The latest instalment of Industry Insider sees us speak to the former Managing Editor at The FA and current Strategy Consultancy Director at Ten Toes, Jim Lucas!
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
I’m Jim Lucas and I’m the Strategic Consultancy Director at Ten Toes, which is the current Football Business Awards agency of the year and was previously young agency of the year at the Sport Industry Awards.
I’ve been at Ten Toes since July 2021, having previously worked for The FA for five-and-a-bit years. Before that, I was with Southampton FC, having switched from spending the first few years of my career covering my boyhood club, Millwall, for various local and national newspapers.
What do you do in your current role?
As an agency, Ten Toes exists to bring our clients closer to their fans and my role focuses on the service we provide to sporting organisations – mostly leagues, clubs and federations. My time at The FA and Southampton means I’ve had experience of working for all three of those, so that usually helps us understand the challenges that our clients face and allows us to present solutions they might not have thought of themselves.
The great thing about Ten Toes is that we have a very broad client base and, with it, a wide range of experience within our staff. We also work with individual players, entertainers and commercial brands, so there’s a lot of knowledge-sharing between the teams working across those different groups. That really helps me and my team in giving sports organisations the best-possible advice from not only this industry but beyond.
“Normal” isn’t a thing in sport so what does an “average” week look like for you?
The idea of every week being different is something I’m very much used to, having spent more than a decade working in football, but life with an agency is even more unpredictable. By a Monday afternoon you can find yourself in discussions with a new client that hadn’t even been on the radar a few hours earlier, so you have to reserve a level of flexibility and resource to make the most of unexpected opportunities when they crop up.
The more predictable element of the role involves servicing our existing clients like FIFA, to whom we provide strategic guidance on how to use social media as well as directly managing some of their channels. We also work with a couple of Premier League clubs on a similar basis, as well as running masterclasses for players, managers and organisations’ in-house social teams to equip them with the skills needed to stay at the top of their game online.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
Well, it’s the old cliché of loving football but not being (anywhere near) good enough to play it. My initial plan was to become a football reporter, so I did a sports journalism degree and, having done some work experience with my local newspaper during that time, joined them to cover Millwall a couple of weeks after my graduation in the summer of 2009.
Although this is ‘only’ 13 years ago, the club was a bit of a throwback in that they gave a lot of trust and autonomy to the local media when it came to arranging interviews. That meant getting to know the players and staff pretty well plus learning about Millwall’s inner business, which gave me the idea of wanting to make the move from working in the media to working for a club.
That opportunity came at the start of 2012, when I moved to Southampton – who were on the verge of promotion to the Premier League – as a communications officer. The club was pretty advanced in terms of how they used their channels to communicate with their fans, but social/digital was still a bit of a ‘bolt-on’ to the main role, which was ultimately focused on managing the media.
As the club established itself in the Premier League, we were able to grow our media team and I increasingly found myself focused on building the club’s social presence and we managed to get ourselves a bit of a reputation for being one of the more innovative teams when it came to engaging with our fans online.
From there, I was lucky enough to get ‘the England job’ (or at least the digital version of it!) when I moved to The FA in the spring of 2016. I worked across five major tournaments (three men’s and two women’s), including the 2018 FIFA World Cup – an amazing experience where our use of social was recognised as playing a genuine role in changing how people felt about their national team.
The relationship between the squad and the public had been in a tricky place since EURO 2016 – being the person running the England accounts during that game against Iceland isn’t one of my favourite memories… – so we knew we had some work to do as we headed to Russia. Our social team had amazing backing from The FA’s leadership, including Gareth Southgate, to do things differently and leave no stone unturned in trying not only to re-engage those disaffected fans but also to attract new supporters.
When you work for The FA you gain an appreciation of just how much work the organisation does. In fact, covering England wasn’t really the biggest part of my role because we also had the FA Cup, Women’s Super League, grassroots football and the FA’s corporate communications to think about so there was always plenty going on and sometimes not enough time to do it all justice.
