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Diary of a CEO

Philippe Blatter


Philippe Blatter

Since joining Infront Sports & Media as president and chief executive in 2005, Philippe Blatter has presided over a period of unprecedented growth and diversification. Over the last seven years, Infront has gone into new sports, new geographies and new business modes; staff numbers have doubled, and event days and revenues have tripled. Earlier this year, Blatter gave SportsPro a month-long snapshot of his life, and a behind-the-scenes tour of his working world. By James Emmett. Photographs by Graham Fudger.

Tuesday 12th February - Milan, Italy


oday I’m in Milan spending the day with Marco Bogarelli, president of Infront Italy, one of our biggest subsidiaries. We are joining our digital experts and the business development team as we strategically review the group’s positioning in digital media – an exciting new frontier for our industry and vital in terms of the future direction of sports marketing. Getting the digital media unit up to speed and contributing across all areas of our business is a key target for us. The objective is threefold: we want to support rights holders in generating digital media value for their sports content, we’re detecting cutting-edge solutions for sponsors that focus on embracing fuller sponsorship activation opportunities across all available platforms, and we’re also creating formats for digital operators themselves, helping to monetise their assets. Our involvement in Italian football goes back to a major media rights advisory agreement with Lega Calcio in 2008. However, our role expands beyond this, as we cover all aspects of the media value chain – from host broadcasting of the matches, to post production and creation of magazine programmes, to digital media exploitation and archive management. But we go even deeper with some of our Italian team clients, most comprehensively with AC Milan. I try to follow all the teams that we have in our portfolio. Not as a fan, per se, but rather from a neutral position. Nevertheless I’m maybe a little bit closer to AC Milan, having been at the San Siro many times and knowing the people quite well. We have worked with AC Milan for four years and the club provides a great example of how the Infront group tends to grow organically by adding services for current clients. With AC Milan, we started with sponsorship, then created AC Milan’s digital media solution – Milan Media Factory – and we’re now considering further areas such as the stadium or the hospitality – always trying to expand our support. If you

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Infront’s four-year-old alliance with AC Milan is its deepest in Italian soccer

work well with a client, and deliver successfully, then it’s much easier to have a discussion about expanding your envelope of work than initialising collaboration with a completely new client. Besides an increase of 22 per cent in revenues that AC Milan reported and assigned mainly to Infront’s sponsorship marketing success, I’m particularly proud of the social media work we’ve done for the team. They now have almost 16 million Facebook followers and the dedicated YouTube channel has had 16 million minutes of viewed footage, which makes them one of the most followed clubs in Europe. The biggest challenge is to establish successful business models for the digital era and that’s where we want to be pioneering. The industry is not there yet and we will not make the mistake of disregarding our broadcast clients. The aim is rather to take them along with us in an environment of changing viewer habits. As of today, traditional broadcast platforms still account for 95 per cent of our sports media rights revenues and we are still registering increased TV audiences for our properties every year.

Infront Sports & Media president and chief executive Phillippe Blatter, pictured at the company’s headquarters in Zug, Switzerland on Tuesday 7th May

Wednesday 20th February - Moscow, Russia I was giving interviews in 2006 and people were telling me that the agency business was about to disappear. Fifa had not prolonged its big media rights contract with Infront and the industry was expecting further internalisations from other rights holders. As a result, I – together with my team and Infront’s late chairman Robert Louis-Dreyfus – undertook a major strategic review and developed a new corporate structure and philosophy – the one which guides us today. It builds on a more diversified rights portfolio, a full-service approach and long-term business models with our partners. We are now in 2013 and Infront has never been as strong as it is today. I joined the company in 2005 and since then it has doubled in size. We now have over 500 people working for the group in 20 offices across ten countries around the world. The latest subsidiary to open was in Paris in November. We don’t yet have an office in Russia, but we have some well-established relationships in the country and I am in Moscow today to meet with clients and stakeholders from some of the properties we work on behalf of. Establishing a

sustainable foothold in new markets is a long-term process. However, much of it is about understanding, learning from and respecting the local culture. The BRIC countries are particularly important as there is of course significant growth potential. Emerging markets are contributing 60 per cent of the global ad volume and sport is gaining relevance along with the development of the affluent middle classes in these markets. There are various aspects of the Russian market that show great potential – highly competitive sports, large fan groups and an active advertising economy to name a few. We work with the Kontinental Hockey League and the 2018 Fifa World Cup organisers, and will continue to be in the country with FIS World Cup and IBU World Cup Biathlon events as well as the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. It’s actually a good example of the spread of sports Infront is involved with now – having diversified away from football as the key pillar. I was watching TV the other day and even surprised myself how omnipresent we were with our portfolio. On the one weekend, we had ten matches of Serie A, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) league in eight cities, some handball qualifiers, and huge media coverage across

