Saturday 1 October 2016

From Malahide to Man United - How a Dubliner got into the world of sports marketing and made it his own

How Mike Farnan, a boy from Dublin, got into the world of sports marketing and made it his own

Published 20/12/2015 | 16:00

Mike Farnan: ‘When we came up with Red Café people said to us it won’t work. Red Café? Singapore? Won’t work. It did work!’ And below with friend and colleague, Kevin Blackwell.
Photo: David Conachy
Mike Farnan: ‘When we came up with Red Café people said to us it won’t work. Red Café? Singapore? Won’t work. It did work!’ And below with friend and colleague, Kevin Blackwell. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Blackwell and Mike Farnan at his home near Manchester. Photo: David Conachy

Leaving Dublin, Mike Farnan wasn't sure what lay ahead. But he knew what he was leaving behind - an uncertain future and a lot of unanswered questions.

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It was a different time; Ireland was a different place, and the Celtic Tiger was still a few years away. He was married to Nikki, son Stefan was only an infant, but the fear of heading into the unknown still seemed better than doing nothing. "We were struggling at the time," he says. "We were a young couple, we'd just bought a house in Seabury, Malahide, and could hardly afford the mortgage."

He didn't understand then, at least not the way he does now, that he had a particular gift. Others had seen it in him though. "I wasn't the most academic-minded," he says. "I used to enjoy going to Howth, buying fish and selling it down my grandmother's road. My father used to say to me, 'listen Mike, don't worry, it's your communication skills, that's the most important thing that will work for you in life and if you are as you should be, people will do business with you'."

The words of an old mentor had also stayed with him. 'Mike,' he said, 'you know there's a big world out there. Go to the UK, base yourself in London, and you'll do well.'

Kevin Blackwell and Mike Farnan at his home near Manchester. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Blackwell and Mike Farnan at his home near Manchester. Photo: David Conachy

So he went. Alone at first, to test the water. He stayed with his brother and looked for work. Then he came back to bring his family over with him. He remembers having a few hundred quid in his pocket. Most of all, he remembers packing the car and that sense of finality. This was it. "It was a very sad day."

He felt if he got a chance to prove to someone what he was capable of he would take it with both hands. 'If you can get yourself out there, working in the international market, you've got the skills,' he had been told before he left Ireland.

His first big break came with Falmer Jeans, who took him on as international marketing manager. Soon he moved to Pepe, to the famous Hardcore brand. And then he saw an advertisement for a major media company in The Times which changed his life. "I didn't know at the time that it was Sky Sports," he says. "They were starting to do pay per view. They were looking for somebody in the clothing industry with an interest in sport to develop a retail environment that people could come and buy Sky Sports products within a sporting context - it was like a place to come, a place to meet."

The move to Sky changed everything. It brought him into contact with the world of professional football and he hasn't looked back. Manchester United, Parma, Sunderland, Sheffield United, PSG, Chengdu Blades - and others - have benefited from his ability to think outside the box, to come up with new ways to connect clubs to fans. So too has Eddie Jordan. He has also worked with Luis Figo and Claude Makélélé, Jenson Button, Paul Lawrie, Arsene Wenger, Ricky Hatton and more. Oh, and he nearly bought Leeds last year. Or at least he pulled together a consortium and raised £36m but lost out to the Italian, Massimo Cellino.

"We had some great plans for the club in terms of where we wanted to take it. I had a team of people that were exceptional in what they do, and what they could do, if we got hold of the club." Farnan and his team spent 18 months negotiating with a Bahraini bank, trying to agree a deal, but ultimately it fell through.

"Leeds fans are the most passionate fans in world football. I've been abused on Twitter, my link to Manchester United kind of got me a hard time; they are very passionate, they believe in the football club. I believe in Leeds as a city, I think it's fantastic. It has a very young feel to it. And I thought if you could get the right people in there, and the right manager in there . . . and I had my thoughts, before even Martin [O'Neill] took the Republic of Ireland job that he would be a guy that would be perfect for a club like that."

He thinks there are other interesting prospects in the Football League, and many of the investors he had lined up remain keen on the idea of buying a club, but there is that lingering sense of regret. Leeds are a sleeping giant, he says, they be could be anything. They could be great again in ther right hands.

If Sky was the launching pad for Farnan's career, it was the move to Old Trafford which cemented his reputation. His work in Sky had not gone unnoticed and when Manchester United come calling, you don't say no. Before he knew it, he had moved north to become the club's international marketing director, tasked with the job of finding ways to turn Manchester United's extraordinary reputation around the world into revenue. He needed a plan. He needed a way, as he saw it, to capture the essence of Manchester United and bring it around the world, but particularly Asia. Manchester United, under Peter Kenyon, were only really waking up to the possibilities.

