Sarah Gower: On the starting blocks

The head of PR for Adidas UK & Ireland is preparing for the most challenging summer of her career, reports John Owens.

Moving with the times: 'We're 100 per cent sport but as a brand and as a culture we have to move forward'
Moving with the times: 'We're 100 per cent sport but as a brand and as a culture we have to move forward'

Chatting away in a quiet corner of Covent Garden, Sarah Gower is characteristically unequivocal.

'To be head of PR for Adidas during the Olympic Games in your home town - well, I don't believe it gets any better,' she enthuses. 'The platform is huge.'

The interview takes place in the HQ for Adidas' PR team, a multi-level ode to three stripes and a sport collector's dream, with brightly coloured vintage kits from Olympic Games past, all framed and proudly lining the walls.

And with the world's greatest sporting event just around the corner, and Adidas a major sponsor, it is also set to be the centre of an oncoming comms storm.

This summer, the speed of Usain Bolt is only likely to be challenged by that of the Twittersphere. Gower says no-one is ready for what she describes as a digital games 'unlike any before'.

But the 43-year-old is making sure the brand is as ready as it can be, with an ad campaign due to kick off imminently.

'The main criteria are to be a talked-about brand, to be untraditionally British and to really connect with a 14- to 19-year-old audience,' she explains.

A part of this focus includes the Adidas collaboration with Stella McCartney in creating the Team GB Olympic kit and an eight-week build-up she describes as 'among the most challenging and exhilarating of my career'.

The potentially risky collaboration is also the culmination of the most profound change noticed by Gower while at Adidas - its growth from sports brand to fashion label.

However, when asked if there is a risk the company could lose its heritage, she answers without hesitation: 'We will never lose that. We're 100 per cent sport but as a brand and as a culture we have to move forward.'

Having gone into PR as much by chance as design, Gower was brought under the wing of director of consumer Flic Howard-Allen at what was then called Hill & Knowlton.

Here, following a stint working with cereal brands where she was spat on by jealous Take That fans as she accompanied a competition winner to meet the group, she found her true passion when she moved to the sports team.

Throughout the course of the interview, the influence of Gower's upbringing in shaping the career of this headstrong woman becomes apparent.

'I'm one of three girls in my family. My father Peter didn't have any sons and he is obsessed with sport, so we've all taken a bit of that passion and one could say I have a competitive spirit.'

As well getting her sent off the pitch while playing lacrosse as a youngster, that spirit also manifests itself as a solid sense of self-belief.

But Gower readily admits that joining former H&K colleague Steve Martin in a team of two to kick-start Adidas' in-house PR effort and build it from the ground up was 'daunting and a massive culture shock'.

'In an agency, you are surrounded by people who believe in PR 100 per cent and even if something goes wrong people will understand why. But when you go in-house, the buck stops with you,' she says.

With backing from Adidas, the team grew quickly and moved from being given budgets to dictating them.

'We had a natural expectation we were doing it right, and I believe when it came to the competition they were looking at us, rather than us looking at them,' she says.

Martin, now CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, says of Gower: 'I had a real trust with her and you knew there would be no nonsense. She has spot-on ideas and knows how to make them happen, and even though we would row all of the time, it was healthy. She's good fun too.'

Key to pushing the brand was working with sports personalities including David Beckham, Tim Henman and Paul Gascoigne, and realising 'the back pages were becoming the front pages', says Gower.

Of course, things have come a long way since then, with Adidas hooking up with everyone from high-end designers to rapper Snoop Dogg.

But not everyone agrees with the way that sports brands have branched out.

Following the riots across England last summer, criticism was aimed from some quarters at brands for buying into and promoting 'gangster chic'.

Among the images emblazoned across the front pages of newspapers during that time was that of a rioter fully clad in Adidas apparel.

However, Gower is unfazed by the accusations. She says that when it comes to working with people such as Snoop Dogg, the focus is on the fact they have 'overcome' their backgrounds.

She explains: 'It was something born out of an easy headline and people having a view of that, but it's never been a concern - you're up there to be knocked down.'

Married, with young twins, she has little time for hobbies, although enjoys running. And with the Olympics being the focus of so much of her time, does a relaxing and lengthy holiday await in the autumn?

No chance. She points to the build up for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, saying: 'It doesn't stop. As a brand in sport, there is no final destination.'

One senses her hectic schedule is not a problem - as with the athletes she works with, the spur of competition is motivation enough.

CV
2005 Head of PR, Adidas UK & Ireland
2001 Senior PR manager, Adidas Sport Performance & Originals
1997 PR manager, Adidas Sport Performance
1997 Senior account director, Hill & Knowlton, Sports Group
1996 Account director, Hill & Knowlton, Sports Group
1995 Account manager, Hill & Knowlton, Sports Group
1994 Senior account executive, Hill & Knowlton, Sports Group
1993 Account executive, Hill & Knowlton, Food Group (Kellogg's team)
1991 Executive assistant, Flic Howard-Allen, Hill & Knowlton
1989 PA, Aspect Hill Holliday
1988 PR assistant, Rock Townsend

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Moving to H&K and working as a PA for Flic Howard-Allen. Not only did I learn a huge amount from her, but she gave me the opportunity to move to an account executive role.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Other than Flic, it would have to be Steve Martin, for whom I worked in the sports team at H&K and who is now CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. He is without a doubt one of the best PR practitioners I know and an incredible networker.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Do not be afraid to start at the bottom. It makes you hungrier to succeed and gives you an invaluable insight into the framework of a business.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Integrity, common sense and humour.

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