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IGNITING THE SPARK with Charlie Marshall, Supponor

Alex McPherson

Supponor is a game-changing sports technology company specialising in Augmented Reality. They replace physical billboard adverts in sports venues with a digital technology that they call DBRLive. It allows different audiences to see virtual adverts that are bespoke to their region, in real time – meaning sports fans across the world can watch an identical live sports feed, yet with pitch (or rink, or court, or track) side advertising relevant to them. Established over 10 years ago, Supponor boasts big sporting brands such as La Liga and the National Hockey League as clients. We caught up with COO Charlie Marshall on the eve of a major North American launch for the business, to talk about the challenges of creating change, leading an international team and Latin word origins…

Charlie Marshall
Charlie Marshall

The moment that ignited the spark in me to join Supponor was…

Supponor was the perfect business to ignite a spark in me as it united a number of interests. I’ve had previous roles in media, technology and sports industries – always looking at the ways that digital technology could transform business models, which I find fascinating.

The other fundamental factor was the entrepreneurial environment. I’d previously worked at the opposite end of the spectrum, in large, global corporates. I really wanted to challenge myself in a more entrepreneurial business, though I’m not sure I was prepared for how different that would be!

One of the most embarrassing parts of my interview process, which I’m just about happy to reveal now, was when I asked about the origins of Supponor’s name. It’s from the Latin ‘suppono’, meaning ‘place under’. In the literal sense this is what we do – we place real advertising under virtual advertising. Anyway the CEO at the time was kind enough to explain this to me, though I didn’t mention at the time that I read Classics at university!

The thing that’s most surprised me since I made that move is…

Moving from a large corporate (I previously worked at Accenture) to an entrepreneurial environment is so different. Every member of the team is incredibly resourceful, doing everything for themselves! You do it all on extremely limited resources; across countries, across cultures. We’re still a small, growing company so you have to be a very multi-disciplined professional, dealing with people and individuals on a very personal basis and often people who have very different outlooks on the world. You have to try ignite the passion of all of these people, each of whom may require a unique approach.

At Supponor we are in the business of change. The toughest part of bringing about change is continually proving that the change is valuable, that change is better and to some extent, persuading more conservative industries that change is inevitable. The tactics which we employ to do this are wide ranging depending on who we are dealing with. This is one of the things that I learnt in a large consulting environment - you should always understand your audience before you try and pitch things to them and tell them what they want. Some people need a big, strategic industry picture about how value is shifting across the sport and media industry. They need to understand where new value will come from, from a commercial, revenue driven perspective. For other people it’s much more tactile, it’s about showing a demo and helping them to touch and feel some really cool technology, they get excited by the visuals. For other people it’s more about trying to paint a picture of what the future looks like if you don’t make this change. Not to generate fear but to emphasise the need for forward momentum and continuous innovation. It’s a mixture of strategy, marketing and technology, all coming together.

My biggest success has been…

Proving that Supponor works! The biggest success so far was taking the business from what was still essentially a product in a tech lab, just coming out into the real world, an idea with a couple of proofs of concept to a technology solution which is now deployed on a global scale. Today, our products are used by some of the most widely recognised international sports and media organisations. Having their stamp of credibility on our idea is the biggest mark of success really.

We’re really proud of the relationships that we’ve developed in North America. To have them turn around and say that what we have created in Supponor is unique and that it is the best of its kind in the world is a huge achievement for us. It mirrors the start we had with some of our longer term clients such as La Liga in Spain across the Barcelona and Real Madrid games, so it’s exciting to see where we could take this. When you’re a smaller technology company like us, having some cut through in North America is very good.

One example of this is the event we’re doing right now with the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America. They have a huge event taking place in Toronto called the World Cup of Hockey. We’ve had a relationship with the NHL for the last 3 years, working alongside a range of different stakeholders including the league and its broadcast and production partners, clubs, venues, sponsors and advertisers. Each one of those stakeholders has got to agree that implementing our technology services across the NHL is something that is of the required levels of quality and will deliver the appropriate level of incremental value for the sport to decide that they need to make the change. It’s a long, hard – but ultimately rewarding – process!

