Sport for Business Leadership Interview – John Gillick

John Gillick is Head of Consumer Marketing and Sponsorship at AIG Ireland.

John is one of the central figures in the Irish Sponsorship market with partnerships across Dublin GAA and LGFA as well as Tennis, Golf, Badminton, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and 20X20.

We sat down virtually with John to get his perspective as an Irish sponsor part of a global multinational company.  In a time of real unease, his words will offer some sense of calm.

SfB: How are you doing personally with all of the changes thrust upon us?

JG:  Good, healthy and going well considering the big change in life and keeping positive. It’s an adjustment and each week will get better with more routine as we adapt, juggle and embrace!

SfB: Is AIG Ireland ‘working from home’ now and how have you found that?

JG: Yes we all working from home so obviously tech is central.  The business is operating as normal and people are adapting well.

Homeworking has been good but not the same as office life with its face to face interactions which I like, but we will get used to this new norm over time.

SfB:  I know you are still playing a bit of GAA, how have you found the loss of that routine of training and playing with your friends?

JG: Yes definitely a loss.  I’m still playing at a decent enough level and enjoying the twilight years.  It’s a routine of two good training sessions a week plus a weekend game or challenge which keeps me fairly fit, so good for the body and mind.

That’s something that is hard to replace plus the banter and interactions with the lads and general switching off from work and young family life.

SfB:  Your role is involved in managing AIG’s sponsorship here across Dublin GAA, Ladies Football, Golf, Tennis and Badminton.  Have you been in discussion with your partners to talk about how this will impact on what you had planned together for this year?

JG: Yes we’ve had communication with our sporting partners and we’re lucky to have strong ties and great relationships with all of them – Dublin GAA, Dublin Ladies Football, Dublin Camogie, The LGFA, Tennis Ireland, Badminton Ireland, the GUI and the ILGU.

There is obviously a new reality that is shaping 2020 that will require a change to how the season was originally planned out. I think the country was thrown into a bit of turmoil as schools, crèches and workplaces closed and this crisis escalated rapidly so it took a little bit of time for everyone to gather themselves, their thoughts and reset before engaging and contingency planning.

It is a bit early to jump to any conclusions as the situation is still fluid and until we have a clearer picture of where we are going with this crisis it is hard to have detailed discussions.

At present 80 per cent of our activation pipeline is on hold as we were about to enter our 6 month peak season of activity so that has been challenging.

I think we will know a lot more on timelines and impact to the 2020 season over the next 10-14 days which will help us all.

My view at the moment and since things escalated is to be positive and supportive to partners.  We need to keep up good communication, plan for different scenarios, be agile and embrace innovation.

SfB:  It’s a time of great uncertainty first from a public health perspective but also in terms of how sport will look when it returns.  Have you been able to offer comfort to your sporting partners in terms of AIG being there for them?

JG: This crisis will end and life will return to normal and we will still be here motivated to support and activate our sponsorship partnerships, execute our plans, keep building our brand and business in Ireland but obviously we can’t control timelines.

No doubt every sporting body in the country wants their flagship competitions and general seasons fulfilled as much as possible this year and they will do their best to do that for the athletes and fans but also for their sponsors and partners.

These are difficult times, but the relationships we have with our sporting partners will endure and we’re confident that these partnerships will still deliver great value for both sides in 2020.

However, until we know when things can open up, it is really hard to know what that season and window timeline will look like.

The rule book will need to be flexible and 2020 could be a year of special rules, exceptions, agility and generally thinking outside the box in order to try and fulfil the season commitments so I’d imagine compromises will have to be made by all stakeholders to salvage something from 2020.

SfB:  This is very much a global issue and the company has a massive global reach.  Are you being guided globally at a local level in terms of marketing and sponsorship?

JG: Yes we have a strong global and regional team who guide us and there is a big focus around communications, messaging and tone.

That has been a great help while our leadership here in Dublin have been brilliant too, offering guidance in business terms but also reassurance to staff in the current situation.

From a day to day consumer marketing and sponsorship perspective there is a pragmatic approach so we have a good level of local autonomy to execute our plans and strategies in line with our local business goals and objectives.

However, in terms of our global sponsorships such as the All Blacks / New Zealand Rugby and the AIG Women’s British Open, there would be a high level of coordination and engagement with the global teams on those activations.

SfB:  Depending on how long this carries on, have you been able to talk with your agencies about how you might adapt some of the ways in which you interact with sport or is it too soon?

JG: Yes and credit to all our great agencies and partners who weren’t found wanting in engaging quickly with good positive ideas and support.

As part of our planning, we have PR, media buying, digital, creative, production, ambassadors and other suppliers so they mostly have had to go on pause but the response and attitude has been great and we are actively looking at potential rescheduling windows and ways to do things differently.

We do have a number of initiatives we are continuing to activate such as our Effort is Equal and women in sport 20×20 plans with an example being the current AIG and 20×20 ‘Show your Skills’ competition we launched in February that aligns well with all the skills and content being produced out there by individuals.

We are planning the 2020 launch of the AIG and Sport for Business ‘Game Changer Network’ where AIG’s Louise Kidd is a founder and we have some adapted AIG sponsorship-related CSR activity we are going to complete.

Then going forward we are having discussions with our agencies on activity around Dublin GAA, LGFA, Golf and other properties. We have seen and heard great ideas on how we could do business and activate our sponsorships in these restricted times.

A lot of that revolves around technology and rethinking the usual ways of doing things.

New activation opportunities have also been identified so we are looking at them but we are very conscious this is a tough time. Concept and tone needs to be right so our audiences will receive anything we do positively.

SfB: Is there anything you have seen over the past ten days that has lifted your spirits?

JG: Definitely and on both a personal and professional level.

On a personal level, I think the attitude and resilience of the Irish people, the government and Health Service managing this, and the sports world rowing in behind it to help support the public message has been very heartening and positive.

Special mention has to go to our brilliant medical, emergency and other front line staff but not forgetting essential retailers, transport companies and others who are keeping the country going with no doubt some added risk to themselves.

On a professional level, the AIG management and my colleagues across the business in AIG have been excellent and very proactive from early on in this global crisis to make sure employees are given protection and the ability to work from home plus other useful supports.

Finally, our suppliers and partners have been great so far in all this and that is lifting to see when I know they must have concerns of their about their own but are still positive and supportive so that makes me more positive. I think this is a great reflection on the overall marketing and sponsorship industry in Ireland which will bounce back even stronger.

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