Stay away from our All Blacks Kevin Roberts

The dumb as anything Abstain from Sex for the All Blacks campaign was something pushed for by Saatchi and Saatchi’s CEO Kevin Roberts. I’m sure he is an awesome bloke, but some of his advertising-agency-driven recommendations seem way off kilter.

Conflict of interest?

The Abstain campaign was devised by Roberts, as an excellent Press article by Neil Reid and Paloma Migone states:

“…Global Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts defended the ads.
The high-profile advertising company was responsible for the concept and delivery of the campaign.”

Telecom has Kevin Roberts as a board member, and the NZRFU used to have him on their board, so I am guessing the Telecom staff never really stood a chance against his positional and assumed NZRU insider knowledge power. It’s not a matter of whether he exercised that power, it’s the simple fact that he has it, so others find it difficult to go against it.

So while Roberts is on the Telecom board, he also created the concept and his company was going to earn ongoing money for the campaign. I cannot see what happens in the boardroom, but this certainly has the ability to create a tough situation.

How, for example, would you as an employee react when a board member and the board member’s company strongly advocates a certain course of direction? You could argue that you’d get the feeling that no matter what you did the decision had already been made far above you, and thus accept it as one of those internal political battles better left un-fought. I am certain that many of the rank and file inside Telecom NZ were appalled at the campaign, and the Reid and Migone article quotes one “Makes me want to work elsewhere, everyone is so embarrassed about it.

I also feel for the more senior people, who perhaps felt pressured (whether applied directly or not) into this, and thus not giving enough consideration to the issue and enabling such a poor decision.

The Governance implications for Telecom

Board members should not, as a rule, be doing other external business with the company they are governing, and this is a wonderful example of the perils of such.

The Telecom Board Charter states that “The Board must affirmatively determine that the Director does not have a material relationship (other than solely as a consequence of being a Director); and disclose the basis for this determination in the annual report.” Roberts would fall under the material relationship clause which states “A relationship as a principal of a material professional adviser, a material consultant to the Company or Group or an employee materially associated with the service provided, or employed in an executive capacity by the Company or Group held at any time within the past three years.” This is all recognised in the 2010 annual report, which states that Roberts is “Not Independent

The other document to examine in these sorts of situations is Telecom’s Code of Ethics, which states “A conflict of interest occurs when an individual’s interests interfere, or appear to interfere, with Telecom’s interests. Telecom expects its people to act in Telecom’s best interests at all times.

All in all I am concerned at potential governance implications, and I hope that Telecom’s board is as well.

Credit to Telecom

The Abstain campaign was laughed out of NZ before launch – although we really didn’t know whether to cry. Telecom were very lucky that the campaign leaked before going live and kudos to the person that did so. I do wonder whether the leak was the only way some believed the campaign could be stopped, given the internal politics.

Whatever the reason for the leak, Telecom were good and nimble enough to stop defending the indefensible and cancel the campaign before it launched. The Telecom of 5 years ago would not have managed that last minute save, and while we all make mistakes, they deserve credit for realising it and making the right call.


Kevin Roberts recently blogged that he liked the Adidas Rugby shirt (so do I), but was silent on the furor that accompanied the launch, when the local NZ prices were well over those of overseas. Adidas themselves (not a Saatchi and Saatchi client) mishandled that hopelessly, and as a result the company lost tremendous brand equity here. A really strong sign of diminished brand equity is when punters burn your logo in the streets and nobody really cares, or when people with your logo on their car remove it to stop harassment.

15 ideas of Dubious Merit

But Neil Reid wrote another article, where he notes that Roberts would like to do more – a lot more – to the All Blacks. The headline, “Roberts: Sell ABs dressing room access” hints at the list.

Roberts had 15 ideas – so let’s look at them all. But let me start by making the comment that 15 ideas is about 12 too many for any business to absorb. The administrators and players first have to prepare for and win rugby – anything else is a distraction.

1: Re-frame rugby at every level as a real family, social option

While that sounds good in theory – the details are where this will go off the rails.

