hooked on rugby (and its world cups!)

How great to see Argentina do Les Bleus last night. I’ve got a strange relationship with rugby union. I’ve never ever played it, nor even passed nor kicked a rugby ball and I still don’t understand the majority of its laws. Football’s always been my game. But at Cellnet in the late 80’s I was invited to my first match at Twickenham. One look round the west car park told me how affluent the rugby fan base was compared with football. We were involved in motorsport sponsorship but from those first impressions I figured that rugby might prove to be a better sporting association with which to market mobile phones. Let’s face it the only people who could realistically afford over £2000 for a phone which is what they cost then, were senior business guys and an awful lot of them were sat there singing ‘swing low’ (which by the way is truly dirgeful and would never get sung at a football ground).

My host was a guy called Tim Atkin who was from one of our promotional agencies. He was a larger than life character, sadly no longer with us, a bit dodgy but full of life. He always found a way to enjoy work and I like that. He introduced me to a guy called Mike Coley (I think that was his name) who headed up the RFU’s commercial team at the time. I could see why Tim and Mike got on – they were hewn from the same trunk and I liked him too. I’m sure I heard recently that Mike is no longer around too. Very sad. But they were great hosts that day and I recall England winning. The mood was good and it didn’t take me long to shake hands on a contra deal with Mike: Cellnet would supply the RFU with a number of cellphones with complimentary call value and the RFU would provide us with a box and some advertising benefits as an official supplier. It was one of the best deals I ever did. We started to build a more compelling corporate hospitality programme around rugby and it led the way to Cellnet, now O2, becoming the team sponsor.

The links between Cellnet and the RFU grew closer during the early 90’s and by the time of the ’95 RWC we were backing the England team out in S Africa as team sponsor on all leisure wear etc (no sponsor names are allowed on the shirts at RWC). There was some senior management changes taking place at Cellnet around this time and the incoming MD was a big England rugby fan. Gilly M and I were able to negotiate deal to become the full shirt sponsor once the changes had been effected and we were absolutely chuffed to see the company’s name on a major national team shirt. It showed how far the company had come in a short time and was of course a fantastic brand builder for Cellnet and later O2.

We came across lots of the rugby guys from our involvement with the team and continue to enjoy many friendships through the sport. Guys like Dallaglio, Johnson, Catt, the Hastings brothers, Carling, Greenwood, Ubogo, Bayfield, Evans, Moore, Davies, Andrews have been great to work with over the years. Just excellent. But a couple of guys in the early days were always brilliant company, Paul Rendall and the one and only Dean Richards. They were both team ‘judges’ I recall and judging by a couple of nights out I had with them they could never be described as justices of the peace. We took a series of guests out to S. Africa and in the Durban leg, where the England team were based, we had an absolute blast.

My career at Cellnet was lumbering along when I got the call to move back into BT, the parent company, to manage the company’s involvement in the ’99 RWC. It meant working for the guy with whom I’d fallen out on several occasions at Cellnet but he gave me a free-hand to manage the project and a light-rein in terms of management which was good of him. Then again the company were in a mess with the association with RWC. They were a long-way from finalising a sponsorship contract, which was complicated by BT also being a major supplier of communications services and online facilities to the event. I remember the first contract meeting there must have been at least 6 guys from IMG on behalf of the IRB and the same number on our side. It seemed like the legal guys were arguing over every word and line in the agreement (they’d been at it for over 6 months when i joined) and in the end we had to shot-gun the negotiations and put a time-limit on it for finalisation (we were running out of time to market the association).

I inherited a v small but really committed project team but they were drifting a bit. Tony and Linda were the core guys and Bob was the technical project lead. He left after a short while – I think he felt it was all too difficult and perhaps he was right. It was a challenging technical job with the event being spread across 18 venues I think throughout England, Wales, Scotland, N Ireland, Ireland and France. But John H came in and immediately started to make progress and I liked his get up and do attitude. We needed some extra resource and I got lucky when someone recommended Rebecca to me who came in on a contractor basis (his recommendation was that he would…men eh) and I actually paid some BT bloke a transfer fee from my budget for him to release Paul S to me for the duration of the project. Paul was working in some soulless BT office out in Beaconsfield or somewhere and he just came up and told me how much he’d love to work on the project. I didn’t realise how good he was but just thought I needed his commitment. These guys were all to become great colleagues and true friends. We introduced GK and Knapp Goodwin as our principal agency support and JH from Iluka to handle ticketing and event support. That was the essential team and it was just the best chemistry I’ve ever known from a group of guys. The one thing I did that was any good was to decide on their individual strengths and assign them project responsibilities to match those. Square pegs and all that.

