Interviews

Charles Allen, Head of Marketing, Arsenal Football Club

Charles has spent the majority of his career working for multi-national FMCG companies before moving to Arsenal in 2010

Tom Holmes

Founder & Chairman

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Tom Holmes talks to Charles Allen, Head of Marketing at Arsenal FC.

Charles has spent the majority of his career working for multi-national FMCG companies before moving to Arsenal in 2010.

His experience ranges from commercial roles with Coca-Cola Schweppes in the UK, to international commercial and senior marketing roles with Diageo plc in Argentina, Peru, Chile, Mexico and the Netherlands and more recently in UK with PepsiCo International.

His move into sports marketing was fuelled by a passion for football, and also a belief that his consumer brand strategy and marketing skills would be transferrable and transformational in a sports marketing arena.

Charles is a Mentor at the Marketing Academy.

 

Creativebrief: Charles, as head of marketing at Arsenal FC what is your primary focus?

Charles Allen: My main focus is around building the membership base for Arsenal football club and engaging the fans in a timely, relevant and personalised way. This focus has led to two main initiatives. The first to build both our technological and human capability in CRM benchmarking ourselves against the best in class, not best in football! The second, to turn our attention towards the international opportunity, estimates vary on how many fans Arsenal has around the world – what I do know is that only a small percentage live in the UK, and that we currently connect personally to an even smaller percentage.

Creativebrief: Your career has spanned Arsenal, Pepsico, Diageo and Coca-Cola & Schweppes Beverages, what have been the high points?

Charles Allen: I have made career choices around brands that I believe in, trust at a values level, and use myself and I have deliberately built my career in the premier league (pun intended) of brands. My time at Diageo included a 10 year period living and working in South America. Through my family I have huge affinity and love for the region – my father was born and grew up in Argentina, and I myself spent some of my childhood in Mexico. I deliberately looked for opportunities to live and work in the region. 

The experience that gave me confidence to look for a career opportunity in sport was when I worked on the launch activation plan for the sponsorship of team Mercedes McLaren and Johnnie Walker Whisky. My background had made me believe, erroneously, that all companies had marketing processes and disciplines similar to those of Diageo and Coca-Cola. What I quickly learned was that while McLaren were set up to be a fantastic race winning technology and engineering company, marketing was not their strongest suit. It encouraged me to look for opportunities in sport where a brand or club would accept fmcg marketing principles applied to a sports brand. That opportunity arose here at Arsenal FC.

Working on the McLaren sponsorship was great fun, very high profile and has ultimately created the opportunity for me here at Arsenal. 

Creativebrief: Along the way were there individual marketers who particularly impressed and inspired you?

Charles Allen: I am inspired by provocative thinkers – people who can open up new areas of opportunity for me with a single comment or intervention – and then importantly step back and let me develop the strategy or whatever around it.

Creativebrief: You have a wealth of international experience, particularly in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and the Netherlands, how important is this experience to your day-to-day job at Arsenal?

Charles Allen: As we expand our horizons internationally having had some in-market experience is very important. Although we may be dealing in different markets to the ones in which I have lived, it does allow me to consider our approach from different angles and ask questions that perhaps I would not have asked without that experience. In addition, being a fluent Spanish speaker helps when dealing with some of the Spanish speakers in our playing squad!! 

Creativebrief: What does the Arsenal FC brand stand for internationally?

Charles Allen: Having worked in global brand teams before I understand the importance of building a brand consistently around the world. There is a beautiful fan articulation about how Arsenal is perceived around the world which is summed up in the phrase “the Arsenal way”. This is a fan articulation about how the club operates with class, is forward looking and is all about building belonging amongst fans. If we consistently communicate these core attributes of Arsenal football club through our marketing we will go a long way to building the Arsenal brand consistently.

Creativebrief: How is technology changing the way we watch football?

Charles Allen: I think we need to differentiate between watching football and “consuming” football. What do I mean? I think watching football has not changed that much, aside from the way football is now televised and broadcast (3D etc). I believe that the fans still want to concentrate on what is going on on the pitch in the main. Of course social media and apps such as Zeebox allow fans to comment on football during the match, but the main conversation about football on social media happens between matches and you can receive a constant diet of football from an endless amount of sources.

As a result, fans are more informed about players, stats, performances, transfers and what a player’s favourite food is, which drives the whole experience and enjoyment of being a football fan for many. Second screens and companion experiences have a role in football (particularly if you are watching alone and want to connect to a bigger group), but football for many is a group viewing experience where the banter is between friends and reacting to what is on the pitch.

Creativebrief: Last year you launched a new CRM system at Arsenal with intention of becoming the ‘Tesco Clubcard of football CRM’, what’s been achieved so far?

