Michael Payne, Author, Olympic Turnaround

In a crisis, the real measure of an organisation or an individual, is whether you can turn that crisis around to your advantage.

Michael Payne has been at the forefront of the sports marketing industry for nearly 30 years. As the IOC’s first ever Marketing and Broadcast Rights Director, he led the global marketing effort of the Olympic Movement for more than two decades, from 1983 to 2004. Nominated as one of the world’s most influential marketers by Advertising Age, Michael oversaw the development and implementation of the marketing programmes for 15 Olympic Summer and Winter Games. He captured his experiences in his best-selling book Olympic Turnaround (London Business Press, 2005).


"In a crisis, the real measure of an organisation or an individual, is whether you can turn that crisis around to your advantage."

In September 2004, following the Athens Olympic Games, Michael resigned from the IOC to become an independent sports marketing consultant joining the management team of F1, as special advisor to the Chairman – CEO, Bernie Ecclestone – in addition to taking on a number of other senior strategic advisory roles, including that of the successful London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic bids.

At the Global Leadership Summit, Michael Payne talked to Des Dearlove about the leadership challenge of staging the Olympic Games.
What made you choose business for a career?    

I actually started out as a professional ski racer on the European Cup and World Cup circuit. But the only way you could stay on the circuit was to find sponsors to pay for your next meal, your travel and so on, and I soon came to the conclusion that I was a lot better at finding sponsors than winning any of the races! This was the beginning of the sports marketing industry, back in the 70s. As often happens, if you are fortunate enough to be there at the start of an industry you can quickly become established and an expert in the field. So from that I went on to the marketing of some of the world’s major events.

You’ve had a long and very distinguished career within the industry. What are some of the highlights?

I spent more than 20 years as the Director of Marketing for the International Olympic Committee, in charge of all their business, marketing, television, and that was up until the 2004 Games in Athens. And then I decided it was time to take on a new adventure, at which time I formed my own strategic advisory group with a small, select group of clients ranging from Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One and looking at the strategy and marketing to Formula One, through to, in the Olympic world, the political campaigns for London to win the Games and four years later, for Rio to win the Games. And the related media rights and major sponsorship rights to those events.

How would you describe your leadership style?    

Number one: I try to motivate my team. The Olympics succeeds because it is a team. It’s the world’s largest event. It cannot be focused on an individual player. Clearly you get egos in play and those who like to say it's all me, me, me -- but you’ve got to recognise it’s a team.

And equally, the dynamic between the International Olympic Committee and the Organising Committee for the country hosting the Games is a very special one. It’s part franchise but you’ve got a new team for every Games who’s responsible for staging the Games. And you, at the IOC, your main role is to act as a coach, as a mentor; to challenge them. To say right, this is how it’s worked in the past but now how can you take what’s make this special, and come up with new thinking, new ideas. So, I would start off by saying that your foremost leadership role in that situation is as a coach and a mentor, to train up the new team and to bring out new thinking.

You touched on the notion of innovation. It’s very difficult to manage innovation in something that’s got such a very long and distinguished heritage. And yet, if you don’t reinvent it each time and reinvigorate it, the danger is that the Olympics starts to go stale. So how do you manage that trade-off between heritage and the future?

The Olympics is a unique animal because it has this hundred year heritage, some would argue 3,000-year heritage if you go back to Ancient Greece. And you’ve got to, on the one hand, respect that heritage but, on the other, see how you can move with the times, to come up with new thinking, innovation and ideas.

I think if you were always staging the Games in the same city it would become stale; if you were always running it with the same people it would become stale. So part of the magic of the Olympics is you have a new team from a new culture and dynamic that comes forward every four years. The Chinese will approach it very differently than the Brits, and they will approach it very differently than the Americans.

The balance you have as the Director of the IOC is to encourage that new thinking, to see how you can bring out the new culture, but make sure that in each of these local Organising Committees understand their responsibility as being part of that history. Every now and then they may come up with ideas that you feel don’t fit, don’t work, and that they need to respect that. But equally they have to feel that they’ve got enough space to play in to bring their style, their colour, their thinking.

The next London Games will be my sixteenth Olympic Games and it is remarkable how, each time, each host, each new Organising Committee team, is able to come up with new ideas, new thinking that really adds to the Olympic brand and to the success and the staging of the Games.

