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Inside Aston Villa’s plans to create a Red Bull-style 'media house'

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Aston Villa FC is looking to up its content game and take advantage of the commercial opportunities of establishing itself as a publisher in its own right.

To lead the charge club hired former producer for Discovery and the BBC, Will Radford, in April 2016 as head of media and content. Prior to joining, Radford spent nearly a decade at Red Bull Media House during its meteoric rise from drinks maker to a media powerhouse. His plans for Aston Villa’s output are just as ambitious.

“It’s about trying to upgrade everything,” he says. “Villa had become very stale and old school in its approach of just looking after owned channels and not talking to new audiences, where people were having conversations about football.”

Villa’s path to becoming a respected publisher is following much the same route as clubs that have gone before it. Though it runs news, features and short videos on its website, it’s been flexing its content-creating abilities on social media, aiming for an output that will “expand reach to go viral more often,” Radford says, especially around key moments in the sporting calendar like transfer deadlines but more frequently on wider issues in the news cycle.

“We've tried to pick up more of what's going on in culture and media to become more of an entertainment brand rather than just a sports brand," he adds.

Facebook, where 2.5 million fans follow it, had been at the heart of this strategy. But Radford explains that in the last six months that's tailed off as a direct result of the platform’s algorithm changes. Facebook has devalued live content – which Aston Villa was heavily investing in – unless ad spend was put behind it. “We've rejigged that and gone heavily on to YouTube and Instagram [instead],” he continues.

Instagram is where it’s seeing the most substantial growth and is also proving to be the most effective, with posts generally getting the highest levels of engagement compared to other channels. It’s now fully “embraced” IGTV, the YouTube-rivalling video tool, and is putting more exclusive content there, such as pre and post-match interviews with players as well as fan ‘vlogs’.

“The numbers are smaller, but the engagement is really strong. We’re trying to serve that with native content now. It's working really well on match days – so things that we might have previously used on Facebook Live we've switched to IGTV and are getting a good response.”

Villa’s growing in-house team are responsible for the vast majority of its content output but it does work with a third-party on more challenging projects. Until recently that was a production firm called Sunset+Vine. It then switched the contract to Unilad, which Radford said would offer “something original and unique”. It was starting to see the first edits of some filming it had done with the viral publisher before it was announced that it had gone into administration.

What the future of that partnership might hold is unclear. But Radford, who was speaking to The Drum before news that Unilad had gone into administration was revealed, was looking for a partner capable of kicking its content production up a notch.

“The logic is clearly to find content that works with both audiences, has a high level of production and a very authentic tone of voice that we need for the audience and ultimately find work that will resonate on both our Villa 'media' channel as well as theirs,” he said.

“It's really exciting for us to be having those conversations with one of the biggest social platforms, rather than all the pressure being on us to come up with new formats in-house.”

With content quality and quantity on the up, Radford has also come to the conclusion – like many traditional publishers – that it's unsustainable to have social platforms sit at the heart of a content strategy. Instead, it wants the long-overlooked Villa website to be what everything else pivots around. As such, it's tapped tech agency Great State to manage a complete overhaul over the coming months.

“The website is still one of our biggest channels in terms of monthly traffic. We see around half a million unique visitors every month. It's a significant, engaged and different audience to that of the fans on social channels,” he continues. “I want that website to become much more of a media hub, so that it showcases more of what we're doing elsewhere, with more integrations.”

The first objective for Great State is to develop a ‘single sign on’, a project that will integrate all of Villa's different channels, including social media, its live-streaming platform, the Aston Villa app and rewards programme, through one log-in function. It will make it easier for fans to move between channels, but it's also a major data play for Villa.

“AVTV used to be a paywall service. But we dropped the paywall to bring more people in and show more people what we're doing as a club and put the content out to a wider audience," Radford says. "Obviously there has to be some kind of value exchange and for us and that's data. Single sign on becomes the way to gather data from every touchpoint and bring it in into the CRM”

Villa's not just after this data to better understand its own fanbase. Similar to the increasing number of metrics that a traditional publisher needs to hand to advertisers, Radford said club sponsors are demanding better insight on who is viewing what content and for how long.

