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Octagon’s John Shea: The pent-up demand from a consumer standpoint will be there

John Shea, global president of marketing and events for Octagon Worldwide

With a global footprint and a prominent role influencing more than $3bn (€2.8bn) in annual global sports and entertainment sponsorship, Octagon has a particularly broad view on the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic upon the sports industry. 

Holding client relationships with top-tier corporate brands such as Bank of America, Budweiser, Mastercard and MGM, as well as divisions in media consulting, athlete representation, and event management, the agency has a breath and depth in the space enjoyed by few others in the business besides the major sports leagues themselves.

John Shea, a longtime agency veteran, was promoted late last year to global president of marketing and events for Octagon Worldwide, and now oversees more than a thousand employees spread over 50 offices in 22 countries. He recently spoke with SportBusiness on the effects of the public health crisis, and how and when the industry might able to resurface. 

The obvious first question is how you and your team are doing, and what are you doing to stay active?

Relatively speaking, our employee base and clients are holding up about as well as can be expected. These are uncharted waters for all of us. So every organization is focused first and foremost on the health, safety, and well-being of their employee base, their extended families. So by and large, we’re good. We’re working through it. Technology is largely allowing us to do work from home or remotely. So we’re able to establish and keep up with work that is consistent with what we’d be doing in the office. 

The best guidance we have in the US currently is not to have crowds upward of 50 people for the next eight weeks. Amid this and all the uncertainty, how are you able to operate and conduct business? What kind of timing template are you working from?

We’re using those CDC guidelines to the extent possible. It’s a phrase I’ve been using frequently, really in all discussions. But we’re helping clients minimize and mitigate initial risks, help manage their assets, programs, budgets, and then prepare for the eventual return, whatever that is. Different properties and different clients have different time periods. So we’re trying to ask the hard questions of one another and each other, recognize there are really very few certainties at the moment, and do our best to present flexible plans and solutions so that when things do come back clients can act appropriately, swiftly, and authentically, recognizing that we really don’t know what the outcome of all this will be in the end, what the impact will be to peoples’ families, livelihoods, and so forth. So planning for the unknown obviously is almost impossible so you try to plan for a number of scenarios and see how things play out over time. 

What is your sense of brands’ marketing budgets within sports? Certainly there’s going to be a retreat in spending in the immediate term, but what do you see corporate behavior looking like in the aggregate?

It’s going to vary. Different businesses, different sectors will be hit more harshly than others. But ultimately, I think businesses will recognize that peoples’ passions for sports and entertainment are likely to remain very consistent. And that in the interests of serving their customers and fans, I believe spending will follow that trend and opportunity. What that looks like on a percentage basis, I wouldn’t even speculate.

But businesses are going to want to speak to their customers in meaningful and authentic ways, and history will have told us that sports and entertainment are places where people want to spend their time for enjoyment, for entertainment, for escapism. It’s where their passions really lie. So I think brands, companies, corporations will want to be able to serve their customers in meaningful ways as we come out of this. Some will go slow. Others will be positioned to go more assertively. But the opportunity to speak to fans as things come back will be paramount. We’re all really looking forward to a really big cultural moment when that time comes. The pent-up demand from a consumer standpoint will be there, and brands will act with interest and responsibility. 

There is a potential glut of sports events in the late summer and fall, with spring events played at the same time as events that already occur at those times of year. Is that a potential problem, particularly for your corporate clients? How do you view that?

We’re going to look at it, and are clients are going to look at it, as an opportunity. Yes, there will be a potential for an abundance, or an overabundance, of activities. But I think each league, each property will be creating and looking for opportunities for their partners to engage in meaningful ways. We talk a lot about the what the value-add is. So it’ll be about how can our clients enhance the fan experience. So I definitely look at it as an opportunity rather than any burden.

As we go through the depths of the crisis, is there an opportunity for your clients to get behind things like esports, other virtual events, backing the distribution of archival or documentary content? More broadly, is there a brand opportunity in the immediate term, or is that really in poor taste?

I think there are opportunities. Pursuing those opportunities has to be done in a tasteful and meaningful way. People are still looking for things with an enjoyment factor. They need and want a distraction from many of the realities that we all face. So if done tastefully, if done authentically, and perhaps done in a manner to help the situation, I think there are opportunities. It’s about finding that right message for the right audience. 

As you map out the next 10 to 40 days, what is at the top of your priority list?

I’m probably looking more at 10 hours than 10 days or 10 weeks. But it comes back to understanding our clients’ businesses. What do they need to do? How are they being impacted? From there, it’s about planning for the short-term, with no live games happening and things on hiatus, what assets can be redeployed? And then it’s about moving toward a fuller relaunch. Each client, each brand, each situation is different. But it’s about managing upside as well as the downside and looking forward to an eventual return and some level of normalcy if I can use such a word. 

Given your global scope, are there best practices in your world from Europe or elsewhere than be applied to the US, or vice versa?

We have internally have rallied a global working group across our senior management, looking to identify best practices, and right now maybe more so to identify a consistent approach to helping our employees to understand the implications of what’s going on and how one market might relate to another. We’re using technology and time zones and people in different markets to help each other to learn. I don’t know if there’s any one key element or learning. But we are in a global taskforce meeting daily to learn from one another, to collaborate, to share information, and to help inform our people and our clients.

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