Jon Tibbs - Faster, higher, stronger

The JTA founder has long been a top name in the Olympics industry, but now he is setting his sights further afield, finds Alec Mattinson.

Good sport: JTA founder Jon Tibbs
Good sport: JTA founder Jon Tibbs

There are not many people on first name terms with both Vladimir Putin and the barman at the George & Dragon in Speldhurst. But not many people do what Jon Tibbs does.

From his HQ in the sleepy Kent village, Tibbs, 50, runs JTA, his eponymous agency, which has earned itself a seat at the very top table in international sport.

The sports comms expert has handled Beijing's Olympic bid, Salt Lake City's recovery from a bribery scandal and now Manchester United owners the Glazer family's attempts to get fans back onside.

The latter challenge, which hit the press last month, promises to transform his business from an Olympic specialist into a significant generalist sports comms practice. But it is a brief that comes with its own complications, as Tibbs acknowledges over a relaxed pub lunch.

The club's fans have a history of protests against the Glazers and their leveraged buy-out that indebted the club. Tibbs admits he has received abuse on Twitter, but is convinced it is a battle he and the Glazers can win. 'There is misunderstanding about what the owners are trying to achieve,' he says. 'I've got to help them communicate the passion they have for the club.'

Tibbs is engaging, interesting and good company, but quickly becomes focused and resolutely on-message when Manchester United is discussed.

'The enormous hike in commercial revenues could not have happened without the Glazers,' he explains. 'The argument has been one-sided and its part of my job to get across the positive side of what's going on. It's a wonderful challenge.'

Tibbs is a lifelong Manchester United fan, and working for the most 'iconic team brand in world sport' has marked a sea-change for his consultancy.

During his career Tibbs has become almost exclusively and inexorably linked with the five-ringed circus. But his path to becoming one of the most sought after communicators in the Olympics movement was far from meticulously planned.

On joining Hill & Knowlton, he inherited the eventually successful Athens Olympic bid, which quickly led to crisis management for scandal-hit Salt Lake City. Then at Bell Pottinger, the agency needed expertise to handle Beijing's 2008 bid and Tibbs was again in the right place at the right time.

'Within a short space of time I'd got a lot of Olympics experience under my belt,' explains Tibbs. 'When I decided to set up on my own it made sense to specialise.'

After some unpaid work with London 2012, Paris made him an offer he 'couldn't refuse' for its 2012 bid, and bids with Tokyo 2016, the Jordan Olympic committee and the important win with Sochi 2014 followed.

He takes the ups and downs of bidding with good grace: 'Bidding is an important part of our portfolio, but it's more about classic, long-term brand building.'

Tibbs is confident and uncompromising without being bruising. Scott Bowers, comms director at The Jockey Club, says Tibbs' authority allows him to command significant respect in the industry: 'He is clear, concise and informed and is the same with a president or PM as with anyone else. He will tell them what they need to hear.'

Tibbs' work sees him rubbing shoulders with extraordinary people, including former Russian President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, former French President Jaques Chirac, two deputy Russian PMs and the mayor of Bejing.

It is a far cry from the school playing fields of Exeter where he started his career as a teacher. 'I'll go back to teaching at some point, but every day I thank God I got out when I did,' he says. 'Looking back, teaching was definitely helpful to my PR career. Giving clarity, direction, guidance and coaching - that's when I'm in my sweet spot.'

Tibbs is very much hands-on - hugely knowledgeable, thoughtful and articulate. But the faster JTA grows, the less hands-on Tibbs can be. He describes the agency as 'at a tipping point'. 'If we push for growth it would require another very senior person to come in,' he says.

The agency is focused on growth in Russia. It is still working on Sochi 2014 and has just signed a deal to do strategic work with the Russian Olympic Committee.

Staffing up the agency has enabled him to spend more time in the UK. But he admits his free time and professional life tend to blur, with his wife a director in the business and his relaxation consisting of golf, marathon training and watching sport.

'If I weren't in London working with my Olympic clients, I'd be sitting in the Olympic stadium anyway. I just hope my ballot for tickets is successful.'

One suspects Tibbs is unlikely to find himself locked out of many stadiums.

CV
2009: CEO, JTA
2002: Founder, Jon Tibbs Associates
2000: MD, Bell Pottinger Sport
1996: European director of sport, Hill & Knowlton
1990: Director of sponsorship sales, CSS
1982: Physical education teacher

JON TIBBS' TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

Leaving teaching and working in sponsorship with CSS. I got out at just the right time before an economic slump. I was just young enough to start again from the bottom. Working on Formula 1 and football sponsorship, I was able to find out exactly what clients ideally wanted and create something that could work for them. That's what got me into PR.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Steve Herrick at CSS and Chris Satterthwaite at Chime. Both taught me huge amounts. Steve for his focus and sales skills and Chris for his strategic thinking and the value he places on simple thinking and comms to convey complex ideas. Many others have and continue to influence my career.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Understand all aspects of the industry, but develop a specialist skill and be an expert and well connected in one sector.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

The three I's: intuition, inquisitiveness; ingenuity.

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