When David Newton first stepped gingerly into the arena of commercial sport he admits it was a scary place to be. Finding himself pinstriped among tracksuits he says the “job was intimidating at first”.
“There were lots of people in short shorts and little vests and I was the biggest person in the company.”
The former P&G marketing maestro was enlisted by Nova International to build the brand of the firm from glorified sports day organiser into a global force for headline running, swimming and – more recently – walking events.
“I thought it would be easy. The challenge was to take a product-driven company and turn it into a marketing-driven one.
“I came into the business 12 years ago but it hadn’t struck me as a business I would want to get involved in.”In truth, says the chief executive, he associated the Great North Run (GNR) – Nova’s flagship event held in Newcastle every year – with closed roads and motorways. Perhaps the event came as a source of mild irritation for the high flying marketing executive.
A chance meeting with distance running legend and GNR founder Brendan Foster, however, ensured that Newton became part of the Nova journey.
Today the company has offices in London, Manchester and Newcastle and, as well as high profile events in the UK, has seen its reach spread to Ireland and even Ethiopia.
At the last count the firm’s annual turnover was £14.3m (in the year ending 31 December, 2010) – with last year’s results due to be published in the coming weeks.
Despite the huge involvement of charities in all of Nova’s events – some of which are white labelled for clients – the business is unashamedly profitable and thriving commercially.
It is now in talks with parties in several pockets of the BRIC economy to expand globally and bring its expertise in creating mass participating sporting experiences to new territories.
“We are having conversations in China and South America and other BRIC countries. We need to find good strong local partners who can help deliver the events as well as bringing their local nuances to them,” Newton says.
“Our ambitions are to be global and we are looking at five key markets for franchising.”
Much of the company’s commercial success is built on its prowess in creating experiences which strike fear into the hearts of its patrons.
“Our customer promise is to make it scary for you. At the starting line you have the world’s best runners or swimmers in front of you and it’s the adrenaline rush that you get.
“People are sick of safe choices. They want to be scared and they want to challenge the status quo.”
Of course, safety remains paramount, as does security and insurance against a vast range of eventualities – even bird flu. And, as Newton bemoans, everything comes at a cost.
“The police used to do the Great North Run for nothing but today’s world is different and nobody turns up for nowt,” he says.
Staging the GNR alone costs around £4m, while its estimated economic impact to the North East region is around £22m. Nova’s entire portfolio of annual events, meanwhile, generates an estimated £50m for charities each year. “The Great North Run fills beds as far away as Carlisle, York and Edinburgh and we run pick-ups buses from those places,” he says. “We once even had to bring a ferry in to use for berths as we didn’t have enough room.”
Nova’s workforce amounts to around 80 people for most of the year. Come event day, though, and this fluctuates to as high as 3,000. While the firm’s largely London-based sponsorship experts work the floor at networking events and exhibitions in the capital, rubbing shoulders with the world’s biggest brands, other labour intensive areas include TV production and promotion.
The company recently signed an eight-year contract with the BBC for GNR coverage and Newton regards the firm’s capabilities behind the camera as “an extremely important part of what we do”.
“TV won’t pay you any money for its content as we’re not in that world anymore. In the future I think we’ll see more TV companies starting to create events because that’s where they can create the rights. We will see TV channels reverse engineering to create the sporting events.”
Newton admits that the climate for sponsorship deals has been impinged by the Olympic effect. But, he says, the post-Olympic commercial climate for sports in general could be even tougher.
“It’s very difficult to get sponsorship when the Olympics are on. It can have a negative effect and, with the shrinking public sector, this becomes a challenge.
“After the Olympics there will be a real move away from sport. Those companies will be thinking what now? I think the arts will be the next big thing. Those companies will be thinking ‘we’ve done sport to death, let’s do the arts’... [Sports sponsorship] could drop off a cliff.”
The Nova brand itself stems from the blue line used by elite athletes to mark the exact measured distance of running events.
At the same time, the personality so heavily associated with that brand is Brendan Foster – the local lad who was inspired to set up the GNR after running the Round the Bays race in New Zealand. He remains a driving force, but not so much the face of the company as perhaps previously.
Online the brand continues to grow as Newton strives to create more of what marketing babble calls touch-points. “When I was at P&G I would get a little cube of sales data every Monday morning.
"I want our customers to get that data [about their own training / performance statistics] and if they want to have more fun I want them to share that data with their friends to see if they are doing better or worse than them.”
A training app is part of the drive for online traction at the firm which currently has a database of 1,257,485 people and over 2 million unique online users annually.
“We want to allow the customer to create own challenge each year through customisation,” Newton says.
Having conquered his own fear of skinny people in short shorts, Newton’s role is now to strike fear in other people. Given Nova’s ambitious plans, these victims – or customers as he calls them – look set to become increasingly dispersed across the globe in the coming years.
David Newton was in Newcastle at an event hosted by Newcastle University Business School. Click here for more information on the organisation.