A window into the working worlds of people from across the sports industry now that nothing is as it was.
Oli Walsh is a sports marketer with significant experience leading brand sponsor activity at agencies and within brand organisations themselves.
He was made redundant this year after Enterprise wound down its sponsorship department following the business impact of the pandemic. He had spent four years running Enterprise Rent-a-Car’s EMEA sponsorship activity, principally focused on the Uefa Europa League and European Tour golf, and before that was Head of Partner Activation at phone manufacturer HTC for its Uefa Champions League and Europa League sponsorship activity. He lives in Acton in London with his wife and two children.
How are you feeling on a scale of 1-10?
Yesterday I would have said about a 7. But then this morning I got feedback that I hadn’t got to a final shortlist for a role so now I’d say I’m probably at a 5. By the end of the day I’ll probably be back up to a 7.
These things happen. But with every application you put so much of your time and dedication into it that you’re almost anticipating the next step and you’re always thinking about it. So when that doesn’t come, there’s disappointment and the question ‘why?’ and the curiosity as to who will go on to land that role. But then you just have to move on and look forward to the next thing.
Who was the last person you spoke to before me?
Well the feedback was over email. Classic email for bad news! I emailed the HR person and the hiring manager and they came right back, which lifted me a little. I’m a judge for the European Sponsorship Awards so I put my head down a bit this morning and got off email and phone and read through a load of entries for that. It’s important to focus on what’s in front of you and not get distracted.
What’s your current working set-up?
It’s interesting when people ask, ‘are you working?’ or ‘are you working from home?’ or assume, when I’m dropping my kids at school, that I’m not working so ask me what I’m doing instead. But actually through this whole process I do feel like I’m working; not for someone but for myself.
We have a space upstairs which is and was my wife’s home office. We share that space, but she has first dibs on it, and if she’s there I’ll work at the kitchen table. It seems to work well. Ideally I’d prefer to work upstairs; you’re a bit more away from everything – and you’re not near the fridge! Genuinely, it’s a real challenge; no matter how many times you look in the fridge there’s still the same stuff there. That and the cups of tea or coffee you have during the day are your only distractions; whereas in an office you’d have interaction with other people; you’d walk to the printer or another department. It’s not having a massive impact on efficiency, but probably is on health and wellbeing.
“It’s interesting when people ask, ‘are you working?’ or ‘are you working from home?’ or assume, when I’m dropping my kids at school, that I’m not working so ask me what I’m doing instead. But actually through this whole process I do feel like I’m working; not for someone but for myself.”
What does your wife do?
She’s a neuroscientist. She works with children, adolescents and adults who have developmental conditions and issues. Her job is intense. A lot of the work is to do with diagnosing particular issues. Hers is a profession where it really should be face-to-face, so she still does that where Covid allows. I always look at the work she does and it’s incredible; I think we balance each other out: she does all the good in the world, and I work in sport and entertainment trying to sell people stuff. And sometimes stuff that they don’t even want or need. But we both enjoy what we do, and that’s really important.
Who else are you sharing your work environment with?
We’ve got two kids: a boy who’s just turned five and started school in September, and a daughter who is two and a half. Lockdown with them had its challenges – as anyone with kids would know. I was fortunate in that I haven’t been working in the traditional sense so I’ve been able to help out more than I would otherwise.
I used to work in Egham and our hours were 8-6, so I could never really ever do drop-off and pick-up. So to be able to do those kinds of things, which may seem small, has been a real benefit of this lockdown. My kids weren’t old enough really to do proper home-schooling. We had these grand plans for structuring their days – an hour of reading on this, an hour of fun play on that – and it just didn’t materialise in that way. So we’re glad our son has been able to start school this September!
How do you split the business of running your life together with your wife?
I’m more conscious of everything my wife does – both seen and unseen – with the kids and the house and her work, and appreciate how difficult that all is. We split things between us on a day-by-day basis depending on what we both have on. And we as a family like to do things together, so if we can both do drop-off or pick-up together then we like to do that. I’ve been able to do more with the kids this year than I ever have done before, and I hope in the future that level of flexibility can and will continue into whatever my next role is.
This year has really made me appreciate the business of sport and how lucky I have been through all my different jobs. Sometimes you take some of that for granted. You can be sitting at the final of some major sports event and thinking, ‘this is work, I’ve got a job to do, but I’d rather be at home’. But this really does make you appreciate some of those moments in your career and a real desire to be back there.