World Cup Of Hockey
World Cup Of Hockey

I’m very good at…

Keeping people calm and motivated at the same time. One thing I’ve learnt in this kind of role is that if you don’t have your team motivated and in the right head space then you’re not going to get very far. Ensuring that the team are all on the same page and keeping them pointed in the right direction is something that I take very seriously.

Within our team we have lots of different nationalities, in particular a very strong Finnish contingent, which is where our technology is developed. We also have partners across the world. Everyone is different in terms of what they need to stay motivated. I think it’s about recognising that there are a number of ways to motivate and to make sure that you’re not falling into the trap that one way works for all.

The type of person I look to recruit into my organisation is…

I think people do well at Supponor when they have gained ‘big company’ experience, yet relish the challenge of growing something smaller. People who have experience of working in a more process driven organisation can bring some great ideas to us. When you combine someone who has that analytical, process-driven background with a genuine passion and a glint in their eye for a more entrepreneurial, nimble environment – that’s the kind of person we look for. If you don’t have that background of rigour and process, then there’s a danger that you try to run too fast and you leave a trail of destruction behind you. Rigour is really important for building a strong foundation within business, alongside the spark within start-ups that makes them so great.

The part of my day I most look forward to is…

If I could identify one favourite part of my day each day, then I think I would be bored – luckily every day is very different! There’s a need to move between different functional priorities of the business, so there may be a phase which is quite planning and finance driven or a time when we’re taking a hard look at the product and the tech. For me, I need to be across all of those functions and in constant communications with all of the different teams across those areas.

The other aspect I really enjoy is that even though we are a small business, we are also a very global company. There’s a lot of travel, sometimes too much, but enough that it is exciting and I do like that Marco Polo side to the experience; one week I’m in Canada, then Barcelona the next and then in Finland after that. That said, I have a strong magnetic compass that brings me back home to my family. I love the fact that we can do what we do in many different places around the world and yet it has the same relevance and interest wherever we are. Seeing the excitement of a new customer when they ‘get’ what we could do for them is one of the best parts of any particular day.

If I could give my 18-year old self one piece of advice, it would be…

I would say in all honesty; don’t focus on earning money too early on in your career. Do what you want to do, especially early on, you can reap the financial rewards later. If you can forge a career that you love by doing what you’re good at, then that is the key to not only building a successful career, but also the key to an all-round great life. Don’t chase the money too early.

Outside of work I can be found…

When you work in sport there is a huge difficulty drawing a line between your work and your personal life, because sport generally happens outside of office hours. It definitely helps if you’ve got a passion for sport! But outside of work I have two young boys and they are already developing their own little passions, which keeps me busy. One of them is absolutely mad on karate and is just starting to get into national and international tournaments. My other boy is only five but if it was up to him he’d be on his bike 24 hours a day so wherever we can we go bike riding. My secret is that I am a failed guitarist, so whenever I can I strangle guitars in front of anyone who has the misfortune of being in the same room!

My philosophy on life is…

I’m still working on my own philosophy, though I often revert back to my father’s philosophy on life, which seems more insightful as I’ve got older. He lives by the mantra; ‘you’re here for a good time, not a long time’. Whatever situation you’re in if you remember that it definitely helps!

If I was asking the questions, I would want to know…

Something like, why do you think your business is going to work? Or, what’s the key to success? If you had to boil it down, when you’ve achieved success, what will have been the main factor? I think you need to have a very ruthless and single minded view of any changes that you need to make, to ensure that your enterprise is successful. When you keep that in your mind’s eye then no matter who you’re dealing with, you need to believe in it, you need to see it and you’ve got to guide people towards it, because if you lose sight of that then you are kind of in free fall. I sound a bit like Obama don’t I…believe in the change!

What I like about working with Ignition Law…

Ignition is culturally attuned to us - they are similar to us as an organisation in that they too are trying to create change. I suspect that they are probably less chaotic than us but from a culture side they really understand companies like ours. There’s absolutely none of the law firm jargon that comes with larger, more corporate law firms. They’re straight, honest and highly engaged with us and our business. They are almost alarmingly responsive. I think that Ignition have got a great opportunity to do very well and I would back them to do that because they are really going about changing the legal services model in the right way.

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