“Look at what Stade Francais are doing in Paris. Flowery team jerseys, massive social networking. We need to move Super 15 games closer to 20/20 Cricket, NBA matches and pop concerts.”

Firstly, and it’s a cheap shot I know, but taking social network advice from a guy whose blog resides on rather than on his site is a bit rich. More importantly it’s clear to me that rugby fans and players in New Zealand are not exactly as ready as the French for flowers on team jerseys, and I suspect such would be treated with the same sort of contempt as the abstain campaign.

I’ve been to a lot of rugby matches, some NBA games and 20/20 matches, Wellington 7s and pop concerts. They are different things with different purposes and expectations. The Wellington sevens is our Mardi Gras, and only comes out to play once a year. The NBA is a sad league, playing hundreds of meaningless matches and in a decline since the Age of Jordan. 20/20 is revitalising cricket though a format change, just as sevens has done the same for rugby. Test match rugby and cricket still remain the true form of the game, regardless of the machinations of the marketers.

2. Develop a super-amped global All Blacks community.

With real intimate, exclusive contact. Behind the scenes stuff. Dressing room/training ground banter. Player proper truthful post-match analysis.

I already follow a few All Blacks and other players on Twitter, and we get that. I could not find Kevin Roberts’ Twitter account.

We’d also be smart not to allow the mystique of the All Blacks to be punctured, and just like the SAS they have to build an elite team and anything else is a distraction.

Roberts goes on:”A global, premium social network of rugby people interacting around the AB’s. 250,000 members x $74 = $18.75 million!

That’s not how I understand social networking works. While using free tools like Twitter and Facebook works, charging people to come to a site or receive marketing email does not work.

3. Build the global brand, especially in emerging markets.
We need to deepen and broaden our fan base geographically in a similar way to what ManU has done in China, Chelsea in Africa, the Lakers and the Yankees globally, opening the door for sales of merchandise, videos and training materials.

The spread of rugby is doing this already, led by the Rugby World Cup and the international Sevens. Last year’s Tri Nations match at Hong Kong was also an attempt, and the rise of Rugby as a sport and the All Blacks as the team to beat will continue. But this isn’t something that can be forced. I suggest watching the movie Invictus (or, better, read the book) to see just how hard it is to bring rugby to the majority of a nation that is already dominant in the sport. Bringing the sport to somewhere like China will take considerable time, while the energy is being spent in the right way, we cannot over-indulge in money and marketing.

New Zealand sport is first and foremost a participation one, and we can only hold the All Blacks up as the team to beat to countries that actually play the sport in the first place. Our objective should first be to expand the global niche of rugby playing itself before following the classic Better By Design advice and owning that global niche.

4. Develop an All Blacks training, fitness and leadership programme.
On-line. Off-line. For individuals and corporates.

I’d rather they played rugby. Really.

If some All Black alumni want to form such a company then they should go for it – and hopefully Kevin would stand up as an early funder. Even better – some All Blacks and the coaches are already peripherally engaged in TheRugbySite, and passing on Rugby training tips for money.

5. Host an NZRU school sports tournament every year.
Different age groups. All Black participation in training and leadership (old players). Sub contract to sports tour specialists.

This one has been running for 33 years, and the NZ Secondary Schools Sports Council runs stuff as well. NZRU stays out of running schools rugby, simply recognising a national All Blacks Secondary Schools team that is run by the New Zealand Schools Rugby Council. It seems to have worked for the last century of so.

6. Play more Sevens at School/Club level.

I found 162,000 results for a Google search for: secondary school rugby sevens

7. Bring on the Women.
Include female Board members at every level of the game.

I’d rather worry about ensuring that the board members were the right mix of skills, concern myself more with ethnic mix than gender for a sport that is male dominated. However I would also point out that many rugby clubs are already being run by women – they just haven’t let the men know about it yet.

8. Ensure every seat is sold for every Test match.
Make it unforgiveable for a stadium manager to have an unsold seat at an All Blacks Test match.

I absolutely agree with this. Pricing tickets for stadiums or aircraft is a solvable science, and yet we see empty seats everywhere at rugby and other sports grounds.

