Jonathan Oates: Betting on a novel approach

Betfair's comms director is determined that the gambling firm continues challenging the norm, finds Sara Luker.

Jonathan Oates: 'I love the freedom I get and the encouragement to do things differently. We don't want to be another Ladbrokes.'
Jonathan Oates: 'I love the freedom I get and the encouragement to do things differently. We don't want to be another Ladbrokes.'

Never one to miss a trick, Jonathan Oates, director of comms at Betfair, gets in touch just before this article is published to ensure Betfair's freshly announced 50 per cent jump in annual pre-tax profit can be weaved into the story.

This move is typical of Oates' passion for the brand.

In fairness, Oates has much to crow about. In the past couple of years Betfair has grown from a specialist site for betting aficionados to a mainstream consumer brand and listed corporate entity.

Betfair differs from bookmakers such as Ladbrokes or William Hill by acting as an intermediary between gamblers on different sides of a bet - taking commission from each wager. It thrives on challenging the norm and is now moving to take on the mainstream bookies head to head by offering a fixed-odds service.

Oates joined Betfair from brewer SABMiller, but he is a far cry from the stereotypical image suggested by his specialisation in booze and gambling.

He is charming, clean-cut and without even the faintest whiff of alcohol on his breath. It is clear he also has a genuine interest in the people with whom he speaks.

The interview takes place during a night meet at Sandown Park racecourse. Between betting on races, presenting a trophy to Frankie Dettori, and judging the best dressed horse, Oates is the perfect host.

Like many of the sporting stars on which Betfair's punters are gambling, Oates has a passion and drive to succeed that oozes out of every pore.

He is fascinated by the way people think and how he can 'influence others', an interest reflected in his psychology degree. Combine this with a love of English, and a career in PR was something of a foregone conclusion.

A five-year stint at Luther Pendragon helped him hone his influencing skills and gave him an appetite for media relations, public affairs and crisis comms.

Champollion MD Simon Buckby recalls working with Oates a decade ago: 'We had to live together for two months in Antwerp while working on a crisis comms issue for a client. It was 8am to 10pm seven days a week. In a situation like that, you either fall out or get on really well. We had a blast. He's very witty, fun to be around and incredibly driven.'

Oates has fond memories of agency life, but a top in-house job was always at the back of his mind. 'I felt I got to the point where I was spreading myself too thinly,' he explains. 'I wanted to work for a big brand - one that everyone has heard of.'

The 34-year-old speaks of his time at SABMiller as 'travelling the world' for a 'very impressive business'. It was this role as head of business media relations for the FTSE 100 company that really got his juices flowing. 'I loved the interaction with the City journos,' he says excitedly. However, working for what he describes as a 'titanic' company came with frustrations.

'The company was very stuck in its ways,' he says. 'If you tried to change things you would always be hit with an attitude of "if it ain't broke, why fix it?"'

His search for a brand that was, as he puts it, 'more dynamic' led him to the doorstep of the online bookmaker just as the company was embarking on a business-redefining float in October 2010.

As brands such as Facebook and Ocado have found, communicating a stock market float is fraught with pitfalls.

'My first nine months were the biggest challenge of my career,' recalls Oates. 'You felt you were living out of a bunker - making sure you always had your tin hat on.'

The tin hat proved useful. The Daily Telegraph's Richard Fletcher advised 'punters should be cautious of backing Betfair', and the Daily Mail headlined a story 'Betfair woes persist after a dismal float'.

'What is hard, as a PR professional, is that suddenly all you are dealing with is one story - your share price,' explains Oates. 'What you can't do is just focus on the external messaging. Internal comms is key because staff are questioning why journalists are writing such negative stories without reply from the company.'

The post-float storm has blown over now and Oates looks, to use a sporting analogy, like a triumphant trainer of a horse in the winner's circle. He says: 'I get to combine my hobbies with my job - how many people can say that?

'I love the freedom I get and the encouragement to do things differently. We don't want to be another Ladbrokes.'

Betfair uses Powerscourt for financial PR but handles the rest of its comms and PR activities in-house. Oates cannot resist venting his frustration at some of the 'old-fashioned' and 'tired' City agencies with which he has previously worked.

'Corporate comms needs to evolve,' he says. 'Agencies need to bring more creative thinking and different ways of working to the table. Just handling financial comms doesn't hit the mark with me. Financial PR only takes up three of the 12 months. I need news flow the whole year round.'

So what next for Betfair? Oates predicts political betting is going to be a huge growth market. He claims: 'Our odds are more accurate than opinion polls as once money is involved, people bet on who they think will win, not who they want to win.'

But for Oates the challenges keep coming - this summer he will be manning the London 2012 press office as a volunteer. It is to be hoped the volunteer team is not lacking in dynamism, or he may be making some changes there too.

2010 Director of comms, Betfair
2008 Head of business media relations, SABMiller
2003 Associate partner, Luther Pendragon


What was your biggest career break?

Walking into the university careers centre and seeing one wall of bankers, one of lawyers and one of accountants and thinking there must be more to life than this.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Working with Simon Buckby was the first time I have seen someone genuinely be able to cut through the corporate line that clients often insist on and actually produce a compelling narrative. Betfair's ethos has also really opened my eyes. Being disruptive is in our DNA.

What advice would you give to people climbing the ladder?

Speak up if you don't agree with something. Comms is all about tapping into the human psyche and if you don't believe in what you are doing, no-one else will.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

I want people who are real newshounds and genuinely know what makes a great story.

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