After five years at The FA on the back of four with Southampton, I really wanted to use my experiences to help others so I was keen to move into consultancy. I was very aware of – and impressed by – Ten Toes through their work with a couple of England players so, when the opportunity to join them on the back of EURO 2020 came up, it felt like the right move for me.
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
Detail. It’s a cliché, but if a job’s worth doing then it’s worth doing well. It’s probably a double-edged sword in that I’m the first to admit that approach can slow you down, but I pride myself on the thoroughness of my work.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
Covering England at EURO 2016 was a real learning experience. I’d only been at The FA for a couple of months by the time we flew out to France, but I completely underestimated the amount of planning and stakeholder engagement needed to successfully cover the national team at a major tournament.
I didn’t put anywhere near enough effort into securing the necessary level of buy-in from the team’s management to take fans ‘inside the camp’ – so, in the end, our coverage was pretty basic and we didn’t give England supporters much that they didn’t already have access to via the traditional media.
In the end, the team’s early exit probably spared our department a few blushes in that we didn’t have much up our sleeves for the latter stages of the tournament. By the time Russia rolled around two years later, we’d spent an incredible amount of time and effort engaging with the right people in the team’s leadership to be able to push forward concepts like a daily live show and a completely refreshed approach to behind-the-scenes access.
Without the failings of France in 2016, I’m not sure we’d have been able to connect with fans in the way we did two years later.
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
I think we’re starting to see digital and social truly represented in sporting organisations’ leadership teams. Sometimes content teams can fall between the cracks in that they float between communications, marketing and commercial departments, meaning they can find themselves without a seat at the table for important conversations, like those about a club’s future strategic direction or a major campaign.
However, I’ve noticed that more and more ‘digital natives’ are being appointed to boards and leadership roles where previously they were perhaps dominated by those more aligned to the traditional operations of a sporting organisation.
I’m excited to see how, with social and digital more ingrained in sports organisations’ way of thinking, content teams can truly deliver against business goals rather than undermining themselves by chasing so-called vanity metrics like purposeless engagement or autoplay video views.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
It’s related to the point above, but I think there is a real under-appreciation of the skill and wisdom needed to manage digital channels for a sporting organisation. There’s a vicious cycle in place, where typically-low salaries lead to the employment of under-experienced staff that can lack the courage to stand up to senior colleagues who’d like to dictate the direction of how channels are used to suit their own objectives.
The fact that almost anyone can, to at least a basic degree, run a social account is both brilliant and damaging. The positive is the obvious fact that we can – in theory – reach the majority of the world’s population with one social post. The negative is that it undermines the role of the modern social media manager, which requires a strong understanding of marketing, communications and risk-management – not to mention a tolerance for out-of-hours working and an extremely blurred approach to life balance.
They might be underpaid and – in your view – under-experienced, but that junior social media manager will have a far better chance of engaging your organisation’s audience and hitting long-term business objectives if you give them trust, support and guidance rather than pulling them off-course to hit ‘quick wins’.
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
I used to really struggle with this until I started running a couple of years ago. It’s probably the only time – other than sleeping and showering, I guess – that I literally can’t endlessly scroll through social media or my emails.
The physical benefits are obvious – although I’m still recovering from a few aches and pains having run the London Marathon a couple of weeks ago – but, mentally, I’ve found it’s made such a difference with processing my to-do list and solving problems.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Step outside your comfort zone. One thing I’ve been guilty of my whole career is staying a little too close to the things I enjoy and know best – from covering the club I grew up supporting in my first role to working exclusively in football over the decade that followed.
When you can, try to find opportunities to cover sports and teams other than the ones you love most. Having as broad as possible a knowledge and understanding of the whole sports industry and the nuances between how different fans behave can only be a benefit to your future career.
How to connect with Jim Lucas and Ten Toes…
You can follow Ten Toes on Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m @JFBLucas.
Thanks for reading our chat with Jim Lucas! If you want to read more from our Industry Insider series, you can do so by clicking here.