Please tell us a little about Michael Varney
Michael Gordon Sceales Varney, I was born in Johannesburg 28 years ago. I’m currently single and engaged to my job!
Where did you grow up and tell us a little about your family
I come from an enormous family! The Sceales side of the family is my mother’s and there were five children whilst Dad’s side, the Varney branch, had four boys with the end result being an extremely long lunch table! I am one of five children, four very protective boys of one overwhelmed sister!
Where did you go to school / varsity and what did you study?
I attended prep school at Pridwin in Johannesburg for 8 years followed by 5 years of boarding school at Uplands College in White River, Mpumalanga. I took a gap year travelling the States, the UK and a bit of Europe before heading off to UCT where I completed my Bachelor of Social Science. I then had a fantastic year at the Wits Business School as class president where I had the opportunity of a three month internship at Investec in the Private Bank whilst completing my Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration.
Graduating just after the world’s economic meltdown was not the ideal time to be looking for a job! I began working at McCann Erickson where the exposure I got on clients such as MasterCard combined with the understanding of how the back of house of an agency works, was and continues to be invaluable. My mother worked in sport marketing and I spent a lot of my childhood as a runner on enormous sporting projects including golf, tennis, cricket and even surfing. Sport marketing was in my blood, so when an opportunity arose to join Matchworld as a Portfolio Manager I jumped at the offer! I worked on the SuperSport Cricket Series, the FIFA World Cup Fan Parks and last but not least the SANSUI Summer Cup (SSC). I had a great working relationship with the SSC client who still remains one of my mentors. It was Irene who asked if I would consider moving across to the Corporate Marketing team at the JD Group (JDG) as their Sponsorship and Promotions Manager. Throughout my time at JDG I worked closely with Clyde Basel and the rest of the Phumelela team. Clyde’s vision for the marketing of the sport was something that excited me. I joined Phumelela at the beginning of 2011 as their On-Course Marketing Manager focusing primarily on the marketing of the events at the Phumelela racing centres. With the addition of Kenilworth Racing and the Mashonaland Turf Club, our focus increased. Minor internal restructuring as well as the go ahead for ‘Racing, It’s a Rush’ changed my responsibilities and my title to National Marketing Manager.
How did you get into racing?
My grandfather, Ted Sceales was the CEO of SAB and really promoted corporate sponsorship of sport in South Africa. He was a Springbok angler and a huge fan of racing. He had horses with Cookie Coetzee and was a member of Germiston. He became a steward at Germiston and later at Turffontein as well. He was sadly killed in a car accident in 1967 but my grandmother, Peggy continued to race frequently. My aunt and uncle, Sally and George Joubert took over the reins. Uncle George continued to own horses, became a steward at Turffontein in 1986 and ten years later the Deputy Chairman. The Jouberts continue to race the horses they have shares in as honorary members of the RA. My cousin Pierre Joubert, as part owner of Malteme, shouted the Steinhoff Summer Cup champion home in 2006. Having personally only been an irregular race goer, my family’s racing stock helps grow my understanding of the sport.
Any favourite horses / heroes?
Malteme was the first champion in my eyes, but more recently the thrill of Louis the King and his story really resonated with me. From the beginning of my time at Phumelela Joey Soma and the Snaiths have been both supportive and generous with their time and advice.
Describe your typical day
With a lot going on at any one time, I keep in constant touch with the teams around the country. I am lucky to have the support of individuals who pull rabbits out of the proverbial hat on a continuous basis! We do our best to plan as much in advance as possible including our own marketing roll outs with our creative agencies, getting the sport’s story into as much media as possible as well as working with our sponsors and their agencies to define the strategy behind their sponsorship to ensure we tick their boxes. It results in a fair amount of meetings and travel out of the office, but we can overcome this with remote access on tablets and phones etc.
What do you see as the major challenges in our industry?
