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Getting to Know: Neil Jankelowitz

Johannesburg-based Mscsports will be 20 years old this year, and here, CEO Neil Jankelowitz looks back at where things started and how the sports industry has changed over the past two decades, including a look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Q: Summarise the origins of Mscsports and how you moved from the corporate finance world into the sports agency space?
A: Mscsports is the result of one of those fortuitous business decisions which occurred by chance. I was working at Appleton Corporate Finance in 1991, but it was just a few years later, after a successful auction of a signed rugby jersey to raise funds for my then soccer club, that my good friend Barney Girnun and I saw a gap and were inspired to launch a sports agency. It has been a journey, from being primarily memorabilia-focused to becoming who we are today.  

Q: Covid-19 aside, how different is the sports industry from when you started in it in 2001?
A: Vastly different is probably an understatement. The evolution of digital and social media has changed the sports sponsorship and marketing industry drastically. If I think back to 2001, digital marketing was barely even in its infancy – not many of the social media platforms that we use constantly today existed. We relied on traditional mediums such as print advertising and outdoor as means of supportive collateral for broadcast sponsorships which lacked two-way communication with target audiences and provided no accurate means to measure and monitor overall campaign success. Technology has advanced exponentially since then and it has had a tremendous impact on the sports industry, right from referee and umpire decision-making through to how content is packaged, produced, and consumed by target audiences. It has made us, as agencies, more accountable to our clients as the opportunities to engage with fans have increased (as the pandemic has shown), the cost has declined, and the ability to derive meaningful data to convert into actionable insights has increased ten-fold.

Q: The word “impact” seems to be important to Mscsports. How do you differentiate yourselves from the other agencies out there and ensure that you make that impact with every brand, rights-holder, player, coach or client?
A: Impact, for us, is less about the traditional measures of success such as media coverage, views or visits, and more about tangible commercial value such as client acquisitions and revenue generated. It’s about creating solutions to generate real business growth, driven by data and insights. We have developed an Impact Marketing Model which relies heavily on research, data analytics and best practice to draw measurable insights that drive our campaign strategies and engagement tools. Whether it be brands seeking to drive consumers to the ultimate point of purchase, rights-holders seeking new and innovative fan engagement methods, or coaches and players wanting to maximise their personal brand value, the Impact Marketing Model provides a highly effective and customisable approach to achieve specific objectives.

Q: What work were you most proud of in 2020?
A: 2020 was one of the most challenging and unique years for everyone and, first and foremost, the thing that we are most proud of is that we managed to survive it without having to downsize and negatively impact the lives of our employees.  In terms of work, I think the Discovery #Iwasthere campaign, the Engen pivot we delivered around their soccer and rugby assets, and the renewals of a number of valuable partnerships are examples of what we are most proud of. 

Q: Any new work or new clients that Mscsports is working on or with in 2021?
A: We are extremely proud to be working with Castle Lager on their rugby, cricket and soccer properties, in particular the Castle Lions Series (assuming it goes ahead on our shores due to the pandemic), as well as some exciting work for Dimension Data around golf and cycling.

Q: In your mind, what has been the biggest Covid-19-influenced change to the sports industry?
A: I would say the absence of fans and spectators at live events has made it particularly challenging for rights-holders to deliver value for sponsors and, in a lot of instances, keep them on board. While the financial implications for many have been devastating, I wouldn’t say that it has only had a negative impact on the industry – it has forced innovation, creativity and new ways of engaging with consumers that may otherwise have been overlooked before. Whilst the use of digital devices and online platforms had been on the rise prior to Covid-19, the pandemic cemented their importance in fan engagement and the consumers’ overall brand experience going forward. The data analytics and measurable metrics that can be derived from their behaviour and consumption patterns will enable sponsors, agencies, broadcasters and rights-holders to more effectively mine insights, ensuring a more impact-driven, strategic campaign approach going forward.

Q: How would you describe Mscsports’ response to this change?
A: Even prior to the pandemic, we had started shifting our mindset from focusing on traditional output-based marketing to becoming more outcomes-based. Brands have smaller marketing budgets with which to generate results and consumers are more discerning – expecting more authenticity and accountability from the brands they engage with. Our Impact Marketing Model was designed with this in mind and has been developed to create effective solutions, harnessing the power of insights and knowledge to achieve specific objectives – making it even more relevant for our clients post the pandemic.

Q: Give us a sense of the types of conversations you’ve been having with clients over the past year?
A: It’s no great surprise that everyone is struggling to find budget to spend on sponsorships, so our approach with clients is to get them to prioritise outcomes over outputs – essentially making sure they derive business returns from any money spent. Trying to get clients to set deliverable outcomes from any potential spend and allow us to come up with innovative, cost-effective ways to achieve and measure those outcomes is the best way to unlock any budget that might be available.

Q: Once sport, in general, is back up and running fully, post-Covid-19, do you anticipate change, in terms of how it is run, consumed, commercialised, etc?
A: Absolutely. Whilst I do believe consumers crave a return to live and mass participation events, there will always be a need for rights-holders to integrate the “virtual fan” into their strategic plans going forward. Much like the Nickelodeon NFL Wild Card match proved, rights-holders and broadcasters have an opportunity to target different audiences through customised content and this is likely to just be the very tip of the ‘re-versioning’ iceberg. Digital devices and online platforms have been disrupting the sports broadcast industry for some time now, but the introduction of alternative content creators will force rights-holders to continuously innovate and provide consumers with customised experiences.

Q: Which sports organisations – either local or international – do you believe are getting it right, in terms of marketing and commercialising their product, and why?
A: On an international level, it’s impossible to look beyond the NBA and NFL in terms of marketing and commercialising their products. They have both managed to grow their audiences and generate high levels of engagement from fans across the globe at an impressive speed over the last few years, through effective use of digital channels, audience-appropriate content and live experiences, all founded in data-driven strategies.

Q: What, do you believe, the sports industry will look like in a year’s time?
A: This is a difficult one to answer with the uncertainty around Covid-19 and South Africa’s vaccination roll-out plans. I’d like to believe we will have achieved a level of stability by then – not quite the ‘normal’ we once knew, but a return to live events and mass participation events to some degree. I hope we’ll see a greater degree of gender balance in sport – I do believe women’s sports sponsorship will provide a great opportunity for brands going forward.

Sport Industry Group
Sport Industry Group

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