The GFC is blamed for a drop-off in ticket sales, but it’s equally arguable that poor selling techniques have been used. Test match revenue is core.

Here’s where Kevin goes off the rails a bit, in my opinion. Firstly, Test Match revenue is not core – having people watching and participating in the sport is the primary goal. Just as Steve Jobs would always put the product experience first, so too should rugby. Its about the beauty of the game, the contest, the crowd and the fun.

There is plenty of scope for increasing the effectiveness of marketing tickets, but the primary concern to almost every New Zealander is the price. It’s just not right to charge hundreds of dollars for a family to attend a match of any sort, and the prices for RWC and super rugby are abhorrent for some. Get smart and price using the sort of techniques that airlines do, so that we each pay a number that gives value, and we fill stadiums.

9. Follow the British example and invest in one 80,000 seater home pitch stadium in Auckland
It should have a huge naming rights sponsor. Play all our big tests there and ensure there are stacks of high price corporate boxes, and special new, low cost family seating.

Sorry – the opportunity to build that stadium has passed, and the idea of not spreading the tests throughout the country is clearly putting money ahead of the sport.

10. The First XV
15 lifelong debentures that pass from father to sibling or back to the NZRU. Access to all areas (equal to NZRU chairman), special access to team/sponsor events, hotels/training, and one annual dressing room visit. Super, super exclusive. $1 million each.

The most hated 15 people in New Zealand. Let the players play, and let the coaches and players decide who they hang out with.

11. Offer corporations individual player sponsorships. 45 players at different options. Five days work per player per sponsor, split 50:50 player and NZRU. A $2 million annual return.

The players do great work for charity and sponsors now. Enough – let the players play, they are not slaves to be sold and purchased.

12. Change the model of game revenue distribution.
We get hammered fiscally on the November Tour. We get the glory. The British get the money. The crowds come to see the All Blacks.

That’s life I’m afraid, but it would be a great achievement. Why not lead by example and start by being more generous to the Pacific Islands? A game in the islands each year or two and a PI team in the Super Rugby competition is well overdue.

13. Appoint the world’s best foreign exchange managers.
Significant elements of NZRU’s profit/loss scenarios comprise management of foreign exchange. NZRU need to ensure they have the Goldman Sachs of foreign exchange on their team.

Goldman is not a great example these days sadly, as they may have made themselves a lot of money, but their clients were not treated so well in the GFC. However the NZRU should certainly stick to playing rugby and their treasury function should be prudent in managing foreign exchange risk. It’s really not that hard. Appointing an external adviser to play the markets is an invitation to ruin.

14. Bring on the Women (again!).
If women make 80% of the purchasing decisions, why then is NZ rugby a women-free zone?

Spoken like a marketer – not a rugby fan. Get to a game and you’ll see plenty of women.

15. Get famous by committing to film.
Get inside the AB’s heads, their training; the AB’s in Camp a must-watch programme for NFL, NBA, Premiership etc players. This is the serious business of being the best team in the history of world sports. For other elite sports, coaches and teams to learn from.

See 1:, 2:, 4:, 10: and 11:. The All Blacks are great rugby players, and have a limited life to be so. By all means let the former All Blacks do a movie, but we’d all rather the actual All Blacks played rugby.

It’s not fair to criticize and not contribute, and give credit to Kevin Roberts for throwing these ideas out there. So here are my suggestions.

My Suggestions

1: Focus on the values and passion, not the money

Too many decisions are made with dollars at stake. Signing with Adidas back in the day was a classic example in an era where money came first. The decision was to choose foreign dollars over our local icon – the Canterbury Clothing Company. So over the years following while almost every other international team wore our clothes, our national team was wearing clothes from a country, Germany, that simply doesn’t care about rugby. We’ve yet to win a World Cup wearing anything but Canterbury, and the movement of the sponsorship certainly contributed to the demise of Canterbury’s path to successfully conquer the world.

