Ross Antrobus – The Football Association

Ross Antrobus – The Football Association

Ross Antrobus is the Head of Behavioural Insights & Business Analytics team at The Football Association (The FA), the governing body of football in England. The Association is responsible for promoting and developing the game at all levels, from grassroots through to the professional game, the FA Cup, and the England International teams.

Together with his team of eight, Ross helps the FA to better understand the needs and challenges faced by those playing, coaching, refereeing, administrating, and watching the game – ultimately enabling evidence-based decision-making to support, govern and grow football in England. Ross has over 20 years of brand and consumer research experience including senior positions at research-based consultancies specialising in communications and customer research. He also has client-side experience as both a researcher and marketing manager at Müller, and various seconded posts with Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Vodafone.

Main KPIs for growth

In Ross’ opinion, brand growth comes from “maximising your assets commercially” – whatever that might look like. Data helps to focus this by identifying assets and non-assets, and the evaluation of these assets gives guidance for growth and potential. For The FA, this is about “the game” of football, and treating it as a viable commercial asset is key. The FA’s growth comes through two channels – “commercial growth from sponsorships, advertising and revenue generated at games, and the FA’s role as the governing body”, says Ross. He shares that there is a need to support both channels, “being aware of this tension and ensuring a data-focused insights programme that really talks to this is crucial”. “Brand growth is crucial, so that we can continue to support and grow the grassroots game. You can imagine it as a cycle that sort of feeds itself. Most of our partner and sponsor work is brands wanting to invest in the grassroots game. And for that to be a viable commercial proposition, we need to make sure the grassroots game is flourishing.”

Ross also points to the unique growth relationship The FA has with one of its sub brands, England’s national men’s and women’s football teams. While the performance of the teams can be a real growth driver for the FA brand as well as the sponsor’s and partner’s brands, it cannot be directly influenced by marketing, behavioural insights, or business analytics. So, there is always that element of uncertainty: “To some extent, our brand lives and dies on the performance of the team and our brand growth and equity are influenced by those performances. But all the marketing and insight in the world isn’t going to help on the day they are playing.” So, Brand Growth for The FA’s brand really comes down to engaging more people in football more often, Ross concludes. “It’s a real mixed bag, maintaining fans engagement, considering our brand reputation, maximising the games, the sponsorships – but then there’s also the engagement at a grassroots level, supporting the future of the game in terms of both the players and the fans. Having your basics in place is vital for that. We undertook extensive qualitative and quantitative research into the role of the FA to understand what people really wanted from us and how well we are delivering.”

Role of data

When it comes to the role of data, Ross manages to capture it in a nutshell: “Timing is key. It is better to have some of the data at the right time than all the data at the wrong time”. One of the main pitfalls for the insight team is not being aligned to the business cadence and not having the data at the right time. “When I joined the FA, my priority was meeting the stakeholders and trying to understand the dynamics before creating my insight strategy, helping me to be selective and able to identify cohorts for focus”, Ross reveals. “It’s so important to be in tune with all your senior stakeholders. To know what they are working on and when they may need information and how it shapes their decision making.” For Ross that is also where the success of an internal insights team lies, its’ ability to reflect on the business.

At The FA, at least 40% of the analytics are done inhouse. But the association does work together with agencies on a regular basis and Ross’ experiences have been positive so far. “What I want my agencies to do, is deliver brilliant responses to the brief. To go beyond the brief and achieve stronger outcomes, is about inviting the agencies to understand the wider plan their work fits into and invite them to the related debriefs of other agencies. Fundamentally it is about having a respectful relationship and focusing on doing the job to the best of their ability.”

A data-driven approach

“My vision was to build a team that could make a difference in the business and not just pass on a project brief to third-party agencies”, Ross states. “Therefore, I am growing my team with research practitioners, not research project managers.

He also underlines the importance of having an opinion: “Insight teams need to challenge assumptions and share opinions, instead of just providing information. Don’t try to be too clever, over-analysing or trying to answer all the questions with a limited set of data, shouldn’t be the aim. It is more about making the best use of the data that you do have. Keep it simple, and aim for the biggest impact over broad impact, every time.”  In his experience, it’s fundamentally important for the insight team to build up trust with the decision makers: “Once people trust you to have done the best job, the output becomes a short, succinct 6-8 slides of insight(s), some figures and a clear focus on recommendations and impact. It’s key not to be hung up on having all the answers. Don’t be a slave to the numbers, among all the data-driven decision-making there needs to be room for creativity, learned knowledge and intuition.”