Before the 2015/16 football season kicks off, I caught up with the Head of Marketing and Commercial Operations at Hibernian, Greig Mailer, to chat about his previous roles, get his thoughts on some general topics around Scottish football and gain an insight into his marketing and communications strategy for the Scottish Championship club.
Greig, do you want to take a moment to introduce yourself and give us some information of your background in football business and marketing?
My current position is Head of Marketing and Commercial Operations at Hibernian Football Club and I’ve been in the position for around 6 months now. What that means is that I’m responsible for all of the revenue streams that come into the club, and all of the marketing and communications that come from the club.
Before my time at Hibernian, I ran my own company called Flare Sports. That was a venture that I set up when I returned back to the UK, and I effectively was working across a number of marketing and events projects in the world of sport. That was mainly focused on football, but it also included a spell at the 2014 Commonwealth Games where I was spectator services and venue manager at Ibrox Stadium and the Royal Commonwealth Pool.
Prior to that, I had 3 years at UEFA as marketing activities manager. It was basically focusing on the management of the sponsorship of the Champions League, and then before that I served my time at the Scottish Premier League. I spent 7 fantastic years at Hampden, learning the ropes and I had quite a broad remit across broadcasting, sponsorship, communications and licensing at the SPL. That’s just a brief snapshot of my career to date.
Moving on to my first question then, how did you get into the Scottish football industry?
I was studying marketing at Strathclyde University back in 2001 and I was doing an elective class on CRM and we had to choose a project and look at an industry that was embracing CRM. My group ended up deciding to look at the football industry, and off the back of that we spoke to a number of clubs about how they were communicating with their supporters and using technology to try and cater their communications on a more individual basis. It was really through those early discussions that it emerged to me that there was a possibility that there was potential marketing career in football.
Some of the people I spoke to pointed me in the direction of Liverpool University where they had a tailored MBA in the football industry that was run by a guy called Rogan Taylor. He had emerged as a spokesman for football fans in the aftermath of both the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters. He’s a very inspirational character and set up the course to help professionalise the game in the UK. I managed to get into that course after a year of living and coaching football out in America and from there, they really started to help build my network. Through a chance connection, I was put in touch with the then commercial director of the Scottish Premier league who invited me up for a placement and I got myself comfortable, put in a bit of a shift over a summer and they offered me a job after the placement finished. I carried on for a number of years afterwards.
How did your time with the SPL, and also UEFA, help shape your plans for what you’re trying to do now at Hibs?
I learnt different things from my time at the SPL and UEFA. A lot of my time at the SPL was spent working with clubs on a day-to-day basis. I was having to try and balance the management of the commercial and broadcasting contracts that were in place, I had to ensure they were delivered, but in the meantime I had to work with the clubs to make sure those packages were structured in a way that worked for those clubs. To effectively try and add more money and add more value to Scottish football that could then be circulated back to the clubs through the SPL’s distribution mechanism. I learned a lot from that in terms of looking at what worked, what didn’t work, and it also gave you a great insight because you worked with a wide range of people across Scottish football, different personalities, different approaches and you could pick up some of the good practice from all across the different clubs.
Taking that on to UEFA, my focus was again on club competitions but it was at a much bigger scale, working on the Champions League. While at the SPL, I was a bit of a jack of all trades, there was only 7 or 8 full time staff there, you had to roll the sleeves up and cover a whole range of different responsibilities, whereas at UEFA, you’re responsibilities were very, very narrow but were very deep as well. You were part of this huge team. What I learned at UEFA was really the attention to detail, and the co-ordination that was required to deliver an event at such a high standard. That, for me, was really interesting and it gave me an insight into how you try and co-ordinate an event and a competition, make it consistent and keep the standards very high across the whole of Europe. I think there’s no better place to learn that than at the UEFA Champions League which I think has really set the benchmark for sports branding and event delivery in football.
What was a typical day like for you at UEFA then? If there was one at all…
My responsibility was making sure that the existing sponsors got what they had paid for, that they were satisfied with their relationship with UEFA and that they were going to be at the table the next time you were negotiating for the sales for further investment.
A lot of my time was spent liaising with an agency called Team Marketing. They had the responsibility of the account management of all of the different sponsorships that we had with the Champions League. Day-to-day I’d be working with their different account managers to understand the needs of all of our different sponsors and my job was to try and shape those projects we were working on, make sure they were suitable for UEFA and the clubs participating in the Champions League. A lot of my work was then spent working internally across different departments such as the legal, communications, operations and of course competitions department who looked after the sporting side of the game. My job was to lobby for the sponsors needs but also make sure I was representing UEFA and that we were steering these projects and these initiatives in the right direction, so that they fit with what we were trying to do for the Champions League and for UEFA. My job was to try and ensure that all these projects worked and ultimately, the sponsors were happy with their investment.