"That plan, basically, was to transfer the Theatre of Dreams to the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta; to create a situation where you could go in and feel you are in a Manchester United environment, you can have your Red Café, you can eat exactly what you would have at Old Trafford, a museum where you can see all the history, including the crash and the Busby Babes."

It was a massive success and the concept was eventually sold as part of the Nike deal for £300m. By that stage Farnan had moved on, hypnotised by the endless possibilities that football afforded him. His head was full of ideas and he wanted to try them out. From this remove, he thinks he was a bit impetuous leaving Manchester United when he did. It was the year after the treble and the club was on a high. If missing out on buying Leeds is one big regret in his career, that is definitely another.

"I was a bit petulant there," he agrees. "I think I would have loved to work longer with David Gill. He's one of those guys who's standing in world football is huge . . . gosh, if he put his name forward for FIFA it would be great, you'd be getting a very black and white, and clean, guy." He thinks for a second. "So, yeah, that's a bit of a regret."

So it was off to Italy, and to AC Parma, owned at the time by dairy giant Parmalat, who had bought the club to help expand its business. "Football is an international language, it cuts right through everything and the Tanzis [Parmalat owners] had the vision of utilising a Serie A team to generate business opportunities in markets like Japan. They bought [Hidetoshi] Nakata, and it was a real big deal buying a Japanese player to play in Serie A and that was only done for one reason and one reason only - to help Parmalat drive dairy business and open up manufacturing plants in Japan."

From Falmer Jeans to Serie A, with some glamorous stops along the way, the sum of those experiences ultimately had a value and he was seen as the ideal person to front a new management company, where he worked with the Williams F1 team and Atletico Madrid, as well as the likes of Button, Figo, Makélélé and Paul Lawrie. Eventually that company was floated and Farnan, fearing the personal touch he so craves had been lost, decided to look elsewhere.

"And then I met Eddie Jordan."

Jordan and Gill are the two people who stand out for him in his career. And his time at the Jordan team was as energising to be part of, as it was for everybody else who looked on from the outside and marvelled at what they were achieving, taking on the big boys of the Formula One world. When he joined the team, Eddie Jordan gave him a copy of The Piranha Club: Power and Influence in Formula One, to show him the scale of the challenge.

"The Piranha Club was basically Bernie [Ecclestone], Frank [Williams], Ron [Dennis] and those guys . . . and little old Eddie in the middle of them all, boxing with them. To sit with him and watch him perform - sponsors loved him, he became the peoples' champion, the way he used the car over the years, and then this yellow car appeared, the brightest car on the paddock, buzzing hornets, the girls sitting on the front of the car and there's Eddie with a big smile on his face. Eddie had the best parties afterwards too, everybody baled into Jordan Formula One.

"It was an amazing story, how one man created this charismatic set-up, inspirational is even too light a word for it, and to survive, and to come out selling that team and making a lot of money . . . Eddie deserves every penny he's earned because, you know what, he came from nowhere, and built a brilliant Formula One team, and won against the odds."

Farnan was saddened when it all came to an end and he found himself asking, what do I do now? "It was like, wow, I've worked with the most interesting personality ever, now I have to go back to the day job. It felt almost like that."

The question, though, was: what exactly is the day job? It took a few years, and a few detours - some good, some not so - to find the answer to that question. And the answer is his latest venture, Red Strike, which he describes as "a global international sports marketing agency". He continues: "Red Strike is very exciting for me because we've opened up offices in MENA [Middle East and North Africa], South Africa and we're looking to do things in the States."

Having worked on both sides of the fence, Farnan is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. He believes there is room for the type of agency he wants Red Strike to be. He calls it the "mothership" because while he and the small team he has gathered around him - including his brother Alan - remain at the core, it is rapidly expanding in different directions: organising big events, managing stars, consulting, and investing in ground-breaking new concepts.

One of these is called Urup, a phone app which he hopes to introduce in Ireland. He explains: "So, if you're Heineken and you want to communicate with your crowd at a game this is being able to pull everyone in that stadium together into a game on their phone. So, in other words, if Heineken are launching a new beer and they want to talk about the beer they put a game on the programme, you log into that game and a message can go out to all mobile phones - get the opportunity to present the man of the match. Or it could be win a holiday in Malaysia. You've got 30 seconds to answer the question or complete the puzzle. This is unique. It's something I've never seen before.

"It's ground-breaking for football, or any sport, because it allows corporates to communicate one to one. We knew that the crowd was 60,000 but we could only communicate in groups, or even through membership, but this is a real way of making contact."

