A move from theatre to the NFL might not seem a natural step but Sarah Swanson happily describes her career spanning the arts and sport as “non-linear”.
From marketing shows in London’s West End theatres and Broadway in New York, Swanson moved agency-side working with the NFL’s TV network, then to Los Angeles in an in-house role. She returned to London in 2014 to head up marketing for the NFL in the UK, aiming to grow the status of the game and its fan base.
A 2016 inductee into Marketing Week’s Vision 100 in partnership with Adobe, she discusses the shift from being a dominant player in the US to a challenger brand in the UK and the joys of Super Bowl advertising.
What path has your career taken?
My career has been non-linear. I studied an MA in arts administration and worked as a marketing director for theatre producer Bill Kenwright on shows such as Blood Brothers. I moved to New York, working for Bill in the same role on Broadway. I then moved to an agency specialising in experiential marketing for TV clients, which is where I started working with the NFL.
After a number of years, I went in-house and moved to LA to be vice-president of marketing for the NFL Network. I said to my boss that I could see the international side of the game was growing and returned to London to head up the team, where I have been for the past two years
What was it like to make the transition from the US to the UK?
There is a big difference between the NFL in the US and UK. I have gone from being bigger than anything to being a challenger, but from a marketing perspective it’s a dream.
In the US, the NFL is so powerful you have to protect the strength of the brand, so all the sponsors who have spent millions of dollars to be part of the brand feel they are getting value.
In the UK it is so much fun, you can do anything here. I get to think about the partners I want to work with, the content and the look of the brand itself. It’s creative and flexible.
What is it like to be a woman in the male-dominated sports industry?
In our office there are as many women as men and while this isn’t necessarily true in the highest positions across the sports industry in the US and UK, the CMO of the NFL is a woman. I might be the only woman in a meeting, but I see it as an opportunity.
What are the defining moments of your career?
Coming to the UK was a huge shift in my career, from being part of a big company to a smaller bit of that company, which gives me more visibility. One of the best pieces of work I’ve done was a TV campaign for the NFL that ran during the Super Bowl in 2013.
The campaign centred on former cornerback Deion Sanders, who claimed he could still play at a higher level than the rookies in the NFL Draft and decided to go back in disguise as a character called Leon Sandcastle.
We waited for the ad to run during the Super Bowl, watching the fans’ reaction, and then we pressed play on the full 360-degree campaign, from Twitter and digital content to jerseys and trading cards. The advert won a Sports Emmy and the whole campaign got so much traction. It’s what you dream of when you do marketing.
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