On top of that, the key event we’d work on each year would be the Champions League Final. It’s been a highlight of my career, I’ve worked at three, two at Wembley and one in Munich. The planning for a Champions League Final would normally start about 18 months in advance of the match. You would work on everything from looking at how you’d be setting up the fanzones in the city centre, and how the sponsors would be promoting themselves at those fanzones, through to looking at the positioning of the trackside advertising boards to allocations of tickets to sponsors. A whole range of different details that you had to cover off, but the bottom line was are the sponsors happy, are their rights being delivered and are they going to be back at the table for more the next time we were negotiating the contracts.
As far as I can remember, a couple of the official Champions League sponsors have been sponsors for a while now, so you certainly kept them happy…
I certainly can’t claim that as being down to my efforts. Something else I learned from my time there is that everyone who’s involved plays a part in selling the competition. The care and consideration that is given to every detail of that competition is part of the sales process. Whether it’s making sure that the trackside boards are in the correct place, through to the designing of the football, or the allocation of match tickets. Everybody is playing their part. There are hundreds of Champions League matches going on each year, and there is a squad of people who are employed either by UEFA or by the clubs to try and make it all work. It’s a huge team effort. I like to think I played a small part in that.
Coming onto the Commonwealth Games then, how big an opportunity do you think the games were to showcase Scottish sport to an international audience and do you think it achieved it?
It was a huge opportunity and yes I think they achieved it, is the short answer. I was very attracted with the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow, and to Scotland. It was part of the reason I came back from Switzerland, I was hungry to be involved in it. I think they did a fantastic job in terms of the quality of delivery and the scale of the operation. I think the country can be very proud of the event that they put on and I think that was reflected in the coverage of the event and I think that was reflected in the feeling you could get when you were at the venues and you were watching the action.
A big motivator for me was that I had the opportunity to work in an area called spectator services. If anyone went to the games, you would have come across the many volunteers wearing big foam fingers, generally dancing around and creating a good atmosphere but also making sure people knew where they were going and people had a good experience at the venue. That’s a whole area that, if I’m honest, football could do a whole lot better in. It’s a function within the events operation that I wanted to learn more about. I worked at one of the largest venues of the games, Ibrox Stadium, where we had over 175,000 people over 36 hours come to the stadium. Then I worked at the smallest venue, which was the Royal Commonwealth Pool and I actually had more volunteers in my staff at Ibrox than I did spectators through in Edinburgh, it was a great project for me to be involved in. I learned a lot about trying to improve the experience of the paying spectator, and for me, that’s something I’d like to try and take into the world of football.
I think Scotland did a really job of making sure everybody had a really warm welcome. Whether that was the media, the competing countries, the spectators travelling from other countries and the volunteers themselves, and I think that we really stamped our own personality on the games and it’s something we can be remembered for.
Starting off with your role at Hibs then, a similar one to my question on UEFA, is there a regular day at the office for you?
I guess so yes. I’ll generally get to the office around 7, 7.30, I like a couple of hours in the office to catch up on correspondence and to plan the day ahead. The team will arrive in and we’ll have a number of internal meetings, whether that’s on an operational level to ensure we’re delivering for our sponsors or for our fans, or whether it’s planning different campaigns or sales activities. In addition to that, I’ll maybe meet with our suppliers who help us with that, whether it’s our catering suppliers or other suppliers that help us with retail or match day delivery. My days are generally packed full of meetings, and at the start and end of the day I’ll be trying to catch up with any correspondence I’ve missed. The exciting thing is there’s never a dull moment working at a football club, and being part of a club where there’s a real focus and cause that we’re all fighting for is hugely motivating.
Is there an over-arching marketing and communications strategy that you’ve developed for the club, and can you give a bit of an insight into what it entails?
Yes, again, is the short answer. Without giving too much away, the main objective for me in my department at this point in time is to try and reconnect the club with its fanbase and with the business community and with our different clients. I think a big part of that is rebuilding a bit of trust between the club and the fans. It’s probably been burnt and broken a little bit as a result of the relegation. We’ve been trying hard to demonstrate to the fans that we are listening, and we’re working hard to have a plan in place that will get the club back to the top flight of Scottish football.
How effective would you say that the inspirational season ticket launch video was, and how do you judge or analyse the performance of a video like that?