“Our app has grown substantially – we're up to 50,000 monthly active users now which is fairly heavy for a football club – and here's a core fan base in there that are on it for a couple of hours a day. We want to be able to hand off that engaged audience to our partners. The better, more seamless that becomes, and the better the audience and engagement is the more value we have to hand off to partners,” he said.

“More partners are coming to us with that expectation – it’s a serious part of the [sponsorship] deal and offering. It's not just about a bit of branding on the pitch. It's very much about engagement. They want to know open rates to emails and how many eyeballs we can drive to their content.”

It’s recently started to work with Nielsen to accurately measure and “prove the commercial value of content” across all its channels. It remains early days though, and the first time that Aston Villa has had its social media output measured in this way.

“Previously social media hasn't been part of Nielsen’s reporting suite [for us], we would only consider TV minutes and what sort of placement got the best brand and media value," he explains.

"But now, for the first time, we can see where [social] benchmarks against other channels and whether acting like a publisher and putting more on our owned media can balance out against some of those other opportunities. Is a press conference still bets served with a media partner like Sky or do we put it on YouTube? What created the most media value and how do the channels stack up? That's what we're looking at just now.”

These experiments are coming at a crucial time. Under new ownership (Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens tool a controlling stake in the Club six months ago) and with the recruitment of a new team manager nearing its conclusion, Radford says there's a optimism within its halls that change is on the horizon.

"Coming from the chairman, CEO and now the new ownership we've got the opportunity to do things a little differently. And, being outside of the big Premiership spotlight, we need to do things a little differently."

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Kleenex rebrands ‘mansize’ tissues as ‘extra-large’ in the name of equality

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Tissue brand Kleenex is to excise its ‘mansize’ range in favour of ‘extra-large’ in order to counter allegations of sexism.

Kleenex Extra Large will take to the shelves in a uni-sex sales push amid mounting criticism of the choice of wording, a hangover from the 1950s when the brand first launched ‘Kleenex for Men’ as an alternative to large cotton handkerchiefs.

Continuing that tradition the outsize hankies are claimed to be 'comfortingly soft and strong so you can be confident it won't let you down'.

A spokesperson for Kleenex parent company Kimberley-Clark said: “We are always grateful to customers who take time to tell us how our products can be improved, and we carefully consider all suggestions. Thanks to recent feedback we are now rebranding our mansize tissues to Kleenex Extra Large.”

The roll-out is already underway with ‘mansize’ stock no longer being replaced.

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Business on the Move: Papa John's, Pot Noodle, British Land, and more

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Welcome to The Drum's Business on the Move column, where we collate agency account news, reviews, agency launches, rebrands and acquisitions.

Americas wins

Data intelligence specialist Teradata has entrusted their brand and marketing duties John McNeil Studio. The relationship will kick off with the creation of a redesigned brand identity and the launch of an awareness campaign comprising new messaging and visuals.

Havas Media has been named integrated media agency of record for pizza chain Papa John’s with immediate effect following a competitive review, according to The Drum. The pizza brand is reviewing its PR, creative and media partners following the dramatic exit of founder John Schnatter.

Brooklyn-based ad agency Madwell has announced a partnership with wireless, digital-only carrier Visible. The team-up will help expand brand presence, develop its launch campaign and establish its voice on social media, reports Bennett Bennett.

Independent shop Barker has been named agency-of-record for Sunsweet Growers Inc, a Californian prune cooperative. The agency's responsibilities include leading strategy, creative and social media across the Sunsweet portfolio in the US.

EMEA wins

Unilever has awarded the creative account for Pot Noodle to Adam&EveDDB, ending its relationship with Lucky Generals. The FMCG giant is in the middle of consolidating its agency roster.

British Land, one of the largest property companies in the UK, has appointed R/GA as its innovation and design partner. The agency has been tasked with crafting a new range of digital services for the property firm’s flexible workspace business.

Independent creative agency Who Wot Why has landed The Gym account after a competitive pitch. The partnership will kick off with a multi-channel campaign, aiming to reposition the chain in this highly competitive low cost gym sector.

