Profile: Working on the perfect pitch

LONDON - Simon Freedman, group head of marketing at The FA, is focusing on making the brand more distinctive

Profile: Working on the perfect pitch

Just a few years ago, Simon Freedman was selling rice pudding to supermarkets. As a senior brand manager at Dairy Crest, he was trying to gain FMCG marketing experience before moving into sports marketing, a career he had coveted since the age of 18.

As group head of marketing at The Football Association, the 38-year-old is now living the career he dreamed of, once he had ruled out playing professionally as an option. His responsibilities include marketing the England team, the FA Cup and Wembley Stadium, and persuading people to get involved in the game.

Unfortunately for Freedman, three years into the job, he has a problem. As the England team prepares for its opening match of the World Cup against the USA, The FA has its own battles to fight.

Trouble off the pitch

The organisation's brand partners, which include Mars, Adidas, Coca-Cola and E.ON, are under siege. Rivals such as Nestle, Nike and Pepsi are testing them to breaking point by running football-themed ad campaigns to coincide with the World Cup. Nestle's Kit Kat campaign has so incensed Mars, which is investing more than £10m in its five-year partnership with The FA, that it is considering taking legal action.

It's a topic the enthusiastic Freedman speaks candidly about as he gives me a tour of Wembley's gleaming corridors. His frankness is understandable: success for the official sponsors means success for The FA, and anything that dilutes these powerful partnerships will hit the organisation's bottom line hard.

'It's serious because Mars has paid an awful lot of money,' says Freedman. 'If a key competitor is trying to steal some of that glory, it doesn't rub off favourably on us. We're a not-for-profit organisation, so we rely on our commercial partners to keep the lifeblood going. If we constantly get ambushed, it means we have to try harder and harder to track brand effectiveness for our sponsors, and the whole basis of The FA would fall apart.'

This is why Freedman has been working to make The FA an even more distinctive brand. A redesign of England's famous three lions badge may have been derided by sceptics as an expensive tweak, but there is method to his strategy. He wants to give sponsors distinctive assets that they can use in their marketing and rivals will find harder to replicate.

Freedman, whose composed demeanour betrays little of the pressure he faces in protecting The FA's official partnerships, believes the Nestle situation will cool down soon and predicts that media spend for its Kit Kat campaign will drop rapidly in the wake of the controversy.

A northerner and passionate Leeds United fan who lives in the Chelsea heartland of Surrey, Freedman wrote his university thesis on football hooliganism, so angry marketing directors should present no significant difficulties.

'Coke pays a lot of money around the World Cup - it has signed up until 2022, and Pepsi wants a piece of that action,' says the former Coca-Cola marketer. 'They are two big global brands and if Pepsi can jump on the back of Coke's partnership and get exposure without paying for the rights, it is going to do that. It's the same with Nike and Adidas. If you look at consumers' perception of the World Cup, Nike sometimes isn't that far behind Adidas, despite not being an official sponsor.'

To appease the official partners, Freedman has devised some smart marketing ideas. For FA Cup headline sponsor E.ON, for example, he wanted to offer something beyond a name on stadium hoardings.

'For the past two years we have taken a truck around the country with the FA Cup,' he says. 'It was an interactive experience and added something extra, rather than E.ON just hanging ribbons on the trophy. We added value that got it to key customers and secured media coverage.'

Freedman claims that the number of media headlines devoted to his brands - if you include the England team, FA Cup and Wembley - is third only to the government and the Queen. In common with the other two, however, it's not always good news.

Take the recent Lord Triesman incident. While Freedman and his colleagues have been working to get the nation behind the bid to host the 2018 World Cup - they placed outdoor ads, featuring an open letter from team manager Fabio Capello, in all 28 England bid cities - the FA chairman was allegedly telling a close acquaintance about plans by Russians and Spaniards to bribe referees at this summer's tournament.

'Ideally, it wouldn't have happened, but the bid team has reacted incredibly well,' says Freedman. 'There's a lot of work happening in South Africa that will not just repair relationships, but enhance them beyond what they were. It would have been a lot worse if it had happened in November. I think we have enough stuff happening between Triesman leaving and the decision being made in December.'

While one has come to expect the behaviour of footballers to occasionally tarnish the reputation of the England team, the Triesman story was an unexpected blow. With the long lead times involved in hiring a top executive, The FA is not expected to be able to replace him in time for the December deadline, leaving the organisation rudderless at a crucial time.

For all at The FA, it provides more murky waters to navigate when what everyone really wants to concentrate on is football.

Last year, following a merger of The FA and Wembley marketing teams, Freedman took on the challenge of improving the image of the £775m national stadium and doing his bit to help repay the massive loans required to rebuild it. Since then, The FA has been lambasted for the sub-standard surface of its once-hallowed turf.

'It's been a tough time with the pitch,' he says. 'If we only played football here, our payback time would be significantly longer, but to make it a viable business we have to host live events here.'

Freedman admits The FA has made mistakes, but says that 'brand Wembley' will be stronger next season, when there are plans to use technology to enhance the experience.

If England were to win the World Cup, Freedman's job would become significantly easier. The value to brands of association with England would be high and his stock would rise with the nation's mood.

Come 11 July, and hopefully no sooner, we will find out whether the team has succeeded. If so, the problem pitch, along with the Triesman affair and the battle of the brands, will be long forgotten and those packs of rice pudding will be an even more distant memory.

Inside work
1997-2002: Various sales and marketing roles, Nestle
2003-04: Senior brand manager, Dairy Crest
2004-07: Football marketing manager, Coca-Cola GB
2007-present: Group head of marketing, The Football Association
Outside work
Family: Married with two children
Favourite football team: Leeds United
Favourite player: Lionel Messi
Tip for World Cup success: Spain (other than England)
Favourite pastime: Playing golf