One of our greatest challenges is the misperception the public has of the sport. I see it in my own friends, ie we’re not a sport, it’s unattainable, you have to be wealthy, it’s all about betting etc. One of the objectives of the new campaign is to reposition the sport in the mind of the man on the street. Secondly, one of our biggest challenges and focuses is to ensure that the race day experience keeps the race goer coming back. We have made some great strides in this and continue to improve. Lastly, we need to work on the management of our relationships with both the sporting and the lifestyle media to create top of mind awareness.
How will ‘Racing, It’s a Rush’ help?
Without giving a marketing babble type answer, we need to reposition the sport as discussed. We will then be able to increase the media appeal to both existing, sporting and lifestyle media. One of the easiest tools at our disposal is showcasing the behind the scenes elements of the sport. The education element is obviously incredibly important, however we are cognitive that this is something we need to introduce to the novice slowly without scaring them off with too much information at once. Finally, if we give the race goer an experience they want to share on social media and word of mouth, we have got to a place where the brand is being endorsed by the consumer itself. The spinoff is attracting a percentage of these consumers into becoming investors into the sport through ownership etc. It comes down to communication.
You are the name / face behind the new ‘Racing, It’s a Rush’ concept – how did it evolve?
It has been a long process but the stakeholders who are funding the brand and its campaign realise the importance of the brand’s development and have backed it 150%. The stakeholders include the Racing Association, Gold Circle, Phumelela Gaming Limited and Thoroughpedia. Getting the stakeholders on board was probably the easiest part. We then worked out the objectives behind the development of the brand and how we could align these to each of the stakeholder’s objectives. We then set about looking for strategic partners in terms of creative and PR agencies that could assist us in turning the big idea into a reality. A huge amount of work went into the prelaunch campaign to our staff and then ultimately the media. However we are only at the beginning and have a lot ahead of us!
What does the logo mean?
It is difficult to get someone who doesn’t share the same passion for the sport to come to the races without another hook. This is where the ampersand comes in. It is all about the sport “and”, so what is the “and”? This was the element we could use to tell the story of just how fruitful any day at the races could be. Racing & Lifestyle, Racing & Networking Opportunities, Racing & an opportunity to dress up and be seen, Racing & Craft Beer, Racing & the Prawn Festival etc. Our hero is always Racing, but it is the opportunities it offers which will bring a novice audience initially and hand them the platform to fall in love with the thoroughbred.
Explain ‘the golden age of racing’ is coming back?
The ‘golden age of racing” was when the general public filled the stadiums purely to witness the prowess of the thoroughbred and the mortal that steered it to victory. The golden age is when we convert the casual bystander into someone who at the very least respects the sport for its attributes all the way to the evangelical who share their experiences because they have come to love the sport of kings based on whatever translates into the ‘Rush” they get out of it.
The ‘R20 punter’ makes up the majority of our business – where do they fit in?
The largest percentage of our target audience is the urban middle class with disposable income who are looking for entertainment and lifestyle opportunities. We have taken a cradle to grave approach in that if we instil horse racing as an attainable option to a younger generation, they will carry it through with them throughout their lives. Our target audiences are new as well as existing sponsors, media and fans.
This campaign is not focussed primarily in carrying betting information, however the existing punter will hopefully be touched by the campaign through a better race day experience, and through the various platforms they can now access relevant information on the lifestyle aspects of the sport. I’m sure most people would agree that a day at the races with a great crowd elevates the experience of the day at the track.
Tell us a little about the launch events last week – both the media launch last Tuesday as well as the industry launch on Wednesday – did they go off well and what kind of feedback have you received so far?
Tuesday’s launch went off really well and it was the “fluffier” side of things which the “non sporting” media seem to carry. Lots of celebrities and red carpet moments – this is not to be ignored as the exposure we have received and continue to, assist in the repositioning of the sport. The soft launch at Equus Awards was probably most hair-raising for us as the audience you are speaking to is the toughest to please. I was prepared for the criticism after the presentation, but also relieved to receive support and feedback from a variety of role-players. I think the industry acknowledges that we need to work together to carry the sport into the future and although we may not hit the nail on the head every time, we are doing our best to carry us into the Golden Age of Horseracing!