High street restaurant chain Gusto Italian has appointed Manchester-based Cube3. The agency has been tasked with using its specialisms in branding, web and digital to create a new website for the chain.

This week's acquisitions

  • Radio group Global is set to acquire Exterion Media, in the latest of a string of acquisitions in the out-of-home space, reports Rebecca Stewart.

  • Strategic marketing agency Home has announced the acquisition of First 10 Digital, a digital experience agency whose clients include Puma, Tilda and Boots Hearingcare.

Apac wins

Publicis Groupe has won the account for the entire government of Singapore, after being appointed the state's master media agency. The selection followed a competitive pitch against 26 other agencies and holding companies, reports The Drum's Shawn Lim.

Launches

New marketing, media and creative content agency 9th Wonder has launched out of Houston. The business, built from The Company collective of independent agencies, has launched with seven offices, a staff of over 250 and 100 clients.

Digital media specialist Jungle Creations has launched a new e-commerce business – Lovimals. The brand will offer consumers personalised socks and lifestyle accessories featuring hand-drawn portraits of their pets.

Got a story or tip for Business on the Move? Send your acquisitions, reviews, account wins and launch news to sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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The CMO Swap: What happened when Tribe’s CMO stepped into the shoes of a Britvic marketing luminary?

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What happens when you get a marketer at one of the world’s biggest beverage brands to trade places for the day with the founder of a two-year-old startup? The Drum and Fetch have decided to find out, launching a bold social experiment in the form of The CMO Swap.

In the spirit of pairing the old with the new we decided to swap a chief marketing officer from a brand with over 160 years heritage with the founder of a direct-to-consumer brand just two years into launch – enter Britvic’s global category director Ash Tailor and Tom Stancliffe founder of natural sports nutrition brand Tribe.

After Tailor had embedded himself into Tribe’s trendy London office, Stancliffe headed on down to Britvic's Hemel Hampsted HQ.

With zero TV-budget and a focus on putting the customer at the very heart of its marketing via digital and influencer campaigns, Tribe offers subscriptions to healthy bars and shakes. It also regularly brings together a community of everyday athletes through fitness classes and events.

It’s roots are firmly planted in its 75,000-strong community, since that’s how the whole business began.

The London-based upstart opened its doors in 2015 after Stancliffe completed a 1,000 mile marathon across Eastern Europe as part of the Run for Love charity event, which inspired him to help athletic people come together; from there selling the nutrition to keep them fuelled became central to its offering.

While the entrepreneur is certainly no stranger to donning his running shoes, stepping into Tailor’s shoes for the day offered a different perspective and Stancliffe was struck by the parallels in the challenges faced by his own firm and Britvic, but also by the contrasts.

Touching on how his own brand was very much focused on its culture and the community it was born out of, Stancliffe said experiencing a day in the life of another marketer had opened his eyes.

“Everyone’s [in the office] has become a bit obsessed by Tribe, maybe there are benefits of seeing other brands, and sharing the learnings," he mused.

As Tailor would on a typical day in the office, Stancliffe joined Britvic and its global packaging agency Bloom for a debrief on some branding work the consultancy had just completed.

He also met with the head of customer engagement for the Tango and Robinsons owner and paid a visit to its glitzy innovation lab where its research and development team are based.

Decked out in a white lab coat and seeing the process behind taking products like Fruit Shoot from conception to launch, Stancliffe’s visit to Britvic towers shone a spotlight on the potential perks of bringing innovation a little closer to home.

“When Tribe wants to do product development we have to go up to our facility in Sunderland or Wales, so it made me think to have the budget and to be able to do that would be amazing.”

He continued: “One of the challenges of working in a startup is that you’re having to create operations and structures from the start and develop new ways of doing things. What’s been amazing here is coming into a more established portfolio of brands and marketing structure, and seeing what that looks like.

“Hopefully [we can] learn from those processes, so we can grow faster and be who we want to be.”

Sign up here to join Fetch as its upcoming Unwired breakfast event on 31 October to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on what else happened when a Tailor and Stancliffe swapped places and what they took away from the experience.

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