We approached the season ticket campaign by looking at ‘what is it we’re actually selling here?’ On the face of it, it’s a match ticket to 18 Championship games or 19 Premiership games, as at the time we launched this campaign we didn’t know which league we’d be playing in, which created quite an interesting marketing challenge. There’s always a big focus, when you launch season tickets, on price and that was something we had to be very mindful of. It’s a fine balance to strike of setting the right price point for the different packages. We wanted to look at what medium could be used to try and get across the messages we wanted to communicate, that we’re working hard as a club, we have a structure in place and that we want to try and re-energise our relationship with the fans. Naturally when we looked at that, there’s only so much you can do in print format or in written form. So we thought we’d go down the route of using video and music to help. The working title for the project was ‘Hibernian Rising’ and we tried to look at some imagery and video content that would symbolise that.
There are no new ideas out there, we pinched a few ideas of other campaigns, not necessarily from football, but things we liked and we saw elsewhere and we tried to apply that to the season ticket promotion. It created a lot of interest. You can measure it a few ways, in season ticket sales, YouTube views. I also quite like the intuitive side of things, the subjective stuff, I received a message from a friend of mine who’s a Hibs fan and he said that the video made him fall back in love with the club and for me that was a marker that it had hit the spot. It also helped me focus on the work that has to be done here at the club to try and get the fans back on board and make them all fall back in love with this football club.
From the season ticket video, to the kit launch videos. How does the process start, how do you come together to get the ideas formulated for that?
We started playing with the idea of falling back in love with the club, and the first step is that you need to show the other party that you’re serious about it and that you want to make changes. We achieved that to a certain extent with the season ticket video but when we got onto the kit launch videos we saw them as phase two and three of the same project.
What we were trying to say was ‘do you remember the good times we used to have? Do you remember when you got your first strip? Do you remember when you first came to Easter Road? Could you imagine the excitement of getting a chance to play with your heroes?’ We tried to build on that theme with videos two and three and it effected the choice of music that helped set the tone. We used symbols such as jumpers for goalposts which is a real throwback to our days playing in the streets, and also we got the likes of Archie Macpherson involved, who for me, was the voice of Scottish football. We brought all these things together and tried to create a positive feeling, a positive association between the club and the fanbase.
Importantly, a big part of that was linked to a discussion I had when I started here at the club. We spoke about how we wanted to kick the doors of this football club open to the local community. If you look at one of the scenes in the first video, we actually open the gates of the club to let the kids in. Even the very fact that we used fans of the club to star in the videos was part of that too. We said, ‘come on in, this is your club, you’re going to be the stars of this campaign’.
You mentioned music there, and that was one of the things I noticed in each of the videos, was the use of local bands, or resources close to home all part of the strategy?
It was for the first video. The idea was that everybody involved in that video was either from Leith or worked in Leith. It was through a local connection that we were introduced to the local band the Dark Jokes, who allowed us the use of their track. It was off the back of that we had a number of other bands approach us and say they’d like to help out. More and more we were connecting on Twitter with different bands, we were made aware of different artists who supported the club. Music can have such a massive impact on the video compared to just using stock music. We’re very lucky we’ve got a talented bunch of fans out there, who are very creative and have written some fantastic music. We’ve been honoured to work with them across these different campaigns.
I’ve really enjoyed Outside the Box so far, and it isn’t something I can remember another club in Scotland producing for the fans before. What was the thinking behind that?
One of my colleagues and I were coming back up from London from a meeting, and I was quizzing him on his motivations and his own role at the club and I asked ‘if you could change anything, what would you change?’ and he said he’d like to look at how we sell the club and to look to see if we could do it in a less serious manner, by targeting a younger audience. We kicked around a few ideas on the flight home and off the back of that we set up a pilot programme having secured the support of the football department who were completely on-board which makes our job 100x easier.
We did that pilot, polished it up, and pressed the button and waited for the reaction. It went down very well. We’re three episodes in now and we’re filmed for a fourth at the moment. There’s a few that maybe haven’t quite seen the light of day but you try things, you learn and you move on. It’s just an opportunity to engage with our fans, bring the players to life a little bit and also an opportunity to engage with local businesses, and you’ll have seen that one or two of our sponsors have been involved too. It’s not just us that are using digital media to speak to our fans, there are other brands and sponsors out there that want to do the same. It’s a great platform to do that in a different way to create some interesting content as opposed to simply badging our branding up around parts of the stadium. It’s worked well across a number of levels. From a staff motivation point of view, through to the relationship with the fans, and also the relationship we have with our players. Some of them have really enjoyed it, and they’re also looking at it as an opportunity for them to develop their skills and their media profiles.
You mentioned it there, but digital and social media is a huge part of any football clubs strategy these days, Hibs being no different I’m sure. Do you have specific strategies in place for both platforms and do they differ at all?
