Sir Keith’s ambitious plans for the IMOCA

Posted on 29 April 2013 by Valencia Sailing

Sir Keith Mills, 62, has spent his entire working life in the advertising and marketing business. He quit school at the age of 15, with no qualifications, and worked his way up from the bottom, founding his own advertising company in 1985. In 1988 he set up Air Miles, an incentive scheme that filled spare capacity on planes, and eventually sold it to British Airways, making a small fortune.

In 2001 he created Nectar, a brand loyalty program that became the biggest one in the UK with over 19 million customers, nearly half of the adult population. According to London’s Guardian newspaper, the other half “can buy T-shirts that pithily answer the eternal question with the response: ‘No I haven’t got a fucking Nectar card.’” He then sold Nectar and netted £160 million.

In September 2003 he became Chairman of London 2012 and embarked on two major marketing campaigns. The first one was to pitch the London candidacy to the International Olympic Committee, something he was successful in as the UK capital was selected as host city in July 2005. The second major marketing campaign involved the actual London Olympics and Sir Keith’s team was able to bring in more than £1 billion of sponsorship money.

If such a successful, self-made businessman that has been selling and marketing products for nearly half a century states in a press conference that he has found an “extraordinary business opportunity” for him and that he will invest “several” million euros of his own money, there must be little doubt he knows what he’s talking about. If he then closes the same press conference by saying that he spent his entire career marketing products and that this one is “one of the best” he has seen then you wish you could have invested some of your savings there as well.

What does all this have to do with sailing? A lot, especially with single-handed and double-handed offshore sailing, and all these enthusiastic statements were made during the international press conference Sir Keith Mills held in Lausanne, Switzerland last Saturday.

From left, Georgio Pauen (OSM Executive Vice Chairman), Luc Talbourdet (IMOCA president) and Sir Keith Mills. Lausanne, 27 April 2013. Photo copyright Olivier Blanchet / DPPI / OSM was one of the invited media at the two-day event Sir keith and his newly-founded company Open Sports Management (OSM) hosted in the posh Beau Rivage hotel on the shores of Lake Léman. On Friday afternoon, François Gabart, recent winner of the Vendée Globe, was presented with the IMOCA World Champion trophy while on Saturday morning, Keith Mills, together with Georgio Pauen (OSM Executive Vice Chairman) and Luc Talbourdet (IMOCA president) held a press conference and talked about their vision for the IMOCA and their four-year plan to “take IMOCA global”.

Keith Mills bought the global commercial rights of the IMOCA class and in October 2012 he set up a new company, Open Sport Management (OSM) to manage them, becoming in a way the Bernie Ecclestone of offshore racing. Our report here will focus on the Saturday press conference which we will have to warn, was long on ambitions and enthusiasm but, unfortunately, short on details. This isn’t a criticism but rather an observation after two days of talks with most of the people involved.

Enthusiasm and huge potential
Again, to state that Keith Mills is enthusiastic about the IMOCA class and its prospects would be the understatement of the year. He strongly feels it is a “truly unique” sport. He has been involved with many sports and feels he has never seen “anything like that.” To him, the IMOCA class is very similar to the French wine. According to Mills, “France kept the best wine for itself for too long. It also kept the best sailing races for itself for too long.” He was quick to stress that this doesn’t imply it will lose its French accent. It will simply expand internationally. It’s important for him and his company to maintain the incredible support offshore sailing has in France. This view was seconded by Luc Talbourdet, IMOCA President, who stated that “the IMOCA Class was undervalued outside France and Keith saw that.”

All three panelists conveyed the same message. Single-handed offshore sailing is the only sport in the world where an athlete competes 24 hours per day over a period of three months. It is unique in its ability to demonstrate the personal endeavor of sailors and produce tremendous stories. This is what in their view the media want and this is what they will strive to provide. For Mills it is important to “capture the stories and bring them to life.” He took the example of a broach or a serious incident onboard a yacht. The skipper’s first and foremost priority is to secure his boat and then report, maybe two-three days later.

Four Key objectives
For Sir Keith there are four clear key objectives:

First of all it is important to bring more international teams, that means more non-French teams. This will make the races much more appealing to international sponsors. According to Mills, for most skippers it is much tougher to make it to the start line than compete in a race. It is extremely difficult to find sponsorship outside of France because precisely these races lack the public appeal they have in France. In that stage, Sir Keith passed the microphone to Ronnie Simpson who is a US sailor, aspiring to race in the 2016 Vendée Globe. Simpson pointed out that even if personal stories and human quality are one of the essential characteristics of these races, it is extremely hard to sell them in the US since people aren’t even aware of them.

Secondly, it is necessary to have more races that go to more places, that visit more venues. That will mean the participation of IMOCA 60 boats to other races, the creation of transoceanic races as well as Grand-Prix style races where the boats race to a certain venue and then stay there for a week.

Third key objective is to build a bigger, more international audience which in turn will eventually bring more international sponsors, the fourth key objective.

My obvious question was what OSM would be doing to achieve these goals. Sir Keith’s answer was that there was an “outline plan” that would be discussed with all the stakeholders this week and would be made public in their near future.

Sir Keith answering one of VSail’s questions. Lausanne, 27 April 2013. Photo copyright Olivier Blanchet / DPPI / OSM

Two 18-month cycles
Sir Keith’s ambitious plans will not be realized overnight and OSM has a four-year plan to to hopefully “unlock the huge potential” of the IMOCA class. This plan will evolve in two 18-month cycles.

The first 18-month cycle will mainly focus on double-handed sailing and its culmination will be the 2014 Barcelona World Race whose start is scheduled on the 31st of December.

After the end of the Barcelona World Race, OSM has scheduled a brief break that could allow sponsors to organize their own racing, although no further details were given. Georgio Pauen (OSM Executive Vice Chairman) called that a sort of “breathing space.”

The second 18-month cycle will focus on single-handed sailing and its culmination will obviously be the 2016 Vendée Globe.

Following the end of the press conference, OSM sent out an official press release with the racing program for 2013 and 2014 as follows:

2013 Program
August: Fastnet Race
November: Transat Jacques Vabre, from Le Havre (France) to Itajai (Brazil)

2014 Race Program
Spring: Double-handed Transat
Summer: a 1,000 miles long race
November: Route du Rhum
31 December: Barcelona World Race

Finances and sponsorship
There is no doubt Mills is putting his money where his mouth is. Although he didn’t provide any precise figure he said that his total investment would be “several million euros”, even he hasn’t spent “a lot” to date. He sees that investment as a business opportunity and OSM will actively seek all kind of sponsors, including for the naming rights. They will use the same “techniques” they had used for the 2012 London Olympics which had very strict rules and where branding wasn’t even allowed.

One thing that isn’t clear though is the exact relationship OSM will have with the Vendée Globe and the Barcelona World Race, the cornerstones of single- and double-handed offshore sailing. These are well-established races, at least within the sailing world and we couldn’t see how they would work with OSM. What commercial rights will OSM have over them? Both Mills and Talbourdet were quick to point out that both races welcomed the arrival of OSM and despite their relative success they will strongly benefit from OSM’s knowhow. They both “look forward” to OSM’s involvement and will “closely” collaborate with Mills and his team.

Although there were very few details unveiled, it is very encouraging to see one of the UK’s most successful businessmen investing his own money, trying to make the sport of sailing more popular. At least it’s the case of a brilliant marketer that loves sailing and tries to market it, rather than a brilliant sailor that thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in marketing and fails, as it often happens in our sport…

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