, pitch inspections and that sort of thing and it can’t be too commercial.

“In the old days it was very simple.  Put a message on the
website and people would pick it up from there”.
This was important on a day like the Leeds match last month when forecast snow meant a number of queries about the match going ahead, and plans were in place to cover as many fans as possible via various methods of communication.

“In the old days it was very simple. Put a message on the website and people would pick it up from there”.

I chuckled to myself at this. Kevin is very much part of a new breed of commercial people (and a similar age to myself) to whom a basic website is ‘the good old days’, just old hat, and the exciting modern world has so many more opportunities.

“Now we know more about the fans we also use the phones, Facebook, Twitter, BBM, SMS – anything that helps spread the message wider. However, we can’t assume that everyone has access to these methods. I went to a Senior Reds lunch recently and I can be pretty certain Facebook and Twitter weren’t mentioned once! These are people who still like to receive a letter through the post, and even if they’ve got a mobile phone and an email address, chances are they don’t ever switch them on! We’ve got to be careful not to exclude anyone.
40% of season-ticket holders haven’t provided an email address. With new fans we get new data – nearly 99% of new names on our database have an email address and a mobile phone number on record because it’s just automatic to ask, and give, now."

Bearing in mind the best players ultimately would have more Twitter followers than anyone else at the club, surely it would make sense for the club to encourage all the playing staff to partake, allowing messages to spread more widely and more quickly. Interestingly, as the man who would potentially have most to gain, Kevin disagrees.

“It’s an interesting one. I follow a lot of footballers and their lives aren’t particularly interesting! They get up, they train, they go to Nando’s, they go home and watch football and go to bed. If we had 30 players all saying the same thing it would get very boring, very quickly.

With regard the rest of the players I’d hate it to all become faceless, corporate messaging where they’re told what to write. There’s a thin line between forcing and pushing it too far and losing followers.

At the moment it’s relatively free for those that are on Twitter although there are obviously restrictions on things like controversy, confidentiality, team selection – that sort of thing. The last thing anyone would want is a total Twitter black-out.

This is something that was until recently the case at Leeds, where Simon Grayson had banned all use. Tellingly, within hours of his recent sacking, a number of players were immediately active again – indicating that the exercise is one restriction too far. Kevin understands what Grayson was trying to do, but feels it’s a narrow line of thinking.

“Grayson was ultimately managing risk – that’s all it is. He chose to manage his risks in that way. Here at City everyone is clear what Derek (McInnes) expects, and that’s not just on Twitter, it’s general behaviour. We’re all club ambassadors and of we do anything to harm the club’s reputation we’d expect to be disciplined. If someone wearing a club tie in the car-park is rude to someone, that’s no different to writing something you shouldn’t on Twitter.”

With all of the immediate channels for comment such as forums and Twitter, I asked Kevin if he felt this had influenced the instant success requirement often seen in modern football?

“Possibly. I know from my experiences from when I was at Saints in 2005 and we got relegated, the Commercial Director spent half his time on the forums. We all advised him to be careful as there are some very passionate people on there but also many who can claim to be hard-core fans but might not be.

I prefer to operate like this (face-to-face). If someone wants to chat about something, or feels like we’ve made a mistake, feel free to come and have a chat. It’s a far more productive way of managing things. Unfortunately few actually do and it’s easy to be a keyboard warrior, tapping away at midnight and being confrontational.

Forums must remain independent, but if well controlled can aid the club’s view on things as they provide a great snapshot as to the feeling out there, and we can all learn from that - as long as you don’t try and run the club based on forums or Twitter. I read, but don’t contribute – I don’t want to get drawn into arguments.”

Whilst touching on the subject of learning, our opponents on the day of the interview, Leeds United, are facing huge discontent at their season-ticket renewal prices and fans are staying away. So are there lessons to learn with this situation and just how difficult is it to set the right price?

“Almost impossible! Partly because our product changes all the time. The product we have to offer now is a different one to the one we had in January after our good run and a difference again to the one we had in October when we were bottom of the league and manager-less.

Does that mean had we put them on sale five months ago the prices should have been set lower than they would be now? No, it’s not as simple as that as all the other outgoings are the same. Our revenue targets are the same.

What the club has to do is always try to make the right decisions for the right reasons. You can’t make your decisions just based on cashflow, people just aren’t willing to part with the cash so easily any more. We try to get as much information and feedback as we can and make the best call for everyone at the right time, and not just because we did it that way last year.”

The Ashton Gate Eight played an essential role in securing the club's future


One thing that has often struck me is the lack of focus on the club's history by and large. It’s been thirty years since the Ashton Gate Eight tore up their contracts and helped the club survive and the lack of promotion of these events clearly rankles with Kevin.

“We’ve got a lot of history and heritage but you're right, we don’t do enough with it. Steps are being taken to address this and the whole club is keen to embrace its past. We’re setting up a Former Player’s Association, which Scotty (Murray) will chair. We’re not in a position as yet to have all of the Ashton Gate Eight here as the relationship between the club has with one or two isn’t great. We’re all working hard to correct that and hope to be in a position soon to have a proper and deserved celebration.

We’ve got to use our past to mould our future. People get hooked on football because of moments. Those moments in time, whatever they are, give fans goosebumps and our job is to get association back to those memories.

The current crop of players struggle to gain the same affinity as those before, fans feel they can’t relate to the driver of the white Bentley GT whizzing out of the car-park, yet Twitter proves that these guys are just normal blokes. They get up, enjoy eating and watching sport– they like having banter with their mates.

We’re very, very open to using the history of the football club, trying to recreate that passion and link to glorious days gone by."

And finally, I just had to ask Kevin how he felt, as a lifelong Southampton fan, when City did the double over his beloved Saints this season.

“Ha ha! I’ll show you a text my Mum sent me after the game at St.Mary’s – it sums it up for me.
“If we had to lose to anyone….”.

I think the key thing is that if Saints win I’m happy for half an hour on a Saturday night. When City win we’re all buzzing for the whole week so it makes a real difference to the job.

I was delighted for Derek both times, they were big games for him and important ones. My whole family came down for the game at Ashton Gate and were full of praise. Marvin Elliott was ‘marauding’ that day, Cox and Hammond barely got a kick in the middle of the pitch whilst Rickie Lambert – our goal machine –didn’t have a sniff. Albert destroyed them, they just didn’t know what to do with him.
As City scored the second I jumped up to celebrate and got the look of death from my Mum!”
Many thanks to Kevin for giving me an hour of his time ahead of a key home match. The impression gained was one of a commercially shrewd operator in full control over what he wants to do, and you sense opportunities won’t be missed as they maybe have been in the past.
One thing is for sure, he would like nothing better than to celebrate a substantial success by replacing that framed Birmingham shirt with a City version. Even if the Le Tissier shirt survives for a little while yet.

Kevin can be followed on Twitter: @kev_a_smith

Follow me on Twitter: @TheExiledRobin


1 comment:

  1. Hey Paul, not that your turning me into a football fan or anything (shudder) especially Bristol, despite the fact David James is there (Ahem not that I follow him or anything!), wanted to say congrats, this is a great interview and really interesting on the challenges they face with social media vs direct mail, with a myriad of Marketing channels available its still possible that people can be accidentally excluded!

    ReplyDelete

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