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cover story | a month in the life

Europe on our winter sports properties. We represent 25 sports in total now, and have relationships with over 120 rights holders around the world. Sunday 24th February - Guangzhou, China We’ve been the CBA’s exclusive marketing partner since I joined Infront and I love coming over to China to see how the domestic sport is progressing. It’s a completely different proposition to what it was in 2005 and much of the credit for that must go to our Chinese subsidiary in Beijing, which is led by Ma Guoli. This weekend I’m over in Guangzhou in the south of the country to visit the team, meet with partners and follow this year’s CBA All-Star game. Ma Guoli was COO for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (BOB) and had many good offers after the Games. It took me a lot of persuasion and stamina to get him on board as managing director of Infront China, but it was more than worth it. We have been able to position Infront in the flourishing Chinese market, build up a strong track record in the commercialisation of its properties and turn the market into an important growth engine for the entire group. The strength of Infront China also enabled us to launch the Gateway China Initiative, which is designed to provide European companies and sports properties with access to the Chinese market and vice versa. We’ve seen a lot of western companies like UPS and Tissot in Chinese basketball for a number of years already, but the most recent success story was the adaptation of the European entertainment show Art on Ice for the Chinese market. There are 50 people working at Infront China, mostly locals who know the habits and customs in the market. They literally enable us to do it the Chinese way. But we have also been able to successfully transfer our global expertise to this local team and – with this combined approach – managed to build Chinese basketball into a very fruitful commercial proposition. In fact, besides the evident commercial success the Chinese subsidiary also became a shining example of our global corporate culture. Infront was founded in early 2003, assuming the rights of what was KirchSport AG, a company that had originated from Swiss marketing companies CWL and Prisma Sports & Media. When I joined in 2005 I noticed very strongly that people kept introducing themselves as a former KirchSport, CWL or Prisma employee, and I worked hard with my team over the last seven years to build a consistent Infront culture. When talking to people throughout our group you will notice this ‘one team’ philosophy that has been pretty much incorporated. And the ‘one’ has two different aspects. Firstly, we want to be number one in the areas where we are active – coming second is just not enough. In business it is the same as in sports, you remember only the winners, and that’s what we want us but most importantly our clients to be. And secondly, ‘one’ team as opposed to a fragmented group. We have made some company acquisitions over the years and the crucial element of integration is to make people feel that each staff member and subsidiary is contributing to the joint success of the

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Infront was founded in 2003, with Blatter coming in as president in 2005

group. This is why we also foster a habit of knowledge transfer across the group, trying to leverage what was implemented successfully in one market in another. I am spending a lot of effort and thought making this work, exemplifying this culture through behaviour and actions. It’s rather a soft skill, but nevertheless absolutely crucial for our overall success. Friday 1st March - Zug, Switzerland Today I’m meeting with members of our endurance team. Infront is looking at the sector in detail at the moment and it’s one that’s quite close to my heart. I love competing in triathlons myself. I’ve finished more than ten Ironman races, including the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii last year. It’s also particularly interesting from a business perspective. Many of these endurance sports – not just triathlon – have a mass participation element, and their popularity has been surging recently. The series create closeknit communities on a global basis and offer potential for excellent activation and engagement. What makes Ironman such an interesting race is that you have the pros with the age groups, so each participant is really close to the elite – the Messis of triathlon. At least at the start! I am enthusing more and more colleagues and clients with my hobby – sometimes even trying to substitute a lunch meeting with a short cycling tour. Last year we signed a substantial agreement with the UCI and are now marketing the media rights to their world championship events. As a symbolic start to the partnership,

exposure that grows all the time. It’s been a successful model so far, and one hopefully we’ll be able to repeat with additional properties – most immediately with one we are involved in from this year onwards, the BMW Berlin-Marathon. Wednesday 6th March - Zug, Switzerland

