The first words out of Steve Ziff’s mouth for this interview with CMO.com were: “I’ve always been a marketer.”
He certainly has.
Through stints in the agency world, Office Depot, the Florida Panthers, and the San Diego Padres, Ziff has been studying the playbook for sports marketing. Now he is calling the signals at the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. While admitting that running marketing for an NFL team is both high-profile and a lot of fun, Ziff, vice president of marketing and digital media, is clear that “marketing the team has become about data capture and lead generation.”
Read on for a look at what it’s like inside the NFL—and how cool it is to be around the field on free agency day.
CMO.com: VP of marketing for the Jacksonville Jaguars sounds like a pretty cool job. Can you give us an idea of your journey to the NFL?
Ziff: I’ve always been a marketer. My degree is a B.S. in marketing. I worked for a promotional marketing company in a grassroots marketing internship in college and wound up going to work for that company out of college in Chicago. They were more of a promotions agency than anything.
That led me to the agency business in Boston. After moving to Boston to work in their corporate headquarters, that business wound up getting acquired by a much larger agency that was conglomerating a group of agencies to make a super youth- and college-focused agency. They ultimately became more of a general-market ad agency, and I moved over and worked with them.
But my family and I desired a move back to the South, so I wound up working for Office Depot in their retail-marketing area. I led retail marketing and their grand openings program, as well as all of the store remodel marketing. As part of my role in that organization, I was involved in managing a number of local sponsorships, and one of them was the Florida Panthers Hockey Club.
CMO.com: Enter “sports.”
Ziff: Exactly. There came an opportunity to join the Panthers because they had a need for someone who really understood sponsorships, advertising, marketing, and activation. The team president and I hit it off, and he hired me to, basically, rebuild that area of their business. Ultimately, he promoted me up to basically the CMO, and in total I was there for about seven years.
From there, I went to the San Diego Padres as more of a head of sales. This was just to take a little bit of a turn in the sports business so I could run revenue. But I soon realized that I was still a marketer at heart. Running a sales force wasn’t really what I was going to get up in the morning and desire to do.
Prior to that, the Jaguars had been recruiting me to come there instead of going to San Diego, but it just wasn’t the right time. When that year ended in San Diego, however, it was a natural opportunity to go back to Jacksonville and lead the marketing. I quickly acquired digital and creative services, and eventually game presentation and production.
CMO.com: Can you give me an idea of what you learned at Office Depot and some of the other places you worked that were germane to what goes on in the sports world?
Ziff: It couldn’t have been a better pre-education for the sports business, especially as a marketer. It’s one thing to get put in roles by osmosis or longevity or tenure—those types of reasons. People acquire titles and responsibilities that they’re probably not experts in. But for me, having worked in an ad agency environment that was very freewheeling and creative and, at that time, promotions-focused, allowed for strategic and unique ideas to be the “leader in the clubhouse” of what was important. It provided me with a great foundation in core marketing, with grassroots and promotions being the heart of those learnings.
And then moving to Office Depot—which was really coming from outside the box into the ultimate “box”—I found myself in a very corporate, structured environment. This allowed me to refine those parts of me as a marketer that I wasn’t going to be able to do at an agency exclusively. If I had worked in sports from day one, I would never have had that background training that really was fundamentals-based and more, kind of, MBA-based. It really refined me, and I did some of the best work I’ve ever done there in a much more structured environment.
CMO.com: OK, but there are certainly some differences when it comes to marketing in sports, no?
Ziff: Absolutey. Sports is kind of the last area to move; it’s the tail that’s wagged by the dog because it’s slow to react to the needs of the emerging marketplace around it. It is a business that has traditionally been family-owned, has not had a real need to progress at a rate that business in the general sense has, and has been allowed by the nature of the way it makes money to be reflective of other factors that didn’t always require leading-edge marketers or Ivy League-educated MBAs to make an impact.
But now it has absolutely turned into that. The NFL and other leagues are trillion-dollar businesses. As a function of that, there are more Ivy Leaguers, data geeks, and analysts, like me, flocking to it than ever before, because, for one, it’s high-profile, and two, it’s exciting and fun.
CMO.com: What is involved in marketing an NFL team these days?
Ziff: We’re very metaphorical to the everyday business out there at a Fortune 100 level, with just different objectives and a much smaller total organizational structure.
The marketers are at the center of the universe in a lot of cases. It’s a very important role, where marketing is a support function for a lot of our revenue lines, which are critically important. These are multimillion-dollar revenue lines. So driving sales is our No. 1 priority. And I think all marketers in the sports business would tell you that they’re highly revenue-focused because that’s how we really set our trajectory on a total basis.
CMO.com: This revenue—is it from ticket sales, or is it from hats and jerseys, or both and more?
Ziff: In most universes, ticket sales and sponsorships are the No. 1 and 2 revenue drivers of the entire team’s total business, beyond every league’s revenue-share component, where the league is sharing television revenue or other ancillary streams with each club. As it relates to merchandising, every team is different in terms of what percentage that they can take in, whether they own their business or they’ve partnered with somebody.
To me, marketing the team has become about data capture and lead generation. For us, it’s not a guarantee that people walk in the door and fill those stands week in, week out, even in one of the smallest markets in the NFL that is completely beholden to its football team. I mean, we have 1.75 million people here in the greater Jacksonville area, and we’re not sold out on every given Sunday. It takes a lot of work and effort to find people, identify and profile them, segment the data, and then go after these people from a sales perspective.
