Match of the day

Match of the day

From pop star (almost), to football agent and now successful marketing agency head, Andy Hobson scores in business by playing to his own tune, says Peter Baber.

If I had a pound for every time an entrepreneur I have interviewed has told me they started off in life wanting to be a pop star, I would be as rich as some of them are now. I suppose it’s not entirely unexpected.

After all, the courage you need to stand up in front of an unknown and usually sceptical crowd at a gig is probably similar to that needed to stand up in front of an unknown and usually sceptical crowd of would-be investors. But it certainly gives the lie to those minor pop stars of the 1980s who used to claim they were against capitalism. (I can’t actually think of a better example of ruthless capitalism in action than the music industry, but there hangs another article.) Andy Hobson is a fine example of someone who made the switch.

He is currently managing director of Batley-based Fantastic Media, a full-service marketing agency whose clients include both Leeds United and Huddersfield Town.

But back in the early1990s he was in a band called Maple Park, with the requisite Happy Mondays-style floppy hairstyle and centre parting. And yes, he was the lead singer. The band was, he says, reasonably good.

“We played in the Duchess of York in Leeds, which was a well-known venue then, supporting people like the Charlatans,” he says.

“But looking back now I knew we were never going to be good enough. But then you think you are. I’m better at what I do now than I was at singing.”

What makes Hobson stand out, however, is that having already spent some time trying to make a name for himself in a notoriously competitive industry, he was perfectly ready to dust himself down and have another go in another equally competitive field – football.

Not playing football, but consulting football club owners – hardly the most welcoming people – on how they should market their assets. It is, perhaps, a good illustration of his extreme confidence.

“I left school at 16,” he says, “I wasn’t studious. But one of my real skills was having the confidence to mix at different levels without being intimidated by the top table or the bottom table.” The timing was crucial.

It was 1992, when football clubs were suddenly coming into loads of money thanks in part to Sky and other satellite channels trying to get broadcast rights.

Or, as Hobson himself puts it: “Football clubs had gone from being places where fans on the terraces urinated down the back of your leg to being awash with cash.

I felt I had to be a part of that.” The particular path he chose was to offer his services to the clubs as a consultant on stadium design and marketing – something at the time, he admits, he knew very little about, and had to read up on.

“I had to position myself as being an authority,” he says. “I was self-taught, but fortunately there weren’t many other people who had marketing experience in sport in Britain. In the USA there were - they were years ahead of us. But not in the UK.

So there was a career opportunity.” He says clubs were telling him where to go “all the time. But it didn’t knock me back. And some did invite me in.”

It would be remiss not to point out, of course, that some of these clubs have since suffered severe financial pressures, if not total bankruptcy, thanks to the collapse of ITV Digital and other firms.

Hobson blames this not so much on the clubs’ advisers – he himself never gave financial advice - but on the banks who were prepared to lend huge amounts of money to the clubs for development before the clubs had actually received what had been promised by the satellite channels.

“In football, the Premier League is the big pot,” he says. “ITV Digital thought the combined strength of Leagues 1, 2, 3 would be as big, but it was nowhere near as big. They gave out too much money to too many clubs.

“The clubs didn’t care about it. They took the £300,000 a year and thought ‘Great!’ The only problem was that the payment was in stages, so they borrowed from the banks. Then there were people like NTL who bought all the web rights to all 72 clubs below the Premiership. It was ten years too early. If they had done it now they would have had a chance.”

Eventually, Hobson proved so successful at what he was doing that he was taken on by National Superdome, an organisation that was trying to win the contract to build the new national stadium in Bradford, rather than Wembley. Hobson says he was aware just how rapidly he had progressed.

“Everybody who has any job in business will at some stage think, ‘how the hell have I landed this one?’” he says. “But if you are any good at it you will continue. I was in the House of Lords lobbying for our cause, and I was only 21 with an earring.”

Such work, although ultimately unsuccessful, brought him to the attention of Tony Stephens, the legendary soccer agent behind such big names as David Platt, David Beckham, and Alan Shearer.