Blatter encourages Infront employees to embrace a ‘one team’ philosophy

we will go on a joint cycling tour in July, joining the Infront and UCI forces on the road. Already in the first months of partnership we have closed some crucial broadcast contracts for the properties, supporting the federation in accessing new territories with the sport of cycling. As successful rights exploitation has its roots in the production segment, we are also providing the UCI with our experience and operational support in this field. The agreement with the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which started in 2011, provides a very good example of the fullservice approach Infront is able to take. We manage sponsorship sales for all Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events in Europe and South Africa and also advise the WTC on the distribution of its worldwide media rights. But it’s the media production for the European races handled by our subsidiary HBS that has been key to progress. An Ironman race is a product difficult to produce and to market to broadcasters as it stretches out across eight hours for the best athletes. Who is going to watch eight hours? Maybe me, but that’s about it! So our team developed an appealing series of 14 magazine shows per season – 26 minutes each – that makes the sport consumable for television viewers whilst not losing its key features. We handle the production, in order to guarantee a high-quality product and embed a story that develops over the 14 shows. As a next step, we support the WTC in distributing it, allowing access to our global media network. Finally, we provide sponsors with packages that are mainly assembled around the extensive engagement opportunities the sport brings with it, but complemented with a global television

There are no typical days for me when I’m in the office at our headquarters in Zug, but at whatever Infront subsidiary I am, one pattern is consistent: I like to get involved with our staff – the biggest and most important asset of the Infront group. I like to tour throughout the building or sit in the lounge areas enjoying sports coverage with colleagues during lunch breaks. 120 of our employees are based in Zug. Touching base with our staff is really important to me as I want to be accessible as well as receive direct feedback from the operational levels. I also keep encouraging people to go to the events – in order to make them experience the result of our joint efforts. In my view, this all contributes to a fulfilling and inspiring work environment. And the fact that we have an annual staff turnover of less than ten per cent – something I am very proud of – shows that we are moving in the right direction. I have quite a lot of meetings back in Zug, of course. Every ten days we bring together the group management committee, which consists of our executive directors Stephan Herth, for summer sports, Bruno Marty for winter sports, Wolfgang Streit for administration, finance and legal, as well as the president of Infront Italy, Marco Bogarelli. Günter Netzer is also joining regularly. There are another six in our extended management team and they’re regularly in for meetings too. Today we had a board meeting with key representatives from Bridgepoint, the private equity firm that acquired the Infront group in 2011. 2012, the first full year under Bridgepoint, was a very successful one, both in terms of operations and financial results. We exceeded the expectations of our new shareholders and initiated plans to further diversify across sports, geographies and business segments. Bridgepoint understood that in buying Infront they were not acquiring a set of rights, but a team, a culture, a way of doing business. And in these areas, the equilibrium can be broken very easily – and that’s not to mention the importance of reliable long-term partnerships that are crucial in our industry. Our new shareholders listen well and decided not to come in with changes – not in the management, not in the structure, not in the business model. We established a collaboration marked by mutual trust and understanding – which many tell me is remarkable when working with private equity funds. The representatives of Bridgepoint are not involved in the day-today business but, as part of our board of directors, focus on the numbers and the strategic development of the group. Of course, they are very eager to grow, which means there is no limitation in terms of new ideas – be it in terms of geographies, available rights or M&A approaches. But it’s actually very enjoyable to work in a company where the target is to grow and not to cut costs, to divest or to change the staff.

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cover story | a month in the life

Infront is a partner of the World Triathlon Corporation and Philippe Blatter is himself a dedicated triathlete who has completed several Ironman races

Sunday 10th March - Zug, Switzerland Today I’m at home with my family in Zug. I honestly don’t count how many weekends I get to spend at home. Having worked at McKinsey in Brazil and Morocco before joining Infront, my family is already familiar with this travelling lifestyle. They are aware that what we do at Infront is not a nine-to-five type of job and that my work/life balance is in full equilibrium, just because of the fact that for me work is a full part of my life. And this is taking place in an exciting and emotional industry, where I meet and work with exceptional people, get to see some of the most outstanding moments and where my team fulfils dreams of millions of people. I have the best job in the world and feel very blessed with what I do – and I know that my family feels that. Nevertheless, my wife and my kids are of course of highest priority for me. I have two boys, twins; they are eight years old. And they love sports. Sometimes if it’s possible I even try to bring the boys along to events. We were at the Vierschanzentournee – the Four Hills ski jumping tournament – over New Year in Oberstdorf and they were completely thrilled by the whole occasion. Last year, my family agreed to combine vacation with a training camp in Fuerteventura – allowing me to pursue two of my biggest passions at the same time. I’ve been doing long-distance triathlon for 12 years now. Swimming is my strongest part – I’m always in the first third there – cycling and running are

