Our last Playbook Podcast was a rather different one. It’s now ten years since I co-founded sports agency Two Circles with my wife Claire and good friend Gareth Balch.
In recognition of that fact, Balch joined me in chatting to SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly to reflect on the journey so far. In true Playbook style, we focused on lessons learned along the way which might prove useful for others.
It’s not easy to sum up an hour’s podcast and such a long and pivotal period of your career in a short article, but I’ve done my best below to synthesise things down to five key principles we chatted about on the pod. Regular listeners, or readers of my CEO Playbook, will likely see in here some themes that have occurred before.
If the article piques your interest, you can listen to the full conversation below or here.
A clear underlying strategy
In truth, deciding our Two Circles ‘birthday’ was 1st September was a little arbitrary, based principally on the first day of trading in our accounts. We’d actually been working on the plan for Two Circles for almost a year before day one, the core tenets of which – why we existed, the culture we wanted to create – remain key touchstones of the business today. This worked for us much like the ‘strategic North Star’ that Richard Hughes from EDF Energy talked about in my SportsPro CEO Playbook.
From those key principles we built a strategy which was very explicit where we wanted the business to be three years on. We then worked back from that point to key metrics for each quarter – based on a balanced scorecard framework looking at our team, processes, clients and market positioning.
This strategy planning process continues as the cornerstone of the Two Circles business – which is now in the direct strategy running from 2020 to 2022. Co-creating a plan in this way helps to coalesce the company, which becomes increasingly important as it grows.
In a nutshell: Work back from your long-term goal to focus your effort today.
A long-term approach to client growth
Driving growth in sports agency land is tough. We tried to build products and services that would facilitate client retention. We also set a firm set of criteria for the kinds of new clients we hoped to find – looking for long-term opportunity rather than short-term gain. This meant we were far more interested in understanding the extent to which a client was engaged in our project and open to change at board level than how much they were prepared to pay us for a first project. Sometimes this meant turning down glamorous one-off projects that we felt were not destined to create long-term partnerships.
In a nutshell: You only know you’ve got a strategy when you say no to things.
Taking time to push the accelerator
The business grew quickly. However, it was only in month 20 (during which we exceeded our targets for month 36) that we felt confident enough in the model to really push the accelerator. That might feel quite late, however it was critical for us to be able to stress test all components of the business. We wanted to be sure that there was a viable, long-term model to deliver the work we were selling, with great quality people, strong client retention, quality processes and word of mouth brand development at its core. Without all four of those things, we’d have been far more reticent to keep pushing on with the business, let alone invest what it needed to double in size within months.
In a nutshell: Take time to validate your whole business model, not just the revenue line.
Building a performance-driven culture
We were very clear that we wanted to build a performance culture into the DNA of our business. This was predicated on being hungry for feedback from clients and each other. As leaders Balch and I are both naturally fairly restless souls – always striving for the extra two to three per cent that would make a difference, including from ourselves and our team. To enable that, performance planning for every employee every six months was fundamental. We hired for attitude and potential to succeed in the new field we were creating.
We balanced the ambition for the future with a mindset of doing the basics well every single time. Gold medals are not won by dreaming, but attention to detail each minute of every single training session. For us as leaders that meant a focus on every single first round interview, team feedback session or client slide. It’s exhausting, probably slightly obsessive… and absolutely critical.
Building a culture starts, of course, with recruitment. Balch talked on the pod about “making the recruitment process about the interviewee not the interviewer”. This mindset is particularly important as Two Circles continue to try to build an employee base that genuinely reflects society – an area where both Balch both and I wish we’d done more, earlier.
In a nutshell: Performance doesn’t happen by accident.
Creating confidence in investors
We’d always worked to Claire Rogan’s mantra that “good businesses secure investment”. Two Circles has twice done so – firstly through WPP and then Bruin Capital. Our mindset had been to look at the due diligence processes as creating confidence in our future investors rather than ticking boxes and enabling quality conversations about the specific support we felt the business needed. This has enabled a fast start to the new ownership structure on both occasions.
WPP supported the international growth trajectory of the business both in terms of infrastructure and profile. When expanding internationally, Two Circles blends skills from experienced team members from the business in London with local hires. The team is then focused on ‘listening from the ground up’ to refine the proposition locally.
In a nutshell: Create confidence in your investors to support your specific goals.
So to the future
With a similarly fast start in the last 18 months since acquisition by Bruin Capital, Two Circles has made two acquisitions and launched a unique new venture with the European Tour and Ryder Cup Europe. So it’s no surprise Balch feels the business is only “in the foothills” of what it is capable of achieving in the next ten years.
In Balch’s mind “digital, diversity and capital” will be a heady cocktail both for the industry in general as sport evolves to a point where it can genuinely serve “all eight billion people who live on this earth… which of course stands Two Circles in good stead”. I smiled when he said that on the podcast – it felt like a sentence that might have appeared in the last chapter of my book ‘All to Play For’. Although we work less closely together now, we’re both still following the same blueprint.
Ten words or fewer…
On the traditional Playbook question around our key message from the pod.
Balch talked about “existing to grow others” (whether team members or clients) as an extremely fulfilling and intrinsically motivating way to spend his time.
I borrowed a Michael Jordan quote: “Talent wins games, teamwork and intelligence wins championships,” which to me felt like a really good way of summing up the first ten years.
While there are already a few trophies in the Two Circles locker, the real journey starts now. Whatever you do, don’t bet against them.
Matt Rogan has spent his career creating and scaling businesses in the sports and entertainment arena.
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