For the man who was once considered good enough to be taken on trial by Blackburn Rovers, football will never be far away from his life. Which is why one aspect of what Red Strike is doing really excites him - a football consultancy business founded and headed up by former Leeds United manager Kevin Blackwell. The two have been friends since working together at Sheffield United and Blackwell, a highly qualified coach and successful businessman in his own right, has thrown himself into it with conviction.

The concept behind Red Strike Soccer Services is simple - to help federations or clubs put in place proper structures covering all aspects of their operation. Blackwell has taken his expertise around the world, worked with football associations like Nigeria and South Africa, the League Managers Association, and clubs as diverse as Hull City, Juventus and Houston Dynamos. Blackwell and his team can look at any or all aspects of a club or association, from the training ground, to scouting and recruitment, and even finance models and IT systems. Farnan has a lot of faith in his old friend and his novel approach to the football industry. He says Blackwell's clarity of thought and purpose, his ability to declutter the world of football, makes him stand out from the crowd. He thinks Red Strike's football services division will go from strength to strength because it is precisely what Farnan has always looked towards - different and fresh.

At heart, though, he is still the boy from Dublin and so one of the things he's most proud of is his work with the Dublin County Board, which he describes as a labour of love.

The power now behind the Dublin GAA movement probably inspires awe, envy or fear - or a blend of all three - across the rest of the Association, maybe even across the rest of the Irish sporting landscape. Dublin's operation on and off the field is a juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down, with the brashness of previous years replaced by a calm professionalism which adds to the sense that there is more to come.

"The big challenge with county boards - and not just Dublin, this is in general - is that it's not like English football where your asset is your asset, and you can raise money, and you've got your stadium, and your ticketing, all that sort of stuff, so it's different. The GAA is the head of the family. Dublin is one of the members. So there's a challenge there basically in how you can drive revenue, and you have to be careful and mindful that you don't upset them. It's an amateur sport at the end of the day and the GAA do put an awful lot of money back in and you have to support that, and at the same time keep developing the brand."

Through his career in football and Formula One he has been fortunate to work with the likes of Manchester United and Jordan, big, instantly recognisable and of course popular institutions. Farnan, though, does not hesitate to put Dublin in the same bracket. "You see the likes of AIG and what they've done and how now it's such a recognised brand in Ireland because it's linked to Dublin County Board," he says.

Working in the world of professional sport where money is at the heart of everything, he says his experience in the last few years with the GAA has been personally rewarding. And a good reminder of the core values of sport.

"The key with Dublin, and with the GAA in general, is making sure that you are working in tandem, and you are not alienating each other, and other county boards as well. I got into a taxi a while back and it was a chap from Louth [driving] and he was saying the Dublin County Board have all the money and we've bugger all, and the balance is wrong, and you understand his view because he's talking from a small county point of view and trying to find a way that they can benefit."

Farnan's home city is never far from his thoughts. When he has a good idea, or when he comes across something different, he immediately asks himself, could this work in Dublin?

For instance, he believes Dublin is tailor-made for Formula E, grands prix for electric cars. "It has people like Nick Heidfeld, [Bruno] Senna, all ex-Formula One drivers, and they are powerful cars, they'll do 200 miles per hour, but they are electric. The series was launched this year into 20 areas, New York, LA, Monaco. It's street racing. I've been knocking on the door saying this would be great for Dublin.

"I think Dublin needs a couple of major events, apart from those days when Ireland play Germany or Six Nations games. It needs more. I'd like to bring more international events to Dublin and I think something like that would be really interesting."

He also thinks the Homeless World Cup would work in Dublin. "These are the sort of events that Dublin should be looking at - it puts us on the map."

And then there's 'Events in the Sky', which has become something of a phenomenon in London. Red Strike own the franchise for the UK and Ireland and Farnan is desperate to bring it to Dublin. His plan is to build the experience - where up to 22 people are hoisted 200 feet in the air and served a five-star meal - around sporting occasions.

"I want to go to Fairyhouse, the Curragh, other events like that. And I think the Aviva would be great. I have spoken to John Delaney about the possibility of bringing it over. I'd like to bring it to huge sporting events in Ireland. I'm not sure about Croke Park but I'd love to do something with it in and around All-Ireland final days - go up for a champagne breakfast in a certain area, then go up for lunch, then come down and go into the ground and come back up for champagne and dinner in the evening.

"A lot of the stuff I do in my business is thinking outside the box," he adds. "When [Peter] Kenyon said can we develop something that will engage, can we get a global programme that will deliver a piece of the Theatre of Dreams? When we came up with Red Café people said to us it won't work. Red Café? Singapore? Won't work. It did work!"

And that has been his secret in sport: making things work. He has a different take on it though. "A boy from Ardbeg Park. Lucky."

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