I think a lot of people are surprised when they hear that’s what the team ticket sales armies are really about. But the marketing and analytics teams behind the sales army really makes it go. It’s all about making sure that people are being effective and optimizing their opportunities every time out, where we’re not going to have success moving new products, creating premium options, native content, or what have you. It does take the marketing touch to ensure that all of those things are properly aligned.
CMO.com: So it’s fair to say that the NFL and some of the teams have been a little late to the digital marketing and social media world and that you are catching up now. How important is that for you?
Ziff: It’s extraordinarily important. For us, native content is king. I think we do a very good job with a small organization of being very nimble and very data-driven. I think we’re one of the top teams in pro sports that makes data-driven decisions. We’ve had a number of teams call and ask about our strategies and the way we’ve developed a tech and data stack that supports our overall marketing strategy.
As a sports team, our challenges are very similar to the Fortune 100 marketers, but we’re hyper-refined and efficient, and we can move more nimbly than some of them can.
So, across the universe of sports, yes, there are a number of teams that need to catch up. I think they’re all feeling pressure now and being pulled forward rather than kind of hanging back purposefully. Now their leaders are hearing it in public environments from their leagues, governance from the commissioner, or from business partners or corporate partners. They’re starting to question their organizations’ ability to handle a complex market and sales universe, and they’re starting to take shape in the way that they need to reflect change in their organizations to get to what’s important for their future.
CMO.com: Would you agree, then, that at the top level, marketing in the sports world is really like any media and entertainment enterprise?
Ziff: One hundred percent. In some cases, it’s more challenging. We’ve got one genre, one focus, and a product that is extraordinarily emotional.
Our biggest asset is figuring out a way to create and build hope. That is the marketing challenge on the brand and digital content side: What can we do to create hope? Because hope is what creates commitment, and commitment is the most important thing that it takes to want to buy season tickets or a larger-level asset from a sponsorship. You’ve got to want to be committed to our brand. It’s not just a financial commitment; it’s an emotional commitment and a time commitment that fans need to make, and those commitments come from their belief that it’s a smart investment.
So for marketing, we need to build hope in people because hope is what makes the business move.
CMO.com: What does your marketing team look like? What different kinds of people do you have working for you, and what different roles do they play?
Ziff: We’re set up very much like an agency, from a design and digital perspective. From a core marketing perspective, I’ve kind of separated the universe into the left brain and right brain.
So I’ve got a marketing strategy side, which is much more focused on an analytical view of marketing, a data-driven marketing approach to everything that we do. It is highly focused on evaluation and constant measurement of everything—research-based, analysis-based—to try to understand a better universe of who our customer really is at all times and create programmatic opportunities to find people and get those people to sales.
Then we’ve got more of the right brain, which is a block-and-tackle group. It’s just more grassroots, brand-centric, promotion-centric, and connects more to our sponsorship department and our media in terms of buying media, creating promotions, and harvesting leads to put into that left brain.
These groups are not very extensive in terms of the number of bodies. You’re probably talking about on the strategy side, maybe four total bodies, and on the execution side another three or four total in the marketing group alone.
CMO.com: How do they all actually work together?
Ziff: They have connectivity and collaboration with production assets, digital content creators, as well as distributors and our design team. We have everything that an ad agency or a full-service agency has in-house, and we do things at such a high-quality level. If you come to a football game and see high-quality 8K video content on a scoreboard, you’re seeing the product of everything we do in-house.
So we are a full in-house agency that supports everything the company does. And, again, probably no group has more than six to eight bodies in total in their little universe, so everyone’s very efficient and optimized.
CMO.com: Is there anything that you’ve learned specifically in your role at the Jaguars that you could share with digital leaders out there?
Ziff: I think one of the most important marketing values is PR—nowadays, more than ever before. Partnering with your PR team, but also, being the kind of marketer who’s looking to create PR for your company, is extraordinarily important. I think the combination of a real, integrated marketing approach that relies on PR to blow out the story that you want to ultimately tell, at the customer level, is critical to having anything really take on any type of virality. Designing marketing strategies and programs to be PR-based is the best way to make them grow at a pace you don’t have to spend to grow them.
We can’t create things to become viral—you know, that’s not something that’s possible; things just become topically germane and contextually relevant to create virality. What we’re really looking to do is build stories that are unique, and we’re looking to find niche opportunities to communicate things that are creative or important. I know a lot of marketers really don’t stress that. They’re not striving for greatness for their company; they’re looking to deliver KPIs, deliver metrics back, and look good as it relates to their silo.
As a marketer, I don’t believe in having a silo. I don’t focus on my personal brand as much as I think others do. I believe in the company’s growth and development and a “never settle” mentality, and that marketing will help our company explode from a revenue perspective and from a global brand perspective. I think if everyone looked at their opportunities as a marketer, truly, as how others see them and what their opportunities really are inside of a company to make change, they have a lot more opportunity than they probably perceive. I think that is where some of them stop dialing it up. The dial-up effect is what gets them out of that seat and into the next seat.
CMO.com: When we first got on the phone, things seemed a little crazy. Can you tell me what’s going on in your offices today?
Ziff: Today is a very important day in the life cycle of the football team, which is the start of free agency. It’s the start of the new league year, and, as I’m sitting here, brand new players—such as Calais Campbell (right), who’s a four-year, $60-million man, one of our new defensive linemen and studs—are passing by my office. We’re spending time with their families today, and their publicists and PR agents, to help them really understand that we’re going to blow up their brand, make them look like heroes, and ingratiate them into our community.
It’s a really important day: It’s the day we begin shaping our football team for the future, and we start to realize who our next stars are going to be and how we’re going to market them. So it’s a fun day here for sure.