The Callum Murray Interview - Emma Lax
The founder and managing director of new agency We Are Disrupt tells Sportcal Insight what brands are missing when they overlook women's sport and why the future of sports agencies is 'ungendered'
26th May 2017, 14:03

If you haven’t heard of Emma Lax, I think you soon will.

She’s the former head of women’s sport and lifestyle at CSM Sport and Entertainment, who left the Chime Communications-owned, Sebastian Coe-led, UK-based sports agency in March to launch We Are Disrupt, a new full-service sports marketing agency specialising in women’s sport.

Asked to describe herself, she thinks for a moment (she does this with every question), then says: “I’m a champion of commercial opportunities in women’s sport. But I’m striking a careful balance between being a champion and bringing a rigour and a commercial lens to it, so it has the opportunity to realise its potential.”

So why call her company ‘We Are Disrupt’? ‘Disrupt’ has become a mot du jour, I point out, having apparently lost its traditionally pejorative meaning (‘he’s the most disruptive boy in the class’) and taken on a new, constructively negative meaning, so to speak. Lax agrees, saying: “It’s a thread that goes through lots of different parts of what we do. For me, it’s about using the power of creativity to challenge convention: leaving the world a better place than we found it.”

This sounds almost like a moral crusade, I say. “One of the things that’s important for us is building a team based on shared personal values around opportunities in women’s sport,” Lax replies. “All of our investors have daughters engaged in sport. They want to create a society where they can be what they want to. For a lot of the team, who are predominantly women, they’re creating a culture where women’s sport is ‘normalised’, to enable more women to experience the benefits of sport.”

Lax is impressed with the tie-up between Nissan and Manchester City Women

Is women’s sport still regarded as ‘abnormal’ then? “For me it’s the detail of normalising,” Lax says, “making it ‘ungendered’. I want to turn to the back sheet of a newspaper and read about men’s and women’s football and cricket, or go to a conference on sport and there will be a 50:50 split. As an agency advising on sponsorship opportunities, I want equal numbers for women’s and men’s sport.”

This means “rethinking commercial models, challenging the status quo on what a package of assets looks like,” Lax adds. “We need to better value digital and social rights. In women’s sport there are examples where you get higher reach on social media than on broadcast platforms. It’s thinking differently about what a catalogue of rights looks like, but also being more collaborative with media and distribution platforms about how to structure them from the outset.”

Lax cites Nissan’s sponsorship of the live streaming on Facebook Live of Manchester City Women's debut in the Uefa Women’s Champions League last October (not an initiative in which she was directly involved), saying: “Quite often there’s flexibility on social rights. A lot [of rights-holders] haven’t even thought about social rights. From a broadcaster perspective it’s often an opportunity to negotiate. Can you do something collaborative with a media outlet to help drive audiences?” In this case, Manchester City Women benefited from the fact that Nissan is also a partner of the Uefa Women’s Champions League.

Aged just 30, Lax has effectively had two careers already, having started off in politics after taking a degree in the subject at Edinburgh University. She wanted to work in politics, she says, because it’s “all about making a difference.” But the problem with politics is that, “policy takes a lot of time to make and change.”

She explains: “I did over two years for a consultancy working for central and local government and quangos on issues like health, social inclusion and regeneration. I also did a year of voluntary work with the Ministry of Health around alcohol policy, but I decided I needed to be more commercially savvy. I went to London and joined a research and strategy start-up. It was a fascinating grounding, a 360-view of how to set up and run a business with global clients like Vodafone and Merck.”

For me, it’s about using the power of creativity to challenge convention: leaving the world a better place than we found it


At the start-up she learned that “one of the things that is really important is using data, being rigorous in creating right partnerships from a brand perspective: understanding bespoke challenges, how to move brands forward. It’s important to approach everything with the commercial bottom line in mind. Sometimes that’s missing from the rights-holder environment.”

What set her on a different course was the 2012 Olympic Games in London which, she says, “was transformative for me. Sport empowers individuals to do what they want to do. You can make a difference more quickly in sport than in politics. For me, it’s about supporting brands, rights holders and the media to empower people as individuals. With politics, it’s often top-down, there’s the limitation of short-term cycles.

“Having been in politics, then working with brands, I’m seeing the power of brands to change cultures. For my generation, and the generations below me, it may be that actually using brands as catalysts of cultural change is more powerful than doing it through policy structures.”

