CONQUERING HORSE RACING’S GREAT DIVIDE

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

It’s been asked here before and it will keep being asked as time is running out: Why can’t horse racing, meaning racing clubs, attract good creative talent- creative in all its many ways where management and people skills intermingle with strategic thinking and The Art Of War.

Having good horse racing executives is one thing, and even here, it’s too often a bit of pot luck as some of those who get manage to pass the litmus test keep failing, but are still kept on because misery loves company and they all blend into one soufflé of blobby ineptitude.

The fact that every single racing club doesn’t have a Director of Creative Services on their organisation charts, shows the “importance” placed on the creative product. Who needs it, right?

Apart from the consistently good work by France Galop, it’s why there’s so much work that looks like it’s the end product of creative by committee. It often is, a committee comprising those who don’t get out much, yes, but also those who are happy with Okay Is Good Enough, especially if approved up there where the buck stops. Could these people ever be wrong? Never. Not to all the Yes People around them. Hail to the chief!

There’s then the trickle down effect where average promotions people plucked from here, there and everywhere, and without a home run in their portfolios suddenly become “marketing executives”. It’s the Peter Principle rearing its ugly head again and incompetence being rewarded.

Away from the chaos and miscommunication this causes internally, where it totally runs off course like the day Pakistan Star finally decides to run and heads straight to the nearest McDonald’s, is when these people have to deal with the heads of creative along with bona fide marketing directors from other industries and return to their racing clubs after a business lunch not knowing what hit them.

When in advertising and Head of Creative services for one of the leading agencies, I fired the HKJC. It was for time wasting and not knowing what they wanted. We had been given a simple job and it was assigned to a good young team. Due to a bad brief, this simple job required change after change after change. When looking at the hours spent on this one job which was eating into this team’s time on other accounts, I accompanied them to 1 Sports Road for a meeting. After ten minutes of listening to their then-marketing person talk in riddles and psycho babble, I asked my team to pack up, gave the HKJC marketing guru a lecture on how to write out an advertising brief, told her how lucky she was to have a job and left. With a smile.

The HKJC has such a strong brand with Happy Wednesday- a huge slice of evolutionary pizza that’s hardly been tapped and a million miles away from the days when there was a beer garden, something named Sassy Wednesday and advertising that looked like it was for an escort club in Macau.

Having been personally involved in the Happy Wednesday brand for 4-5 years, it’s evolved into what it is by often going against the grain, refusing to be bogged down by bureaucracy and the unwavering support of the HKJC CEO. How much longer will I continue working on the brand? Until I’m unhappy with the direction it’s taking, or the ride stops being fun. One intuitively knows when to close one door and open another.

This is what many in racing clubs don’t understand. There’s a lot that’s not understood, but just to keep it simple, there’s not enough importance placed on the creative product in what is a turnover driven industry. Another thing: Not knowing who and what is good.

Unless not having seen something that looks like something else, very few racing executives can embrace originality. There’s the old cliché about “fear of change”. That’s wrong. There’s often too much arrogance, false bravado and a huge pay package at the end of a contract for any “fear”. It’s actually the inability to be worldly enough to develop the people skills to understand and communicate with those who live outside of horse racing and need convincing as to what’s in it for them. Convincing them when they’re saying No is horse racing’s greatest hurdle to expanding its customer base. The thinking to achieve this seems to have had a lobotomy.

For example, horse racing using social media has been a non-starter from Day One. Why? The content often does absolutely zero to connect with those who are not the sport’s captive audience.

On Twitter is often news that can be found on racing sites, or, if they still exist today, racing columns in what were once known as newspapers. It’s like the rest of the world having moved on to Netflix, but horse racing banging the same old drum over and over again until one just switches channels and never returns.

It’s just another serving of corporate waffles, but with racing executives continuing to chant the “We need to be customercentric” mantra. How do these executives know their customers when they hardly get out to meet these people? Almost their entire world is gobbled up with everything to do with horse racing and refusing to grasp the fact that hundreds of thousands out there are not the least bit interested in what is something still trying to be accepted into the bigger world of sports entertainment.

It’s why horse racing cannot attract big and, more importantly, brands and sponsors who can ride in armed with big marketing dollars and databases worth millions.

What do they get in return and when was the last time horse racing pitched its attributes to a Chanel, a Nike, a Shanghai Tang, an Apple etc? And some jockeys wonder why they can’t get sponsors? Ever seen Ronaldo? That’s as dumb as a former CEO of the HKJC telling me over lunch he wanted then-champion Hong Kong jockey Basil Marcus to be the Michael Jordan of horse racing. Please.

Having younger bloggers parroting thoughts based on briefs from the racing hierarchy past their Use By Date for whom they work and trying to “pump things up” is embarrassingly hokey. It’s terminally uncool. Who’s this fluff meant for? Those running racing clubs and their mates? What’s the point? You can’t learn stupid.

As with anything in life, one must be selective in applauding what is genuinely good. It’s not people randomly pressing the “like” button on Facebook when it comes to their friends’ music. The other day, I asked a singer whether she really thought a performance uploaded onto the social media platform by someone we knew was good. No, but she just pressed “like” to be nice. She hadn’t even listened to the performance. But doesn’t this act of tea and sympathy give a false sense of importance to what is average?

Presently going through my Second Coming on Facebook, I refuse to play this game. And it’s a stupid game where your credibility could be harmed by being associated with mediocrity. It’s like those on Twitter who immediately press the “like” and “Retweet” buttons when you know very well that they either haven’t read or listened to what you have decided to share with a certain group of people. So what do you do? Drop them. They’re only interested in belonging.

