Alan Pascoe was among the first business leaders interviewed in depth by SportBusiness International 18 years ago. Now, as he steps back as president of CSM, he reflects on a pioneer career in international sports marketing. Kevin Roberts reports.
It’s been a big six months in the life of 1972 Olympic silver medal winner Alan Pascoe.
Having stepped down as president of CSM (Chime Sports Marketing) in February, three months later he was named in SportBusiness International’s Team 200 before also being honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BT Sport Industry Awards in London.
However, don’t for a minute think this veteran of the international sports marketing sector is about to settle for the pipe and slippers.
“Don’t use the ‘R’ word. I am not retiring, it just wouldn’t be good for me after such an adrenalin-fuelled life,” the 66-year-old says.
In fact, Pascoe will remain as a consultant to CSM and focus on a number of personal projects in fitness and the arts. However, the announcement that he is set to at least take his foot off the gas on a sports marketing career that has spanned four decades provides an appropriate moment to reflect on the contribution made by a man who has done so much to shape the relationship between sports and brands in his native UK and beyond.
Despite building two internationally renowned sports marketing organisations – Alan Pascoe Associates (later named API) and Fast Track – Pascoe remains, in his words, “a client guy”.
“Of course I have enjoyed building companies, developing strategies for growth, finding people to work with and opening offices around the world, but I have never really seen myself as a CEO, responsible for running every aspect of the business day-to-day,” he says.
“I would rather be working with clients, getting my hands dirty and developing the creative ideas that make sponsorships and events work for them.
“Clients expect you to run an office at least 12 hours a day from Monday to Friday and then the weekends are given over to event. For years my son referred to me as ‘the lodger’ because I was never at home. I think he’s forgiven me now though.”
Ideas have never been too short on the ground for Pascoe, an Olympic medal winner who cut his teeth in the business in the UK at a time when TV was stubbornly resistant to sponsorship, and rights-owners took a prehistoric view of their relationships with the media and, often, agencies.
The lack of understanding of the role of sports marketing and the triangular relationship between events, media and brands provided plenty of obstacles in the early days of Pascoe’s career and, perhaps uniquely, he cites members of the press corps covering British athletics as a positive influence as he developed the strategies which would see him grow API and Fast Track into major powers on the world stage.
“At the time there was a positive relationship with the press guys who I travelled with as part of the British athletics team for many years,” he says.
“I was suddenly in the media and events business…the press guys were generally great and would work with you because it was in their interest to have good events.
“But TV was a different matter. Sponsors had a bad name, not least because of their reputation for moving banners around during an event to keep them in front of the cameras. I sat behind the director at the camera check and saw how the event looked. We placed our material accordingly and didn’t move it, which helped the relationship.
“The intransigence of TV was summed up by one head of sport at [UK public-service broadcaster] the BBC who refused to discuss bringing a sponsor into what was then the Five Nations rugby tournament. He said he would blow us off the air if we went ahead.
“But a few months later [pay-TV operator] Sky bought half the rights and I realised that the event was no longer in the control of the BBC, but of rugby itself. We spoke directly to them and [British retail bank] Lloyds TSB began its sponsorship.”
Pascoe was also quick to understand the importance of talent in the sports marketing mix.
“I retired from athletics in 1976 and joined MSW Promotions, trading a tracksuit for black tie,” he says. “I was responsible for bridge’s Sunday Times Invitational Pairs Tournament, with a brief to extend the popularity of the event beyond the world of bridge players. The solution was to get the world’s best-known bridge player to the table.”
That player just happened to be the handsome, urbane Egyptian movie star Omar Sharif, whose presence certainly worked its magic.
“For five or six years we packed out the playing area and viewing room because Omar Sharif was playing,” Pascoe says. “That was a real induction for me into another side of the business.
“In those days, the sports industry was all about brand awareness, perimeter boards and time on TV, and one of our achievements was taking brands into the heart of the action by introducing things like branding around competition numbers on vests.”
Even that, says Pascoe, wasn’t as straightforward as it might sound; there was, in his words, enormous opposition and even when permission was given, restrictions on the size of branding meant that only those brands with short, compact and easily identifiable logos felt the full advantage.
Back then, it was all about finding new ways of doing things, and that meant the going was seldom straightforward. Pascoe recalls raising eyebrows by signing Barclaycard – which operated only in the UK – as the main sponsor for the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki, Finland, and then selling the remainder of the rights to the European Union (EU). The creative approach was to put the EU stars around vest numbers, a move that appeared to work brilliantly, but attracted criticism from a rival agency which accused Pascoe and his team of an overtly political move ahead of Norway’s vote on EU membership three months later.
For Pascoe, the fun has equally been about pioneering new concepts. He looks on his company’s work on the Paralympic World Cup and “re-setting the standard for infield presentation of events” as part of the Fast Track legacy, but is just as proud of its record on client retention.
“We took Rotary Watches into ice skating which delivered great value after they had gone into motor sport, as they paid a lot of money to get onto the grid only once,” Pascoe adds.
“I chased GlaxoSmithKline for six years for its Ribena business, and they finally came to me about the launch of their new sports drink – Lucozade Sport. Fast Track still has that account many, many years later and one member of the team has been working on the account throughout that whole period.
“For me, devising strategies and having the freedom to implement them was a wonderful experience. That gave you the grounding and the learnings of what works, and those are things that you build on,” he says.