But surely, I ask, people are rightly suspicious of brands, which have their own agenda and where the primary motivation is, as she has herself pointed out, the bottom line? “For me, whether it’s a partnership between brands, rights-holders, media or consumers, it’s about shared values,” she replies. “If you can create a relationship based on shared values, it’s authentic and removes the suspicion around it. Part of it is partnering with the right brands. There’s a correlation between the ‘why’ of a brand and commercial value. Brands with an authentic social purpose behind them are those that will do best in terms of setting the culture, creating change and also connecting with consumers.”

The change Lax is talking about is a change in the perception of women’s role in sport: as participants, as consumers and as administrators. As consumers, there is a logical fallacy in the reluctance of brands from sectors such as electronics, personal care and retail to engage with women’s sport, according to Lax. Asked if women’s sport can ever realistically hope to compete commercially with men’s sport, she argues: “I think it’s realistic in a landscape where women make 80 per cent of purchasing decisions. It seems logical. We are seeing progress. There is a demand from the brand side to understand how they can use women, how their sponsorship needs to be activated in a different to way to engage with a wider consumer base.”

The company aims to use the power of creativity to challenge convention

Lax herself is not from a sporting background and can sympathise with those women who do not think of themselves as traditionally sporty either. “I wasn’t active in sport or heavily involved at school and university,” she says. “For me, the catalyst for taking up sport was a junior doctor recommending it as treatment for depression. So for me one of the things that’s really important is, how do you market and communicate sport to different people and populations so that the opportunities of sport align with what’s important to them?”

Before joining CSM, Lax was insight and innovation manager at Women in Sport, the UK’s women’s sport charity, where, she says, she undertook research on repositioning the concept of sport in order to engage more women. “It wasn’t about saying, ‘how do I sell hockey?’, but, ‘what’s the relationship between women, sport and fitness, in order to reposition it as something with value for women?” The overall conclusion was that: “You don’t need to be good at sport to take value from it.”

A women’s sport often cited as leading the way in terms of commercial success is tennis, with the WTA having recently begun a new media rights and production deal with Perform worth $525 million over 10 years. Can other sports learn from the WTA? “The commercial model for tennis is more mature [than for other sports],” says Lax. “But it’s important for sports like football [soccer] that are looking at carving out their own brand, identity and position.

“One of the biggest things sports like football could do is create marketable stars. There are amazing female personalities within tennis. How do you create that across different sports? It’s about performance, personality and social [media] influence. We need to support athletes’ rights-holders to support athletes. What can you learn from social media influencers and celebrities? Because athletes are now competing with influencers and celebrities.

“At Chime we did a lot to contract influencer deals with fitness and wellness influencers like Emily Skye [the fitness role model in Australia] and Tally Rye [the personal trainer and nutrition enthusiast in the UK]. It costs significantly less than for high-profile athletes. The plan [at We Are Disrupt] hadn’t been to do talent management, but there is a demand both from athletes and from a social influencer perspective. We have confirmed, but not yet contracted, [a deal with] a cycling amateur, but a really big influencer.

It’s important to approach everything with the commercial bottom line in mind. Sometimes that’s missing from the rights-holder environment


“The biggest single thing you can do is upskill individual athletes to build a personal brand profile around sport. A lot of influencers don’t know how to commercialise it. It’s new, it’s evolving. How do you cost influence? A lot of brands see bloggers as something they can get for free in exchange for product, but it’s now an industry in its own right. You have to treat bloggers as people with day rates, advising brands on influencer strategy.”

The link between this and the WTA might sound tenuous but, says Lax, it’s about “building women’s property as a separate brand: not a bolt-on, but a separate commercial opportunity in its own right. From a sponsor perspective, it’s understanding who do sponsors want to engage with? Where should you be building an audience and with whom?

“In the UK, women’s sport only receives 0.4 per cent of all commercial investment in sport. Eighty per cent goes to men’s football. That paints quite a bleak picture, but if you look at the growth in value of commercial investment in women’s sport it is going up year by year.”

National and international governing bodies and other rights-holders have a role to play in creating rights packages that appeal to potential sponsors seeking to reach women too, Lax says. For example, while at CSM she was working for a brand that wanted an involvement with women’s soccer, “but the challenge was, the only option was the Women’s World Cup. It was a challenge because the rights are bundled so it would have been paying $200 million for a property that was worth a fraction of that [to the budding sponsor].