I wouldn’t say we have an over-arching masterplan if you like. Our overall objective is for us to be responsive to fans, to be more transparent, to lighten up a little bit and to try and share as much accurate information with the fans as possible. While, giving them platforms that they can engage with us on. What we’ll do on a platform by platform basis is obviously tweak the content. Some things you do replicate across both, and some things you push out one or the other depending on what the message or competition is for example. The great thing about social media is that you can try, and if it doesn’t work you can move on quite quickly from it. Things naturally evolve.
I’ve seen a number of different organisations with very advanced social media strategies that break down all the different platforms. We’ve got the over-arching communications objectives and we try and do our best on a day-to-day basis to make good calls on how to use the different platforms and we leave it to the guys in the office, who are talented and who’ve got a lot of ideas, and who, importantly, watch and learn from some of the best clubs and accounts out there to see what’s working to see if there’s good ideas or best practice that we can try and replicate.
One thing a few football clubs do is to bring back former players or club legends back as ‘club ambassadors’, do you think this is something that could work well for Hibs?
Yes, this is something we’re working away on. It’s something we certainly want to do, more activity with our former players going forward. It’s quite early days for me in that project, in terms of getting in the door. Certainly from my time at UEFA we had a very active and successful ambassador programme. We worked on events such as the Trophy Tour or various sponsor initiatives, you brought the former players or former winners of the Champions League along with you. They had fantastic stories to tell, were brilliant with the fans, taking photos or signing autographs or speaking to the media. It was a massive part of our promotional activity.
We’re not quite there yet with Hibs, but it’s certainly something that can be very effective when done well.
We’re coming very close to the month of August now, and for the city of Edinburgh it’s always a really important month, with it being the festival and also the start of the Scottish league season. Have you considered any way at all that the club could utilise the festival to boost the clubs profile and maybe attract some casual fans visiting the city for the month?
Yes, we have. We’re going to dip our toes in the water with that this year but I don’t want to give away too much on that front. It’s a work in progress so watch this space.
Partick Thistle’s strategy around the launch of their new mascot, Kingsley, was different to say the least. What’s your thoughts on that and are you of the opinion when you’re formulating your own plans that any PR is good PR?
I don’t think any PR is good PR when you’re at a football club. The territory is so sensitive that you need to measure the tone of your communications carefully and try and get it spot on. It can go quite badly wrong on social media in particular, so no I wouldn’t say any PR is good PR.
— Hibernian FC (@HibsOfficial) June 22, 2015
I have to admit, I loved the Partick Thistle campaign. I’m not sure it would have worked perfectly for Hibernian right here and now, for where we’re at, but I thought it was fantastic. They did a great job with it.
There’s always so much debate online and in the media about what Scottish football needs to do to get to the next level up, not even to try and compete with the global appeal and riches of the English Premier League, what’s your opinion on the topic?
I think it’s always challenging when you’re operating in a league or a country in the shadows of a powerhouse league such as the Premier League. What Scottish football can do, is we can make sure that we’re engaging and connecting with our fanbase. We can make sure we’re putting together a really good match-day experience that people really enjoy and want to come back to. We can also work as hard as possible to try and develop good, young players. If you do all of that, then you’ve got a fighting chance of being successful as a football club. There are clearly challenges when there are riches to be had over the border from a playing point of view. That’s no different to a number of other countries all over the world. What our focus should be on, is on the fans. Engaging with them, engaging with the communities around us and working hard to produce talented players and help them better themselves.
Do you feel limited at all as a football marketer, as arguably for fans, ultimately what happens on the pitch is the most important thing?
No, I don’t actually agree with that, otherwise there’s no point in me being here frankly. Clearly, on-field success has a massive impact on your business, but it’s our job to be there to either capitalise on sporting success when it goes well, or create a robust enough business that’s strong enough to survive the bumps and downturns in sporting performance.
Finally then, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give to anybody trying to break into the football business industry?
Go and volunteer. Go and get involved in your local club. Offer up your skills, whatever they may be. Make some contacts and impress them. My first job at a football club was managing the half time activities for the Richmond Kickers in America back in 1999. I had to collect Frisbees that were thrown onto the pitch at half time into a black bin bag. I had a fantastic time there on a three month voluntary placement, and from there you start building your contacts, getting a bit more experience, making the right connections. Through those contacts, hard work and energy, that’s the foundation to build a successful career in this game.
What’s clear is that Greig is hugely experienced in the football industry and it’s obvious he’s got the ambition and desire to take Hibernian Football Club back to the Scottish Premiership and their business activities up a level off the pitch. Thank you for taking the time to read the interview, hopefully you enjoyed it enough to share it.