In the marketing of horse racing, sure, there’s a need to connect and keep racing fans informed. It’s being an online reporter or part of the online Letters To Editor page. This is a given. But where’s the content that’s going to attract, and entice those hundreds of thousands outside of horse racing to have even a glimpse into this world?

My ex wife with whom I still have a strong bond has finally accepted the fact that I am involved in horse racing, but glad that I have interests elsewhere. To her- and there are many like her- horse racing is only about gambling and is this dark world inhabited by crooks and cheats- a highly addictive world that can lead many astray. She’s a smart woman and she’s not completely alone when it comes to this line of thinking.

Look at the shakeup going on in the British bloodstock industry today. Look at the outrageous prices many Chinese owners are duped into paying for horses worth a quarter of the price. Look at the childish petty Cain versus Abel politics between racing clubs. Read the rants of keyboard warriors against trainers and jockeys.

Needless to say, none of this is exactly good for the perception of horse racing which has the image of being a crooked little pastime run and controlled by crooked little men. How on earth can this be appealing? It’s not.

Making horse racing appealing is what every racing club should be looking at along with ensuring there’s the best possible racing product that’s fair to everyone.

The latter is something Alan Aitken, racing writer with the South China Morning Post, does so well. He also understands horse racing from a global perspective and doesn’t hold back when he sees what should be a level playing field start to wobble.

It’s when looking at those who can make horse racing likeable is where there’s a serious missing link. Having a Joao Moreira, Karis Teetan and Tommy Berry help. They’re approachable and they’re great for horse racing. Having a Winx helps. The question is how to bottle and market this to where current non racing people go?

The series of HKJC Happy Wednesday nights is taking giant baby steps in doing this- and taking horse racing there- wherever there is. There’s still much more work to be done, but at least it’s a solid start and focussing and building on this is key. Going walkies with knee jerk reactions is what must be curbed. This only creates confusion and panic.

Talking to South Africa-based racing writer Robyn Louw, below, what she had to say- and she had much to say- is something that every racing executive should read and absorb.

There’s a strong light shining these days in every industry on those who can and those who pretend they can. The latter is being revealed every day. As for what Robyn has to say, it’s more than an eye opener. It really is. She should be an executive with a racing club. Really.

Robyn knows her shit. And more.

“Why does horse racing find it hard to identify, employ and keep good talent? I think it’s pretty simple. Racing is a sport. It is such a serious sport that it has become a business as well as a global industry. George Orwell said, ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’

“If we are then, what we repeatedly do, then this is a worry, for as the Bible warns, you reap what you sow.

“We are defined by our actions and judged by the company we keep. We can spend money on advertising and marketing campaigns and plaster any number of beautiful photos on billboards, but ultimately it’s what we actually do, how we do it and who we do it with that tells people who we are. As Gregory David Roberts wrote in his best-selling Shantaram, ‘We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them.’

“So let’s take a look at that. What does racing do? How does it conduct itself and how does it do business? Because that is ultimately what defines the sport and the industry as a whole and will dictate how attractive, or not, we are to the outside world.

“Racing is, at heart, a noble sport. It is, or at least, it should be – the relentless pursuit of excellence. The endeavour of constantly testing, refining and improving the Thoroughbred breed. Chasing Tesio’s piece of wood at the end of the Epsom Derby. Who wouldn’t want to be part of something that is all about excellence, right?

“However, the ever increasing prize money and ludicrous amounts thrown at non pattern, meaningless races threatens to take our eye off the ball. And when it becomes about the money, we head into dangerous territory. We splinter and become disparate, mired in secrecy, dark confidences and sticky liaisons and while we may smile when the flashbulbs pop, off camera it’s every man for himself. It’s a no-holds barred, by any means necessary, bare knuckle fight for the finish line and damn the consequences.

“With the exception of a select few, we show little or no loyalty to our horses, to our heroes or even to one another. Today’s heroes may warm their faces on their five minutes of fame, but by tomorrow, they are old news and the day after, will be thrown out with the trash and forgotten as quickly. No-one goes gently into that good night.

“Worse yet, rather than praising and uplifting the best, we have a habit of celebrating and accelerating the worst of our ranks, the proverbial I in team and the legends in their own lunchtimes. And they, in turn spawn and employ an army of mini me’s and populate the admin ranks with more of the same until everyone is too busy being a super hero and no-one is doing any actual work.

“If this is who we are, what we do and who we do it with, then it is quite clear why the racing industry struggles to attract good, loyal, staff capable of independent thought.

“If we employ poor staff and we treat our people, our horses and our industry badly, it’s difficult to encourage people to want to do business with us. Or more specifically, as we are a leisure industry, enjoy themselves with us.

We can try and window dress with any number of side shows, but ultimately it is putting lipstick on a pig. Focussing on the lipstick is fine, but it’s never going to change the fact that we are, in fact, painting a pig.”

#horseracing #HKJC #HongKong #HappyWednesday #AlanAitken #JoaoMoreira #KarisTeetan #TommyBerry #Winx #RobynLouw

This entry was posted in HAPPY WEDNESDAY, Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hong Kong Racing, Horse Racing, HORSE RACING AND SOCIAL MEDIA, JOAO MOREIRA, The horse racing industry, WINFRIED ENGELBRECHT-BRESGES and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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