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Martin Glenn: the marketer shaping English football's future

The Football Association chief executive sits down with Campaign to talk about how he is accelerating plans to modernise the way the governing body communicates with people at all levels of the national game.

Martin Glenn: the marketer shaping English football's future

Our interview took place just before Glenn delivered the keynote speech at the Marketing New Thinking Awards two days ago and amid a feverish few weeks at The Football Association. 

Glenn has had to contend with speculation about the potential sale of Wembley Stadium to US billionaire Shahid Khan and the departure of key lieutenant Dan Ashworth, The FA’s technical director.

However, it's obvious that his connection to the marketing world remains strong as he talks about the philosophy he has brought from roles at PepsiCo and United Biscuits to The FA. 

"When I was president of the Marketing Society, I used this line a lot: ‘All business failures are marketing failures.’ If you don’t stay in touch with what’s going on in the world, you will go out of business," Glenn says. "Healthy organisations – whether you’re running an elite football team or you’re Google or whatever – have to apply the same basic rules.

"Marketing is a philosophy, I think. It’s about being open to external influences, being analytical, trying to break down what your proposition is, and then being prepared to make life awkward for yourself."

The role of FA chief has a history of crushing the optimism and energy from hitherto dynamic businessmen – just ask former Saatchi & Saatchi chief Adam Crozier, who, prior to his reinvention as chief executive of Royal Mail and ITV, endured a turbulent spell leading the FA between 2000 and 2003.

Glenn arrived in 2015, teeth gritted and mind focused on the task of reinventing an organisation that he admits had been "stuck in [its] ways". Yet, like others before him, he soon found the path to progress blocked by the trouble that regularly gravitates towards the national game – from customary disappointment on the pitch, with the England team crashing out of Euro 2016 after defeat to Iceland, to tricky debates around racism that culminated in the departure of the England women’s team manager.

Sprawling mass

Unlike single brands, or even multi-brand organisations, The FA represents a sprawling mass of professional and amateur pursuits, from the 24 elite men’s, women’s and disability England teams to the tens of thousands of teams playing at all levels up and down the country.

With so many potential stakeholders to engage, it is perhaps little surprise that The FA has at times seemed a distant and aloof body – a remoteness that Glenn experienced first hand. "I did my level one coaching badge in 2003 and I was never contacted again by The FA to do anything else," he reveals.

Even on arrival three years ago, Glenn observed an organisation continuing to employ an "analogue" approach to communications. Players had to be registered by fax and marketing communications were conducted in the "old command-and-control style" he likens to Alastair Campbell at No10, rather than the openness that characterises the social media age.

"Especially with respect to the England team, it was a very wary relationship with the media. We thought we were going to be tripped up at every step, so we were consciously very risk-averse and probably scared of our own shadow a little bit," Glenn says.

Player database

With millions of engaged participants across the country, from players to volunteers, The FA is uniquely placed to grasp the needs of its stakeholders. However, until recently, this opportunity had been ignored and avoided, in part due to the sheer complexity involved.

Glenn recently discovered plans to create a player database from "back in the day". With "numbers so big", the project was abandoned. "They didn’t know quite how to get around it," Glenn suggests. Now, with most players using mobile phones to arrange teams and matches, it is easier than ever for The FA to understand its audience.

"We should know more about football than anyone else. We knew this was a big opportunity," he says. "There is a commercial benefit to that as well, as it makes us more attractive to our sponsors and allows us to target interventions more effectively. Big data was imperative, so we needed to start on that journey."

Like all consumer brands, The FA wants to create a "single participant view" of its customers (namely fans, players and volunteers). The collection of that data is a "challenge", Glenn admits. To get around it, the organisation is prioritising the development of "useful apps" to eliminate the need to make dozens of calls to assemble a squad for the following morning – in other words, improving the "UX of community football".

"We need to make the lives of people running grassroots, community football teams much easier through the provision of really good digital products and services, bringing it into modern lifestyle [and keeping] football the most popular game in England because it’s easy to play," Glenn explains.

Step change in performance

The euphoria brought about by the progress of Gareth Southgate’s team in the World Cup has provided much-needed goodwill for Glenn’s modernisation project, especially at an organisation where it can sometimes feel as though crisis lurks around every corner.

With England teams winning international tournaments at under-17, under-19 and under-20 levels, and the women’s team going into next year’s World Cup as one of the front-runners, Glenn says The FA must maintain this "step change in performance". He says: "Never again should we flame out in the group stages – we should be always getting through those and getting more consistency in tournaments."

The FA predicts women’s football will overtake netball in popularity by the end of next year – a surge in participation that Glenn argues is a "game changer" for the sport. Yet, while he believes that "good progress" is being made, much more has yet be done.

A combination of digital nous and "good creative thinking" are needed to ensure The FA achieves its goal of becoming the "best governing body in sport", he says, alongside challenging for men’s and women’s World Cup titles in 2022 and 2023, and doubling the size of the women’s game by 2020. These are all ambitions that could well be funded by the sale of The FA’s prized asset at Wembley.

"I bring it back to marketing – you need clarity, but you also need ambition. We didn’t have a plan, we did lots of worthy things, ‘best endeavours’, but we didn’t have a set of priorities," Glenn says. "Without it, you don’t create the change that you need internally. All the great brands have a clear desire to get somewhere and that focuses the organisation.

"It scares you slightly – an audacious goal always does. [But] we talk unashamedly about having a vision and marketing provides the tools to achieve that."

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