International Rugby Board CEO Brett Gosper plays the comms balancing game

The rugby supremo is ready to run with the ball to make the sport a phenomenon, finds Alex Benady.

Brett Gosper is a breezy people person with a nice line in self-deprecation. He recalls his less than stellar success rate against the New Zealand All Blacks thus: "Played three, lost three."

Gosper is a former rugby pro who represented his native Australia at under-21 level then went on to run both the US and European operations of the world’s largest advertising network, McCann Erickson.

With his experience of sport, global operations and comms, it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to be chief executive of world rugby’s governing body the International Rugby Board. It is just as well, because the job sounds like a veritable rats’ nest of conflicting demands, tall orders and impossible objectives.

As chief executive of the IRB he is responsible for the regulation, development and promotion of the game in all its 118 member countries and beyond.

The regulation involves solving disputes between members and addressing contentious issues like doping and player safety. Promotion means encouraging interest in the game worldwide through a series of media properties – the HSBC Sevens World Series, the Women’s World Series, the return of rugby as an Olympic sport in Rio 2016 and, of course, the jewel in the IRB crown and its main revenue-raiser, the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Development, meanwhile, involves building the player and spectator base by shifting the emphasis of the IRB from that of international secretariat to cheerleader for the sport as a global cultural phenomenon.

"The IRB has its origins in dispute settlement. Traditionally we have been primarily a regulator dealing with all sorts of technical issues in the game – rules, disputes and so on," says Gosper. "But if rugby is to flourish against competition from all sorts of other sports with global ambitions, not to mention brands and other forms of entertainment, I think it needs to be much more of a cultural and inspirational phenomenon."

If he can get buy-in from the members, he wants to build rugby into a high-end, mass-market sport built around brand values associated with the idea of character and that rugby, with its different physical types and challenges, is a metaphor for life.

The catch is that while the Unilevers and P&Gs of this world have multi-billion-pound budgets to amplify their messages worldwide, the IRB has just £1.7m. That equates to £15,000 a territory. As a result it is no exaggeration to say that earned media are the key to reconciling all the conflicting demands of his job.

"Comms is a huge part of what we do. I spend at least as much on comms as I do on any other function. We couldn’t afford advertising budgets, but we find PR is both effective and cost-effective," he says.
As one might expect from a very senior ad man, he takes a progressive, hands-on approach to spreading the word. So the IRB no longer sends out "sheets", Gosper’s term for press releases. Instead it relies largely on social media to get its messages out to the media.

Gosper sends out much information directly, with recent tweets under his own name promoting the IRB’s World Rugby Conference in Dublin, commenting on the rules and even appealing to developers for a rugby-related app.

In fact he is so involved that there is a real danger the telegenic Gosper could become the face of world rugby. The suggestion horrifies him. "That’s not my intention at all. The IRB is a co-operative representing its 118 members. Rugby has a clear strategy and the faces that count are those of the six million around the world who play the game."

Route to the top

2012 CEO, International Rugby Board 

2007 CEO, McCann Erickson Europe

2005 President, McCann Erickson US

2004 President, TBWA New York Group

2003 CEO, McCann Erickson New York

1994 CEO, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper

1989 Deputy MD, BDDP (TBWA) 

1981 Graduate trainee, Ogilvy & Mather Melbourne

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