GBN talks to Phil Craghill and Sam Elder, directors of Hertfordshire-based company Golf Marketing Services (GMS), about the growth and development of the company and the challenges of promoting golf brands during the Covid-19 crisis and the diverse media landscape
GMS celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. How did the company first get started and can you provide a brief overview of its growth and development over the last two decades?
PC: Neil Gray, Colin Callander and I knew each other from working within the golf media and we also happened to live within 10 miles of each other. From our various roles working with brands and agencies, we’d found that there was a real gap in the market for a golf-specialist agency that could understand both the golf and media industries. As a result we set up GMS in 2001 and within three months we had a handful of clients that, I’m proud to say, many of which remain clients to this day.
SE: Currently we’ve a team of 10 people which has grown steadily over the years. Under Phil and myself, we’re set up with specialist managers heading up each service element of our business including social media, PR, content production and advertising.
It’s obviously been a tough time for many businesses during the pandemic, but how did it specifically impact on GMS in the short term and perhaps in the longer term as we look towards 2021 with the virus potentially still hanging over us?
SE: In general terms, we feel pretty fortunate. With the support of the government furlough scheme we’ve been able to keep all our staff in jobs and paid throughout, and we’ve managed to service all our clients through a very tough period for most of them. It’s by no means going to be the record year that Q1 (Dec-Feb for us) promised, but it’s also certainly not been a disastrous year for the business.
PC: Naturally the three months of lockdown were a relatively swift punch in the gut commercially, but it’s something we were able to stomach – I guess, because we have some solid foundations.
SE: When it looked like the scenario was worsening quickly around March, Phil and I sat down and tried to map out a plan which we hoped would keep all our staff in their jobs, and keep all our clients serviced and supported as much as was possible through what was an incredibly turbulent time for most of them.
PC: Particularly our travel and tourism clients have been hit really hard. It’s no secret it’s been a terrible time for anyone dependent on international tourism. You feel for those directly associated at those businesses and hope that before long there will be an opportunity for them to bounce back.
SE: Overall, while the future is still very unclear, we’re optimistic for and excited by the relative boom the game is experiencing, and I feel as though we’re in a position to continue to grow in the short, medium and long term.
Has the golf boom that the UK has experienced over the last six months opened any specific opportunities for the company and your clients?
SE: I think for many it’s softened the blow, to oversimplify it, but the blow was still significant for most and it will take time for the vast majority of our clients to get back to pre-Covid levels of business. I think both our business and many of our clients, with the exception of some of those in the travel and tourism sectors, are in a better position than we feared we might be.
The fact that you’ve handled some of the same client accounts since the company first started speaks volumes about your business, but how important is it to have a mix of established and new clients to keep things fresh?
SE: Our focus is always to retain the clients we have by servicing them to the best standards possible. They’re the bedrock of our business and in our experience, ensuring we keep the back door closed has always given us a strong platform to take new business opportunities when they arise. We’re try to be selective when it comes to our partners and to this day, we still probably turn more business down than we take on.
PC: We were very fortunate that PING was one of the first clients of the business. To have such a respected business as a partner is a privilege and we’ve tried where possible to learn from them. They take a long-term view on everything and don’t make decisions for a quick gain. We try, on a much smaller scale, to take the same considered approach to the way we run our business.
SE: I think the longevity of relationship with clients such as PING, ECCO, Golf Pride and Foremost is as much to do with the trust those businesses and their employees put in us as it is to do with our expertise. We’ve always seen ourselves as an extension of their businesses and families and would never do anything to jeopardise the trust they’ve put in us over the years – we try to view all our relationships new and old with honesty and with an attitude of over delivery.
PC: Recently we’ve had – by our standards – a bit of a burst of new client activity but that was more circumstantial than planned. The likes of Toptracer, Shot Scope, Golf Genius and PowaKaddy all being market leaders, genuine innovators at the forefront of their respective sectors, and with a long-term view of success, were a good fit.