As you said, you’ve been involved with the Olympics for a very long time. What does it mean to you personally to see the Games come to London?

Each Games is special and unique but even though I've not lived in London for many years it’s where I was born, it’s where I went to school and was brought up. So it’s in your DNA and that will add a particular dimension, when you see the Olympic Torch going up to Buckingham Palace, when you see the crowds and celebration.

I think the London Games will be very special in terms of the street celebration and festival - very different from Beijing - they’re not going to try to compete with the stadia or whatever. There will be a sense of celebration and magic to that, because I grew up in that, so that will add another, special dimension.

One of the great things about the Olympics is that it’s like a narrative of all our lives and we all have special moments that we think about, when we think about the Olympic Games. What are the moments that really stand out for you?

The Olympics bring you so many memories and in some ways you do track the evolution of your lifestyle, through birthdays, marriages, deaths. And the big events, and whether it’s the Olympics or maybe the World Cup, you will always remember what you were doing at that moment in time. So it gives you a chronology.  I remember the first time I watched the Olympics when David Hemery won in Mexico, or the first time in Munich, when a school friend went to the Games. It gives you a reference point.

For me I think perhaps some of the most special moments, and having been privileged to watch the greatest sport, was what happened outside of the venues. So it was probably on the Torch Relay, where I would listen to the truly inspirational stories of the community people who were running with the Torch. And it was then that I really began to appreciate the true magic and power of the Olympic brand.

What was the best piece of career advice that you ever received?

The best piece of career advice was probably back in the 90s, when the IOC was going through a corruption scandal revolving around how Salt Lake City had been elected. For many months the scandal and media focus was so great that you didn’t know whether the organisation would survive through the day. It was a brutal, global meltdown and at the time, my key responsibility was to keep all the corporations on board because if the sponsors started to step out it was game over. I was shuttling backwards and forwards to the US, meeting the various CEOs of our partners.

The best advice came from two or three of those CEOs, who said you know what, in a crisis the real measure of an organisation and the measure of an individual is whether you can turn that crisis around to your advantage. Whether you’re just going to paper over the cracks or whether you will use it as a catalyst to really address things in the organisation that you’d wanted to do but couldn’t. At the time, the crisis was brutal; but we probably ended up putting 30 years of reform and restructuring into six months, which, under any other circumstances, you wouldn’t have been possible. So, for me, it was that single piece of advice to use the crisis to your advantage.

What are the most important lessons business can learn from sport?

I think there are many. It’s been interesting to see how business has been starting to understand or study sport, whether it is from team management, whether it is from a motivation stand point. One of the latest projects we’re working on with Formula One is to try to learn from the speed and turnaround with which they deliver innovation. What they do in two to three months takes two to three years in the auto industry. So you have everything from production line to engineering coming and studying the work practices of Formula One, to see how they might translate those or adapt those back into their organisation.

You are the man who virtually invented the Olympics brand. What does that brand stand for? Why is it so special?

The whole brand management of the Olympics came about probably in the late 90s, after we had encountered some problems with the ‘96 Games in Atlanta, where it was felt that certain things that Atlanta and the Americans did were not in line with the Olympic image. So we started saying how does a company manage its image, and maybe there are lessons learnt from that. At the time, if I'd used the word brand in the Olympic context I’d have been fired. Because people said the Olympics is not a brand, it’s 3,000 years of history and heritage.

But once you began to look at what is it that makes the Olympics special, what is it that makes it different, what does it stand for, in exactly the same way as any company would examine its profile and image, you began to understand its role. It’s about excellence, its about unity; its about celebrating humanity, and bringing the world together; and it’s about fair play. Interestingly, it’s not about winning.

Winning the gold medal, yes, is a symbolic moment. But more often than not, people’s most memorable moments, the ones that truly symbolise the Olympic spirit, are just people trying to do their best, whether it’s the runner who comes last or the one who trips up and gets back up and completes the race.

It’s that spirit that makes the Olympics so totally different from any other event, along with the symbolism of the flame, the protocol, which some people say it’s tired. But at the end of the day it’s also what makes it history. It’s why the Olympics is the ultimate performance for any athlete. There’s no prize money -- there’s no incentive in that sense; but the Olympic experience is priceless.

So part of our role, back at the IOC at the time, was to understand that, to then make sure you protected it and to embark on programmes or initiatives that would enhance those values.

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