As a person, I’ve become a bit more willing to ask for things. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Particularly in a situation where you’re trying to look for a new role; it’s important to rely on your experience and the people you’ve connected with. In the past, I think I was probably a bit timid to do that sort of thing in case they said no. But now I think if you reach out to someone and they say no or they don’t reply then that’s ok. I’ve become a bit more willing to do that and have actually been really surprised by the responses of people – both positive and negative! Some people I would never have expected in a million years to come back to me have reached out and offered their time and help; and on the other side there have been people who have disappointed me by not getting back. Previously I might have put a black mark by their name in my head and held onto that. But now I think it might not have been the right time for them or they might have been having a bad day. And if in two or three years they reach out, I’ll be the bigger man and help them.
During Covid, there really does feel like there’s a community of people within sport and within marketing that all want to help each other, and I think that’s one of the real positives that’s come out of this.
What does your daily routine look like?
Right at the beginning of lockdown there was a much more set routine. Now it’s about making lists. My dad always used to make lists; he used to carry a little card in his pocket and he’d take it out and write things down all the time. He still does it. I think it helps him clear his mind. And I’ve started to do that too. I try to do it on a weekly basis. From that list, I then try to build what the day looks like. Before, I probably felt that myself and my work was the most important, and then my wife would often work around me; now it feels like I’m the last piece trying to slot in around everyone else. I’m perfectly happy with that. It’s about making that into a daily routine.
If you have a job your routine is set for you more or less. You have meetings that are put in for you; you have meetings that you put in; and by the end of the week or the end of the month you have to do this presentation, or deliver this by a particular deadline. Whereas now, the beauty and the challenge of it is that I can set myself whatever I want. And recently I’ve tried to instil some discipline in doing just one thing at a time; not jumping between email, LinkedIn, Twitter, a job site, a sports site. I’ve tried to build it all into blocks across the day.
So I’ll drop the kids at school; try not to look at anything on my phone before that. Get home and do exercise. I haven’t really done any form of exercise for the last couple of years, and it’s a cliché but Joe Wicks helped me kick start it again and now I’m probably doing exercise five days a week. Then I’ll check my emails; look at my list from the day before; and send out what I need to send out. At about 10 o’clock I’ll have a look at LinkedIn. For me, LinkedIn is probably the most challenging platform not to get addicted to. I’ll try to schedule a call in the morning too. Break for lunch and try not to have it in front of the computer. And I try to leave the afternoon open for seminars. I’ve regained my appetite for them a bit. I got to the point where I just really didn’t need to hear how another rights holder had reacted to Covid. I just want to know how they’re doing, what they’re marketing and what their strategy is and it doesn’t have to be the next three months. The long-term stuff is still good to hear about too!
If there’s nothing on, then I’ll do some training: trying to upskill or learn something new – not just within sponsorship but a bit more broadly. Google do some digital courses which are pretty good. I’ve enrolled as an Open University student too looking at innovating, circular leadership, women in media and sport – and they’re all backed by academia. But I’ve forgotten how hard it can be to get through the reading of academic papers! And then it’s time to pick up the kids.
If I’m doing a job application, that always takes priority. People often forget how long it can take to write a decent cover letter, update your CV, do the research around the brand, the company, the people. And from application into actually getting the job can take three, four, five months. So you’ve got to make sure you put the work in now for something that might not happen for a few months.
How do you focus?
Lists, spreadsheets, setting yourself targets. At work you’re always answerable to someone. But here I’m only answerable to myself. So it’s about making sure you have that discipline. I try to keep my phone away from me too. And don’t feel bad about having time off, time away from work, whatever work is for you. When you’ve hit your targets on any given day, give yourself a reward.
How do you cope with stress?
Talk to people. People will find time for you. Until you speak to people, it’s hard to feel that anyone is going through the same thing as you are. But they are. Exercise has been very important to me. Podcasts have been helpful for de-stressing too. Desert Island Disks is very relaxing. The first moment I went on furlough was probably the most stressful point of the year for me. At the time, I felt there was going to be an impending redundancy. I was the sponsorship team at Enterprise and when it was made clear that that isn’t coming back, that was the moment of most stress because of the timing of it with the other uncertainty in the world and financial pressures. The lack of control is what makes it really difficult.
“Talk to people. People will find time for you. Until you speak to people, it’s hard to feel that anyone is going through the same thing as you are. But they are.”
What one thing would you change if you could start 2020 over again?
Nothing. I know that sounds weird because it’s impacted us all severely. It’s given me a chance to spend a lot more time with my family. I had a conversation with someone I used to work with who advised me to use it as a chance to reset, reflect and think about all the things I’ve done which have been good, and all the things I might want to change – and almost make a strategic plan for myself. It’s one of the best things I’ve done and it’s allowed me not to panic.
What one thing will you be taking with you into the new normal?
Compassion. In another three, five, ten years, I think I’ll be remembering all the people who’ve been so kind to me over this period. I always remember acts of kindness and I’ll want to be repaying those.