SE: On the club, resort and travel side, we’re very fortunate to have longstanding clients like BGL, Prince’s Golf Club, Sotogrande and Close House who have trusted us to represent them for a long time and I think they find us to be loyal, supportive, reliable and professional.
SE: On the other hand it is always exciting to get your teeth into something new and we’ve had a lot of fun recently working very closely with Chart Hills on their major redevelopment project, as well as La Finca Resort who were well on their way to transforming what was already a resort full of potential before Covid hit – and we’re sure they will bounce back once they reopen next year.
PC: We could do more on the club, resort and travel side. Historically, we’ve always shied away from smaller projects because at times they can be disruptive to our work flow, but travel and tourism marketing is an area that’s grown steadily for us in the last few years and with our new content team blossoming and the full-service nature of our business, it’s something I can see us doing more of in the future.
Given the size of the golf industry in the UK, how have you managed to balance your portfolio of clients to ensure that they’re not competing against each other? Does it limit the growth potential of the company?
SE: We have exclusive agreements in place and we’re comfortable with that. You could look at it and say it has in some ways limited growth, but I don’t think there’s any longevity in taking every bit of business on that comes your way. I think the relatively small size of the industry means that most understand where our conflicts lie, and while over the years we’ve had some flattering approaches, we haven’t had too many occasions where clients in our existing basket are merging into each other’s lanes.
PC: As it happens, we had one case at the start of this year and sadly decided to part ways with a client that we’d been with for 18 years, but this situation is very rare, and it was thankfully very amicable. I think every party felt we were doing what was fair and honest under the circumstances.
How have clients’ demands and expectations changed over the years?
SE: They’ve changed dramatically, particularly over the past five years. It wasn’t too long ago that magazines in golf ruled the roost and gaining strong coverage in them per market was objective number one. We’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve and try to look outside of the industry to see how agencies in, let’s say, more progressive industries are adapting. We invested heavily in social media expertise five years ago which continues to be an essential part of our business, and over the past three years we’ve done the same and developed a content team, now fronted by Jake Wickham, which at present is the highest growth area of the business. We look to be adaptive and foresee trends and take clients on that journey with us.
You’re one of the few all-service agencies operating in the golf market. What advantages does that give you when pitching for new clients?
PC: For several reasons, we’ve always tried to keep everything in-house. It’s perhaps not the most flexible way of working but we like the element of control it gives you on output. We do have a decent black book that we delve into on some larger content projects, but where possible we like to train, develop and grow from within. It’s not so much that this gives us an advantage when pitching, it’s more that we and more importantly our clients feel comfortable when our service is managed by our team rather than anyone externally.
Do you ever get approached to work with non-golfing brands that simply want to connect with a golfing audience?
SE: Absolutely. For example, we’ve worked with rights holders including hotel, car, eyewear and watch brands in the past – all of which have products that have much broader market appeal than just golfers, but they’ve identified golf and its associated demographics as a potentially lucrative audience. To be honest, it’s something we feel we could do more of and with the game flourishing at present it wouldn’t surprise me if we had some other large companies whose core business is outside of golf looking for guidance.
A lot of agencies just do the PR side of a client’s business, without any influence on marketing or advertising spend. How important is it to have a foot in both camps when it comes to leveraging exposure?
PC: It really depends on the client, their brief and customer base. In general, it’s always been our feeling that any successful marketing campaign should have paid for elements. It’s sometimes easier to look at your margin as an agency and feel you should take the maximum proportion of your clients’ money as possible, but, that’s almost certainly not the best balance for them.
The last few years has seen some significant changes to the golfing media landscape in the UK, with several print magazines having gone by the wayside and social media influencers and YouTube channels growing in popularity. What do you make of the shift towards more digitally focused platforms and how has that changed the way you get your clients’ messages across to the golfing public?