Every commercial decision should be made with reference to the values of the game of rugby and the All Blacks. Those values are things like of integrity, playing hard but fair, winning, strong integration with Maori culture, participation, stunning teamwork, acceptance of players of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds and of being proudly New Zealand. Would NZRU have reacted in the same non-committal way to the Adidas and Telecom errors of judgement if they used these values? If they had, then the response would have been as powerful and as controlled as an All Black team playing a minnow. All parties would have been told what to do and when, or where to get off the bus.

2: Reduce the number of top-level games

The NBA, Baseball, NRL, AFL and even Football (soccer) suffer from big game fatigue. There are only so-many must-win games that we really want to care about, but forcing the issue through extended final series, multiple games and enlarged competitions makes us stop caring. Bring back the true must-win games by reducing the number of overall and critical matches.

A start would be to reduce the Super 15 back to say 10 or 12 teams, and use a promotion/relegation approach, potentially eliminating one team from each country each year.  Towards the end of the season the bottom teams will be scrapping to stay off the bottom, as the losers would play the best of the rest in order to stay in the competition the following season. That will make every game exciting at all ends of the season.

Let’s also put a Pacific Islands team in the mix – they deserve the spot and we know its the best thing for the game.

3: Fill the stadiums, and the grounds

I’m with Kevin on this one, if not for the same reasons. We have a huge opportunity to energize a new generation of rugby fans by using clever pricing to ensure that we fill every stadium. Give Air New Zealand a call, and ask them to help with revenue management, and while you are at it switch to a punter friendly ticketing system. If it means last minute $5 tickets for some games, then let’s do it.

Let’s also keep doing everything we can to fill the grounds with players each Saturday. Perhaps some more links with the top level rugby matches, even something as basic as recognising the senior grade or top schools winners over the PA at matches.

Published by Lance Wiggs


6 replies on “Stay away from our All Blacks Kevin Roberts”

  1. You could also focus on filling up your own stadiums rather than those in Hong Kong and wherever else you play certain tri nations and Bledisloe cup matches and demonstrate to the NZ fans that you value them rather than chasing the big bucks. To play a 6 Nations match outside of the competing countries would be unforgivable in the Northern Hemisphere.


  2. Lance,
    It’s interesting that Telecom ignored the focus group that was the campaign was tested with. One member of the group rang Radio Live last week to say the focus group almost unanimously and strongly against the campaign.
    Yet they still did it.
    Just dumb.


  3. Lance
    You probably know that the money in rugby (and all professional sport) is mostly from TV rights. The value of those rights is increased when stadiums are full, which supports your argument. However the RWC contract only leaves the host nation with stadium tickets as a source of revenue – hence the NZRU is left trying to fill its budget hole with high-priced ticket sales.
    If anyone is to blame here it is the IRB and its cronys who created the RWC financial structure to fund its own war chest.
    regards, Jim


  4. Having worked for similar firms to Telecom, I’d suggest that 99.9% of Telecom (and certainly all the people who do something useful) would have had no inkling of this until they saw it in the paper. I’d think there are probably a handful of people on the flag-wrapping commitee who signed off on the “campaign”.


  5. I’ll start by being honest that I don’t really “like” rugby as such: not so much the game itself, which is a fine enough game as far as I can see, but the whole enforced-consumption-down-your-throat aspect of it which appears to be represented by Mr Roberts above.

    The problem to me seems to be the blind assumption that “everyone” secretly wants to go to watch it, or *should* be into it as some kind of essential component for being a citizen, and that this assumed gut impulse can be monetised. Its no use complaining about unsold seats if there just aren’t enough people interested, and you won’t get people interesed by treating the whole thing as a commercial exercise. The idea that the power of advertising and making tiers of artificial exclusivity will somehow perk up people’s interest is laughable.

    For an outsider to the sport, at least, it is only made *less* attractive by this blatant commercialism.


  6. Focus groups are usually the last bunch of people you should listen to, as they get carried away and wear bogus expert hats rather than being who they’re supposed to be – average people.

    Must be one of the few times a focus group got it right in other words.

    Interesting that Sean Fistpatrick didn’t mind the campaign too.


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