The guys themselves delivered a great project for BT, even if the event itself was poorly conceived and organised. Too spread out geographically and time-wise. It never developed any momentum until the very final stages. My comments got picked up and made headline news in one of the marketing mags. BT insisted I go and apologise to the head of the IRB at the time – he was fine as it turned out as I think he realised I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Even so I could tell then how much the company would back you in the event of an ‘issue’ – there’s another story for later.

As to the project itself there were lots of highs and a few lows. Linda did some brilliant hospitality programmes involving 10,000 guests using many of our buildings as venues – particularly Stadium House right next to Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, transferring the staff cafe into an international style restaurant on match days. Our stuff in the village was super and Rebecca somehow ensured we got celeb after celeb to join our guests. We projected images onto one flank of the same building at night and installed the then largest banner in W Europe on the side over looking the stadium with a great big BT logo looming over the stadium roofline at the final. We had a major volunteer programme involving hundreds of staff which worked excellently. I had to leave Tony and John H to handle all the technical stuff particularly the liaison with the media centres and they did a near-perfect job over those 6 weeks. Paul developed this idea of ‘sweating the BT assets’ which resulted in millions of RWC logos appearing on BT mailings like bills, promotional items; on many of the company’s 35000 vehicles and 140000 pieces of street furniture.

On the down-side I remember the day our sister company in France decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t service the technical supply throughout France and Tony and I had to go and re-negotiate a supply arrangement with IRB via France Telecom. My predecesor had effectively held two fingers up to FT at an earlier stage claiming that BT would have no problems handling all telecomms supply in France. Hhmm. I have to say that my French counterpart was extremely gracious but attracted a heavy pound of flesh from my corporate embarrassment. But we (JH!) got it sorted and I was able to trade off to FT many of our marketing benefits in France (in lieu of cash) which were destined for our sister company – they got jack shit from me.

Working on that project was the single most enjoyable event in my career – at least until we did the Premier sponsorship of the London 2012 bid. Maybe it’s the time-limit aspect I enjoy so much, the pressure to get everything to come to a successful conclusion at a point in time. A bit like cooking a great meal? Even for me that’s a bit of a stretch.

Anyway we declined to become a sponsor at RWC 2003 but there’s was just something in the air with that event that made us think this was England’s moment. Rebecca who’d long left BT to set up her own company, ens ltd (check out the link on the right hand side of the main site), had an idea for a dinner with the team after the end of the tournament hosted at the Houses of Parliament. Rebecca found the MP contact who got us use of the Members Room and though her contacts in the team we got a verbal commitment from them to turn up to a dinner on the Friday following the final. At this stage of course England were still playing in the early stages of the tournament but we just had a feeling that it wouldn’t end in tears this time (I hoped not because a lot of important guests had been invited and KG had built a great set for us in the HoP).

And so it proved. Incredibly England won the RWC of course in a thrilling final. I watched the match at Mike and J’s house with a huge bunch of mates – the best way to enjoy it. The England team returned as heroes and that first week back for them was just incredible with the open top bus tour, visits to Downing St and the Palace etc. But their last commitment was with us on the Friday night at the HoP. Would they turn up? Several of the team had a club match over the weekend unbelievably. We knew that and that those guys in the team wouldn’t be able to attend of course. But all of the non-committed guys turned up led by Johnno (Rebecca did fantastically well to ensure this). They really must have been busting to get home but they came to our celebratory dinner, stayed until the sergeants at arms were throwing us out (not too energetically) and put on a fantastic event for our guests, signing everything presented to them -not least from the HoP staff! Simply brilliant guys.

That was my first dinner with World Champions and last week I was at the O2 to have another dinner with the team, and a few hundred other people of course, before they left for France. I’ve never played the bloody game but it’s kind of got its tentacles into me. I can’t wait to watch the match this evening though there’ll be a lot of channel-hopping to catch the footie too (which f*ckwit arranged that?). I haven’t quite got the same feeling about England this time but hey Argentina showed last night what a committed team can achieve. A bit like Tony, Linda, Paul, Rebecca and John. Top guys.

p p

This entry was posted in memories of work, rugby and tagged , , , by Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

About Paul

Having decided on a change of life by moving home from the UK to Italy, this is the story and thoughts of a man on a personal journey from the Blackpool Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in search of la dolce vita. After several olive harvests he's now back in London but en route he shares his very personal perspectives on life.

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