Hobson spent a couple of years working with him, and remembers in particular the day Alan Shearer signed for Newcastle.

Stephens was so worried about the press finding out – it was widely speculated that Shearer was about to sign for Manchester United – that the deal took place at Hobson’s house, with Kevin Keegan also in attendance.

“They had snatched Shearer from under Sir Alex Ferguson’s nose,” he says. “It was then the biggest transfer deal ever. From there, we went to watch Bryan Adams. We were actually in Manchester United’s box. They were all saying, ‘Hi Alan’, because they assumed he was coming to play for them. The real story didn’t come out until weeks later.” Moving in such high circles, he says, has given him security for life.

“I can probably confidently say I will never be without a job for the rest of my life, even if Fantastic Media fails,” he says. He has got to such a position by networking, he says, wheeling out the old adage that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.

But does he think that’s fair? Does he think it’s right that people should be making important business decisions – the marketing agency to use, for example – based on the relatively small number of people they know, rather than anything more empirical?

“No, I don’t suppose it is fair,” he says. “But everybody has the chance to get to know people.” Look at his story, he says.

He comes from a very ordinary background, although he is very keen to point out that it was not poor. He says he hates people who “play up” about coming out of deprivation.

“My dad was an electrician, my mum had a job, we had a decent car, a typical house, nice Christmas, loving parents. But my parents were never able to network with people who could have influenced my career, so I took it upon myself to do that.

“If you look at Sky Sports, every one of Sky Sports presenters bar 20% are the children of footballers, golfers, and so on. It is the way of the world. If you get a chance you would give your children a helping hand.

“But it is certainly not true to say you can’t get in anywhere unless you know people. You can create opportunities such as Tony Stephens. It was my aim to get to know him and bump into him.

It was the same with Dean Hoyle: the first person he bumped into when he took over Huddersfield Town happened to be me.” Given the illustrious circles he was moving in, however, you can’t help wondering why he chose to leave the world of being a football agent and go into marketing.

In particular, to launch a business which, alongside helping Leeds United and Huddersfield Town, also works with what his former football colleagues might think of as more mundane outfits - Chadwick Lawrence lawyers, for example, or budget retailer Bon Marche.

But Hobson has no regrets at all. “I found I was always working for somebody else in football,” he says. “The football agent’s world is also getting worse and worse. It’s not a nice environment to be in. Also, as soon as a new owner comes into a football club everyone leaves. The average life expectancy is about 2.4 years. I was offered positions by clubs before, but I knew there wasn’t the stability.

“Now I have the best of both worlds – consulting two football clubs, but they don’t have to take on board what I say and I can walk away from it. I have a well-respected, proper business.

“I want to be a professional person, with results, that people feel they are getting value for money for.” Fantastic is actually the second marketing agency Hobson set up – he worked for seven years with partners at design agency Atom before deciding to set up again on his own.

“I just didn’t feel Atom was delivering what I wanted to deliver, which was strategy, marketing, and results,” he says.

But results are clearly a key objective for Hobson, which probably explains why within four years the agency has gone from a turnover of £400,000 to £1.3m.

“And that’s without any printing or buying,” he says. “Just a hell of a lot of retainers.” Fantastic’s key values, he says, are people and offering value for money. Many other agencies would say the same. But where he differs from many of his peers is by insisting that marketing is first and foremost about lead generation. Other agencies will insist that other issues – brand awareness and so on – come first.

“Other agencies just daren’t say that lead generation is the key,” he says. “So there is an opportunity for me to clear up here. People used to say, ‘it’s just marketing, isn’t it? And hopefully someone will hear about us’. But those days are gone.”

This has led to some unusually forthright marketing campaigns, such a billboard campaign for Huddersfield Town that Hobson persuaded Hoyle to do shortly after he joined. It featured Hoyle himself looking out with the words: ‘You buy the season ticket, we’ll buy the players’.