While the roots of Pascoe’s career may have been in the UK, his ambitions were never confined to home territory. The UK market was, he says, in fact restricting API’s growth because the brands it represented wanted to be elsewhere and wanted to work overseas.
“We needed to grow and to make the transition to being an international agency,” he says. “The result was the development of API to become a fully global agency that was, for a time, the major challenger to IMG on the world stage.”
It was, says Pascoe, an exciting time, but his vision for the future of API was as part of a wider marketing services group, something he felt he had achieved through the sale of the company to WCRS which eventually became the Aegis Group.
But there were clouds on the horizon, and a change of strategy saw Aegis gradually sell off all its marketing services elements apart from API and PR firm Biss Lancaster. That switch in strategy ultimately saw Pascoe given the chance to buy back the company, but his vision of its role in a broader marcoms group never deserted him.
“I always wanted to grow, and always felt that a sports marketing and events agency should be at the heart of marketing and advertising. That view was anathema to a lot of people as the industry was incredibly siloed in those days.”
Not so for a Frank Lowe-inspired Interpublic Group that was developing its own vision for sports marketing in the shape of Octagon in the late 1990s. API and Frank Craighill’s Advantage International were the keystone acquisitions for the new project as it launched with a fanfare which was difficult to maintain.
The operation became “very American and very lawyer-led”, according to Pascoe, leaving him to become disillusioned and wanting to move on, which he did in 1998. The question of what to do next was answered when the British Athletics Federation went bust and Pascoe was identified as the man to get the sport out of a hole.
Working with the administrator and the key individuals behind the successor organisation UK Athletics, Pascoe risked some £250,000 of his own money to keep the show on the road despite knowing that all of the exiting sponsorship contracts were nearing their end and there was no guarantee of renewal.
The result was the creation of Fast Track. Pascoe described its founding as “a massive risk”, but sometimes the sun shines on those who need it most, and he got his slice of luck when broadcaster Channel 4 acquired the rights for English test cricket, leaving the BBC’s then head of sport Mike Miller with a major hole in his schedule.
“I had been pursuing Mike for some time to take athletics which he knew from his days at Channel 4,” says Pascoe. “But after months, he suddenly found he needed the property, and instead of going into a negotiation on the back foot, I found I was in a strong position. People tell me that deal probably saved British athletics because it was simply not getting the coverage it needed.”
It was a deal that also put Fast Track in a stronger position to build on its position in the world of athletics and branch into other sports and other marketing disciplines. The acquisition of Jim Glover’s Lighthouse Communications added another string to the corporate bow, enabling the company to spread its wings.
“There was just too much opportunity in the marketplace not to look in new directions, although we had to assure UK Athletics of our continued commitment to the sport,” Pascoe says. “That commitment was, in any case, evident from the figures. Over a period Fast Track raised more than £60 million for UK Athletics, a higher sponsorship return than even the English Football League could manage at the time.”
The rest, as they say, is history. With Fast Track now harboured within CSM, Pascoe can look beyond his core business focus for new challenges and projects.
Given the spotlight that shone on Lord Sebastian Coe, David Beckham and even former UK prime minister Tony Blair in London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, the role played by Pascoe tends to be somewhat overlooked. But the experience and ultimate success was something he simply treasures.
“Winning the bid was more important to me than the medals I won because I knew it would make such a difference to Britain and it has succeeded on almost every level,” he says. “The one legacy that hasn’t really come about is getting more kids physically active, so I am currently working on a project called Energy Club which is currently in 1,000 or so primary schools [in the UK].
“If exercise was a medication, doctors would be writing prescriptions for it every day. Too much lip service is paid by the majority of the population and the statistics show that 60 per cent of primary school pupils are physically illiterate.
“The fact is that if children don’t have the right level of activity and some basic coordination skills they will never get into sport. That’s why activity and exercise is so important to our nation’s wellbeing in the future.”
In addition to his focus on The Energy Club, Pascoe is currently working on the commercial programme that will see the historic Burrell Collection of 8,000 pieces of art leave their Glasgow home and tour major cities of the world for the first time.
It is a challenging project but one he clearly relishes, perhaps because it takes him outside his immediate comfort zone and into a new area. That is also, perhaps, why the project that gives him the most satisfaction after all these years is not a major athletics sponsorship or a TV deal but a series of 28 events organised by a pharmaceutical manufacturer of products for treating childhood asthma.
“I suffered from asthma myself, even when I was a young athlete, so I understood the problem,” says Pascoe. “I was approached by the company asking me whether I could hire the Long Room at Lord’s [cricket ground] for a presentation to doctors. They wanted to do something special because they would normally get a handful of people turning up and it was an expensive way of marketing.
“I asked them what they planned to do in other cities around the country and ended up organising a tour that attracted an average of more than 100 doctors to every event. The result was a better understanding among GPs as to how childhood asthma could be managed, and until recently, doctors were still coming up and telling me that they still had the posters that were distributed at the time.
While Pascoe is certainly not going to be lost to sports marketing, he is stepping back from an industry he shaped at what he sees as a fascinating and opportunity-laden time.
Pascoe’s career has embraced a period that has ranged from arguments over logos on vests and spats with stuffy administrators and inflexible broadcasters to a digital era in which there are new ways of doing almost everything.
“Because of digital technology the cost of entry and of delivering programmes is lower than ever,” he says. “It is now up to the Young Turks in the business to find the best ways of using the technology to communicate effectively on behalf of brands.”