The sports agency dilemma | Is it better to be a narrow expert or a generalist?

Christmas is a time for family.

More specifically, it’s when your family asks that question.

‘Forgive me’, says the racist uncle on his fifth egg nog, ‘but what is it you do again?’.

It’s a culturally-loaded question which assumes a person’s entire identity can be distilled in to a neat, tidy job title.

So, where possible it’s best to just lie, and go with something seemingly unambiguous – teacher, journalist, plumber, air traffic controller – that will get you through the next five minutes unscathed.

Alternatively, you can down a warm Liebfraumilch and attempt to answer the question honestly.

– So, what do you do?
– I work in sport.
– But what specifically?
– Lots of things.
– Sponsorship?
– Yes, but it doesn’t have to be.
– So, you sell it?
– No.
– How do you make money then?
– We activate.
– What does that mean?
– Oh…fuck off uncle.

Beware the lure of ‘And’

The Christmas question applies at a corporate level too, particularly in the sports agency sector, where dynamic change in tech, media and data analytics are causing an identity problem.

So, what do you do?

– We’re a comms shop
– We’re a sponsorship consultancy
– We’re a data analytics agency
– We’re a hipster football fan thing
– We do experiential
– We do partnerships
– We run major event activations
– We do high-end strategy.

Each of these answers the Christmas question adequately, and there are some brilliant agencies out there telling these stories with great success.

The problem lies when we’re tempted to insert that extra little word: ‘and’.

‘We’re a cutting-edge data analytics agency and a partnerships agency and do fantastic experiential and we’re a comms shop and we do big heavy event activations and…’.

This gets to the marketing dilemma facing generalist sports agencies. They have always evolved to serve the changing needs of their clients, it’s just that today those needs are changing so quickly and, in some cases fundamentally, so it’s far harder to credibly sustain the one-size-fits-all story.

There’s no such thing as the sports business

The sports market is easily misunderstood by those who look at it from outside. It’s sport ffs, how complicated can it be?

But in reality, sport has always been just the context for a whole host of different business categories, from legal and finance to media and marketing.

Looked at through this lens, the sports business is just a place where specialisms congregate.

Today’s data, tech and media disruption means there are just more verticals crowding into sport than there were before. Unlike law or finance, some of these specialisms are vaguely-defined abstract nouns – data, content, digital, social – encouraging budget-chasing agencies to overclaim their expertise in these fields.

My hunch is that faced with this landscape there are two stories that will cut through. Let’s give them names: The Narrow Expert Story and The Big and Clever Story.

The Narrow Expert

The best specialists are those with the discipline to say no. They define their expertise precisely, knowing what they’re really good at and just as importantly, what they’re not good at. This might be the hardest management task of all, and most fail it.

“You have a limited amount of time and talent and you have to allocate it smartly,” said Charlie Munger, the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and long-time business partner of Warren Buffet.

Munger puts his success down to knowing his own ‘circle of competency’, the areas of business where his time and expertise will reap the greatest return.

“It’s not a competency if you don’t know the edge of it,” he says. This is one of my favourite quotes in all business literature.

The gist of Munger’s approach is risk management and opportunity cost; the bet the specialist is taking is that the returns to expertise are greater than those available in other areas, beyond the edge of your competency.

Sports marketing is full of narrow experts who were tempted to go over the edge and chase the abstract nouns of content, data or tech.

Then one day, they look around the office and they don’t know what they are anymore.

The Big and Clever Story

This is the scale story, told by the major global networks. It can be enormously powerful but brings its own challenges.

Sports marketing is a high-profile, low-return item in the financial accounts of the big global networks. Advertising and media sales remain the big-ticket items, and both are facing their own existential problems.

The Big and Clever Story is about relevant scale. It suggests that once in the walled garden, the sport clients will have access to best-in-class expertise across all the marketing and media disciplines.

This allows the sports shop to sidle up to the inhouse advertising agency and bask in their heavyweight creative and strategy creds. Take the client up a couple of floors and the network’s media agency can blow up the numbers on a partnership deal and get decent discounts into the bargain.

Then there’s the global, local question, which is a major selling point when multi-market brands want to activate sponsorship across several territories.

Beware the difficult middle

Each story can be challenged in the rough and tumble of a pitch process.

The Narrow Expert can be made to look parochial and expensive and puts greater day-to-day management of the process back onto the client.

Likewise, the Big and Clever Story is vulnerable to the realpolitik of network life. Not a day goes by without the marketing trades peering below the carapace of the network brands, revealing a maelstrom of competing incentives and ego that undermines the ‘joined-up’ promise.

But the alternative is to try to navigate the middle ground, between specialism and scale. This is hard graft, both in reality and in terms of the story presented to the marketplace. It hints at compromise, with neither the thrill of the expert nor the reassurance of the global network.

Perhaps its best to leave the final word to Charlie Munger, who believes the answers to the big question can be reached by inversion.

The secret to happiness, he says, is to study what makes you miserable and remove it from your life. Successful businesses do something similar, identifying what gets them into trouble and then avoiding it. As a wise man once said: I want to know where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.

Richard Gillis is a journalist, author and sports strategist at Cake.

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