SE: Primarily the rise of influencers has provided us with a new avenue to communicate clients’ messages and services, rather than replaced or taken a medium away. In general, we’re admirers of many influencers’ work and ultimately there is a reason for their success in that they’re providing content that’s clearly engaging for golfers globally. And it’s our job to follow where the golfers go!
PC: As with our partnerships and relationship with more traditional media, we try to take time to understand their objectives so that we can work together to hopefully achieve our collective goals – rather than attempting to ram our client’s products down their throats. From an agency perspective, having more avenues to reach golfers can only be a good thing.
I’m guessing that anyone who applies for a job at GMS must be passionate about golf, as well as possessing marketing qualifications and skills? What do you look for from a potential employee?
SE: First and foremost we look for a cultural fit. We try to keep our work environment fun, social but with hard work and a can-do attitude at the fore. Over the years our team has grown organically and often we’ve called upon people we’d already known in some capacity. For example, I went to school with our social media manager Adam Hull, and with Hannah Mulliner and Chris O’Hagan, our communications and commercial managers, Phil and I knew them both well before they joined. It takes aspects of the risks associated with hiring away and seems to be a working model for us.
PC: I’ve always tried to make sure we surround ourselves with young, talented people. I’m comfortable being the old codger around here! We have a young team now and it’s really refreshing for us oldies to have dynamic, hungry people around who care about our clients and their businesses.
SE: It goes without saying that an interest in golf is crucial, whereas playing ability isn’t at all. We have some very good golfers in our office, but some rubbish ones too – present company absolutely accepted! – and we don’t see playing ability as having any real bearing on job competence.
PC: All our recent recruits at a junior level have been educated at university level and are coming out with complementary skills but haven’t necessarily studied anything related to marketing. We’re comfortable providing that guidance where possible.
You moved the GMS HQ in the lockdown from Welwyn to offices at Essendon Country Club. Given that many companies are remote working, how important has it been to have your staff working under one roof again? And how much were you swayed by the idea of being based at a golf club?
SE: While it’s not necessarily the trend at present, office culture for us is hugely important. We hope to run a company where our staff – as far as they tell us at least – enjoy coming to work. We try to instil a collaborative culture and being a relatively small team means that there’s often a need to bounce ideas off each other spontaneously. We found that after a while remote working became a merry-go-round of Zoom calls which begins to feel samey and mundane before long. As soon as we had the green light from the government, we were back in the office with the appropriate restrictions in place to keep everyone safe.
PC: Moving became a necessity at the end of 2019 when we ran out of desks! We had outgrown our office and were on the lookout for something bespoke. A building that was exactly what we’d been looking for became available on location at Essendon Country Club, which is a venue we’ve had a longstanding relationship with. It’s a stunning location and our building offers us everything we need, including breakout rooms, a board room, an editing suite and two large offices with a separate kitchen. It feels like a social, modern and collaborative office and we’re very happy here.
Essendon as a club is also a great place for us to reside. It’s one of the most progressive golf club’s in the UK, with inclusivity at its core. The club has ambitious plans and strives for continuous improvement across the board, which is exciting for us to be a small part of. And of course, having two great golf courses on site has its benefits!
Where do you see GMS in five years from now?
PC: First and foremost I’d like to think we’d be still be deemed of some importance to our existing clients and still servicing them beyond their expectations of us.
SE: We’d like to think we could replicate our model to a greater extent in other parts of the world – i.e. outside of our home turf in EMEA – but that would depend on us creating partnerships with suitable people on the ground in Asia and perhaps the US. It’s something we’re always looking at but it’s not a major priority.
PC: We are not really the type of guys who look into a crystal ball. I always think that if we care about our clients, care about the media and care about our people, we’ll be okay.
For more details on GMS, visit www.gmsgolf.co.uk or call +44 (0)1438 718399. New office address: The Farmhouse, Essendon Country Club, Bedwell Park, Essendon, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, AL9 6HN.