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the bigger challenges. Overall, my goal is always to make it to the finish line – with my personal record for an Ironman being 12 hours and four minutes, and my slowest result about 14 hours and 50 minutes. This year, I will participate in the Ironman Zurich at the end of July; I always try to switch between a race in Switzerland and one elsewhere year on year. I love the hi-tech equipment used in triathlons. Having worked in the airline industry at Airbus, I used to deal with carbon and Kevlar, and this interest has stayed with me. If you look at all the modern bikes, tennis rackets, they’re all made with these composites now and there is ongoing development. Every time I can save a few grams on my bike, I’m happy. It doesn’t make me faster though! Wednesday 13th March - Lenzerheide, Switzerland I spend much of the winter season travelling to remote mountain regions – as a result of our extensive winter sports portfolio. Today is no different, but a little closer to home as I’m in Lenzerheide with Bruno Marty for the Audi FIS World Cup Final in alpine skiing – together with many members of our winter sports team. Infront is different from other sports business companies because our structure is organised along sports, rather than functions like marketing and media. As a result, for example, the curling manager knows everything about curling. In the morning when he gets up, the first news

cover story | a month in the life

“Whenever I go to meet our people on the ground I love to practise the sport – as it makes you understand the fascination and dynamics a lot more.”

Winter sports are one of the ‘four pillars’ of Infront’s international activities

he gets is not about whether Milan have won against Barça but about what’s happening in the world of curling. This shared passion is a big advantage in our relationships with clients as well as in innovation, as a cornerstone of our strategy. Whenever I go to meet our people on the ground I love to practise the sport – as it makes you understand the fascination and dynamics a lot more. I did so for curling, biathlon and recently for bobsleigh at the world championship in St Moritz and really enjoyed going down the famous Olympic bob run with the taxi bob. I don’t know if they’ll let me ski today though! Our winter sports positioning is now a key characteristic of the company. It’s very comprehensive, with six out of the seven winter Olympic sports currently in a marketing or media partnership with Infront. Our winter sports strategy strongly distinguishes us from competitors as we have a leadership role here. Sponsors benefit from getting a global grip on winter sports out of one hand. Broadcasters appreciate our all-round involvement in terms of scheduling; it’s all well coordinated, hardly overlaps, and allows them to structure their programming at its most attractive for the viewer. The FIS World Cup is another showcase for our fullservice approach. On the media rights side, we hold long-term

contracts with most national federations and local organising committees staging FIS World Cup events, enabling us to distribute the series as a whole to broadcasters worldwide and guarantee consistency across the entire season. Also, on the sponsorship side, we have enhanced the platform and strengthened its premium value by introducing a collective marketing approach. As part of the concept, the number of available sponsorship packages at each race was reduced, in order to ensure more exclusivity as well as a cleaner image and transparent advertising allocation. Big international brands are making use of the opportunity to associate themselves with one of the leading winter sports properties in the world; today I met representatives from major sponsors like Emmi, Jack Wolfskin and Helvetia. Over the whole finals, Infront will handle media distribution and marketing, implement sponsorships and host more than 5,000 hospitality guests. Being so comprehensively involved, we set up a dedicated ‘Infront House’, where clients are welcomed and event delivery is coordinated. Winter sports is one of our four big pillars. The other three would be football; then summer sports, like basketball, volleyball, handball and endurance sports; and then the media production part, with our production unit in Italy as well as HBS. We also offer a wide portfolio of services and tailored solutions like event advisory, account management, hospitality, venue advertising and digital media, which enable us to cover every aspect of a successful sports event. They build an important element of our collaboration with all stakeholder groups – rights holders, event organisers, sponsors and media companies – as our support stretches from concept to implementation. Speaking of the strategy, it is not only about business models, but also about geographies. The core markets where we are present with an office are Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Singapore and China. Those are the priorities, but not the boundaries of our landscape and our operations are truly global. I am convinced that our full-service approach, our focus on excellence in delivery and innovation, as well as the combination of global experience and local know-how in many markets is what makes us so successful and – confounding the negative forecasts regarding the business of sports marketing companies a few years ago – still a valued partner for rights holders. Thanks to our outstanding team, our know-how and our shared spirit across the group, I strongly believe that Infront will remain in a position to put all its clients ‘in front’ and continue to be a most respected player in the world of sports business.

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Diary of a CEO  
Diary of a CEO  

Since joining Infront Sports & Media as president and chief executive in 2005, Philippe Blatter has presided over a period of unprecedented...