“One of the things for us as an agency is how can we work with national governing bodies to build structures that are easy for brands to buy? The biggest commercial opportunity as an agency is working with brands, but to achieve change we need to work with governing bodies to realise the opportunity and help them navigate brand relationships.

Lax's idol: Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to take part in the Boston Marathon 50 years ago

“One product we’re developing is around gender diversity in sport leadership. In the UK there’s a direct link between the number of women on the board [of a governing body] and the number of women participating in the sport. We’re talking to some of the federations and people working with them to see how we can help them build a pipeline to get them to a place where there’s more parity.”

Perhaps confounding Middle Eastern stereotypes, We Are Disrupt is working with FBMA, the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, on an international conference on sports for women, in a contract won before Lax left CMS, and which it is completing on a consultancy basis for the agency. “It’s aligned with empowering women and girls in the UAE through sport, physical activity and healthy lifestyles,” Lax says. “One of the really interesting things for them is how they can use their commitment to women’s sport to reposition the UAE. It has big cultural implications from a tourism perspective. It might be around changing portrayals of women in the media, by upskilling local photographers. How can it provide opportunities in terms of sports tourism to investors?”

Other work on We Are Disrupt's books includes developing a women's cycling strategy for Bike Channel, the dedicated cycling television channel, and working on the roll-out of a UK women's business peloton on behalf of Strongher, the online club that aims to connect women worldwide through cycling.

Lax’s route into working in sport is like an object lesson in how to use modern communications technology to create a career opportunity for yourself. “I decided off the back of London 2012 to work in sport,” she says. “Sport had become a massive part of my life [she is a long-distance cyclist and marathon runner] and I had the realisation that I wanted to play a role in helping other women and girls like me to experience the benefits. So I contacted sports marketing agencies and told them I wanted to work in sport. They said, ‘Absolutely not. You need a black book of PR contacts, proof of success, and a relationship with brands on our target list’.”

Instead of becoming discouraged, Lax and a friend launched Lunges and Lycra, a women’s sports and fitness blog “for women who like sweating, fitness and the odd nip of gin,” to quote its own tagline. “I thought at the time that the piece of the puzzle I could impact most was media,” Lax explains. "I thought if I can’t play a role in landing more female role models in broadcasts I’ll create my own blog. I also used it to build the skills needed on my CV. We launched the blog and landed it in magazines and newspapers: over the last few years it’s been in the majority of media outlets. I proved I had a black book through being on press trips, on the media side rather than the PR side.

A lot of brands see bloggers as something they can get for free in exchange for product, but it’s now an industry in its own right


“I was also building relations with brands: We did work with Puma, supporting the launch of new running products, we did Nike internal shoot stuff and for Adidas we were a model for social campaigns, delivering panel sessions alongside professional athletes. I showcased I had relations with target brands, and was also capable of building them.”

That led to the job at Women In Sport, thence to CMS and, finally, to the launch of We Are Disrupt. So what is her long-term goal for her own company? The aim is “to create an ungendered sporting landscape where there is equality of media coverage, commercial investment and leadership,” Lax says. “Longer term it’s about creating an agency environment where it’s integrated, where the biggest sports marketing agencies in the world have women’s cricket and rugby specialists - or specialists that understand both. The ambition is an ungendered agency environment.”

I ask her for her own most inspirational moment in women’s sport and she cites Kathrine Switzer, who last month made worldwide headlines all over again for completing the Boston Marathon aged 70, exactly 50 years after becoming the first woman to take part in the race, despite attempts by an official to physically extract her from the race.

A photograph of the incident, in which Switzer was protected by her boyfriend and other (male) runners, was featured in Time Life’s book ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’.

Lax says: “There was never a stronger display of women’s rights. How can you get people to relate to that, championing yourself in a male-dominated environment? Women’s sport is interesting on so many different levels. There’s selling it from a performance perspective, but there’s also societal stuff around the growth of that sport, gender parity, brand building.

“It’s more interesting from a media perspective because it’s multi-layered. Some of the narratives range from mothers to someone who is homeless when playing for the national team. So for me some of it is about uncovering amazing narratives that are already there.”