The FA's Martin Glenn: 'All business failures are marketing failures... even English football'

Glenn: speaking at Marketing Society Braver Conference
Glenn: speaking at Marketing Society Braver Conference

The football body studied what other sports had done well in attempt to end England's 'tournament doom cycle', chief executive says.

Tackling the deep-seated challenges facing the England football team has required a total rejection of sacred cows and established ways of doing things, according to Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn.

Speaking at the Marketing Society’s Braver Conference in London, Glenn outlined what he referred to as the "doom cycle" of England’s experience in recent tournaments before 2018.

He said it consisted of six stages: hyper expectations, dawning realisation, bitter recrimination, inquest, forget and repeat.

"What English football was guilty of was always looking for a messiah – some kind of inspirational leader to take the team to the next level, rather than a reboot of the whole way that we organised things," Glenn said. "We had to change almost every preconception about how we organise tournament football."

The former Walkers marketer said his challenge at The FA was not so far away from his former life in FMCG.

"I don’t care whether you’re a football team or a crisp company – you need to have ambition and purpose, great people, and you need to be open to outside influences," he said. "I’ve always said that all business failures are marketing failures, and I think that’s been true of English football."

To illustrate the conservative attitudes he has had to overcome at The FA, Glenn shared an experience of speaking at The FA Council – a body representing local associations – shortly after he started in 2015.

After he used that talk to outline the more sophisticated approaches other Europeans countries were taking to player development, he was told it was "outrageous" that the chief executive of The FA should cite Germany as a role model.

Changing things had to "start with a degree of humility", Glenn said: "Guess what, you can learn from other sports."

Rather than assuming that football’s popularity meant it had a monopoly on knowledge, he looked to sports including Australian rules and rugby union.

This included not just training and fitness ideas, but how other sports approached the media. "The whole posture was incredibly defensive," he said.

Glenn and his team met with the NFL to discuss how it dealt with the media, leading to an approach he called "more open, which helped to take the weight off the players".

One key moment that revealed how far the media situation had shifted was when reporters were invited to the England training centre, St George's Park, before the World Cup and Danny Rose opened up about his struggles with depression – a revelation that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years earlier.

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If you can’t have an inflatable unicorn race after a win, when can you? ??

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Embracing social media as a way to "disintermediate the way the players are projected" has also been key to overhauling the image of the team. This ultimately helps them perform, according to Glenn.

He explained: "We thought, if these players were going to be authentic, they had to be able to express themselves personally."

Glenn also defended the decision to announce the World Cup squad through the unconventional launch film created by Wieden & Kennedy. "The traditionalists didn't like it, but what it did was set the tone in a different manner," he argued.

The decision to bring Wayne Rooney out of retirement for a farewell appearance against the US tonight (15 November) was another example of embracing new ideas, according to Glenn.

"We’ve never done this kind of thing before for former players," Glenn said. "But we felt and the players felt that former stars haven’t been treated that well, so why not try something different?

"Football’s conservative and it’s the national religion. Any initiative we try, a third of the population will think I am a total idiot. But, with this, what could go wrong, what’s the downside?"

The FA's chief commercial and football development officer, Mark Bullingham, is speaking at Campaign's FutureFit event on 26 February 2019.

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