Charles Allen: This is a key part of our strategy. The biggest step forward for us at this stage, having only recently gone live with the system is that we now have a single customer view of each and every fan and his/her interaction with the club. This is an incredibly powerful tool in our mission to be able to interact with fans personally and in a relevant manner. This system is already providing us with better prospect leads for up-selling and cross-selling opportunities and its use will only grow and mature. Fans invest a lot of emotional energy into Arsenal football club and want to feel that we know them as individuals as well as they know us and the team!

 

Creativebrief: Arsenal has been ramping up all its digital marketing activity can you give me some examples of new social gaming and media successes?

Charles Allen: Our numbers are quite staggering in this area with 12m Facebook followers and over 2m Twitter followers, alongside our more traditional website and on line TV service which are growing all the time.

What impresses me is the progress we are making particularly in China where we have gone from a standing start 18 months ago to over 1m fans on our Chinese website. Extrapolate the growth forward and the numbers quickly add up.

 

Creativebrief: So how important is China to Arsenal’s future plans?

Charles Allen: China is at the heart of our international strategy. It is a developing football market with huge potential. We do need to understand the relative stage of development of football fans in this market. Many of them do not have the benefit of a club allegiance passed down through generations of the same family, and you can hardly say that Arsenal is their local club. We therefore need to engage with these fans in a more culturally relevant and personal way. We produce a lot of China specific content around Chinese festivals and celebrations and get our players involved in special activities like web chats etc.

For example in the last three months we have produced 26 video features in Chinese and run over 30 promotions for our fans. We arrange supporters club visits to Emirates for those fans who are able to make the once in a lifetime trip. China is a long term strategy for Arsenal – we have completed two pre-season tours to China and we plan to keep going back to build our fan base in this important market.

Creativebrief: Arsenal has some incredible brands as partners do you ever collaborate on marketing initiatives?

Charles Allen: Yes. With such a high interest brand like Arsenal it is a very compelling proposition to partner with the club. Again in an international market where a brand may be a small player by association with arsenal they will reach many people far quicker than via more traditional channels.

Creativebrief: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

Charles Allen: Driving fan engagement digitally and then monetising the engagement through ecommerce both in the UK and globally.

Creativebrief: How do you see the media landscape unfolding in the next 5 years?

Charles Allen: I think it is going to get more fragmented and the consumer expectation of immediacy and relevance will grow. I read a great quote once which said (and I misquote I am sure) “twitter gives me today what I will read in the papers tomorrow”. That sums it up for me, if you can’t deliver me news “live” against a menu of my choice you are irrelevant to me. The upside is that media planning may be easier as there could be less wastage.

Creativebrief: Do you prefer to use an ‘integrated’ agency approach or specialist agencies by individual discipline?

Charles Allen: I rate agencies on their competence rather than whether they are specialists or not. People also make agencies great rather than the name over the door.

Creativebrief: Do you prefer to use local agencies by market or international/global agencies?

Charles Allen: Local. There is no way that you can understand the market and its nuance from afar working with a global agency. In the best case scenario the global agency acquires a good local agency and absorbs that talent.

Creativebrief: When choosing agencies were you ever influenced by awards?

Charles Allen: Not really. What worked on brand x against a particular consumer insight is going to be irrelevant for my brand. I am influenced by great thinking and the linking of great consumer insight to an idea that my brand can deliver against.

Creativebrief: What challenges do you face, managing day-to-day agency relationships?

Charles Allen: Pace. We, and agencies are too quick to move on to the next thing when consumers are most certainly not tiring of a campaign or an execution, or may not have fully understood your last piece of work.

Creativebrief: How often do you look at new agencies or review your roster?

Charles Allen: Informally all of the time – it is good to know what is out there. Formally when we either have a big piece of work to pitch, or when the time feels right to refresh.

Creativebrief: How do you monitor and stay-in-touch with the agency market to ensure you work with the best?

Charles Allen: Informal networking with past colleagues and reading journals.

Creativebrief: Which agencies do you think are ‘hot’ right now?

Charles Allen: I don’t know, I don’t think of agencies as being hot or cold.

Creativebrief: Do you/have you used intermediaries in the past? What are your observations?

Charles Allen: No.

Creativebrief: What’s your attitude to the ‘traditional’ pitch? Do you think there is a better/more modern way?

Charles Allen: For me it is important to be fair with whatever process you adopt. That all agencies are treated equally and receive the same amount of info is key.

Creativebrief: Would you ever consider awarding an agency business without a pitch? What would they have to do / demonstrate?

Charles Allen: Only if they came with a huge personal recommendation from someone I trusted completely.

Creativebrief: What are your top tips to agencies when presenting credentials to you?

Charles Allen: Do it quickly.

Creativebrief: What was the most impressive agency presentation you have ever seen?

Charles Allen: When at Diageo we pitched a piece of work for J&B whisky. KesselsKramer are a Dutch agency, who eventually won the business. They chose to take a risk with their pitch presentation and did it in a nightclub (!), to immerse us completely in the night-life of our target consumer. It was really bold and it paid off. It led to the “start a party” campaign which was partly responsible for returning the brand to growth.