In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’ we talk to M&C Saatchi’s CMO Kate Bosomworth. A passionate champion of women’s sport, Bosomworth launched her own comms agency in 2002, winning a number of huge clients including the London Marathon, adidas and the Ryder Cup.

Now working to futureproof one of the world’s biggest ad agencies as CMO, she has also – for the past six years – been a Director of Sport England, spearheading the hugely successful This Girl Can campaign which drastically increased participation in women’s sport in the UK. Here, Bosomworth discusses her life and career in sport with Sport Industry Insider.

I didn’t come from a sporty family.

My mum was an artist so she never pushed me into sport but I still found my own way. I remember absolutely loving sports day at primary school. I’m highly competitive, and it was my thing really; I’m one of four and I always wanted to beat my older siblings. I played for sports teams at school, too, but my mum didn’t come and watch. Not because she didn’t want to but because she couldn’t – she worked full-time. She did, however, take us to the athletics at Gateshead Stadium in the late 70s, early 80s. I used to be quite envious of the athletes on the track because it looked quite glamorous. That was my first exposure to watching live sport.

The Olympics was always must-watch TV in our house.

Even though we weren’t a particularly sporty family, we all still came together to watch the Olympics back in the late 1970s, early 80s. You still see that with the Olympics now. We’d be glued to the TV and I remember always supporting [1500m runner] Steve Cram because he was from the North East like us. I once got really excited because we found out at school that the opposing netball team’s coach was Steve Cram’s wife! The rivalry between Steve Cram, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe was always amazing viewing. Little did I know, 30 years later I’d have had the opportunity to not just meet them all but work with both Seb and Steve Cram.

From left to right: Steve Ovett, Steve Cram & Seb Coe compete at the 1980 LA Olympics.

I hated sailing as a child but in 2001 sailed across the Southern Ocean.  

My dad was a sailor so I used to go with him every other Sunday but we sailed in the North Sea and it was freezing cold. I didn’t enjoy it. Years later, when my mum died, I really wanted something new to focus on so in 2001 I signed up for the BT Global Challenge, a round-the-world yacht race. I was on the reserve list and someone dropped out so off I went to Australia. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done, 44 days of sailing the roughest ocean on the planet. A lot of those sailing with me became incredibly good friends. When I finished, I thought, ‘this is what I love – sport, the outdoors, competition’. I found my mojo and since then I’ve always worked in sport. That race was a tipping point.

Launching a sports PR agency was a risk, but it paid off.

The Flora Light 5k Challenge was one of the first events we took on and our reputation for handling sporting events grew pretty quickly. We forged our own path because there wasn’t really much to follow in terms of precedent – there weren’t really any dedicated sports PR agencies. I started hiring grads from Loughborough University with really strong technical sports science expertise so, when we pitched to adidas for example, our running expertise was off the scale. We were competing against PR agencies but our expertise was our selling point and sometimes clients were saying, ‘Wow, you know more than we do’.  First we got adidas on board and then Flora asked us to take over their whole portfolio, which at the time included the London Marathon.

We helped take sport off the back pages.

I remember having my first conversations with sports editors around the London Marathon almost 20 years ago. Apart from a bit of elite coverage, the event just wasn’t really getting any cut through. But we found a way to encourage people to engage with the London Marathon in a completely different way. The idea of ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’ was coined through the London Marathon in the early days of us working on it and we saw more and more coverage of the stories behind the race.

It’s incredibly motivating to work on events like that – particularly as we also started to push women’s sport and doing exercise and fitness into the mainstream. When we worked on the Playtex Moonwalk event, we received letters from people saying, ‘I haven’t done any sport since school, and I walked 26 miles last weekend. Now I’m going to enter a 5k. It’s changed my life.’ To me, when you are reading that, there could really be no better job.

The 2010 Ryder Cup was another defining moment.

When we were pitching to the European Tour, I felt our agency was really the black sheep, the underdog. They had big sports marketing agencies and golf-specific agencies but I imagine we went in with a completely different pitch to all the others. They needed to generate a big change in golf and the awareness of golf across Europe and we convinced them that we were the right agency to do it. Standing on the green at Celtic Manor was a real ‘I can’t believe I’m part of this’ moment. I feel utterly privileged to have been there for a moment in sport that will go down in history. The European Tour were a wonderful client and they made us feel part of their family, even well beyond the 2010 Ryder Cup.

NEWPORT, WALES – OCTOBER 04: A leaderboard is seen near the 18th green after the completion of the singles matches during the 2010 Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor Resort on October 4, 2010 in Newport, Wales. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Storytelling is at the heart of sport marketing now.

This approach has helped people have a different view of sport and made it more accessible. Certainly in the UK, the London 2012 Olympics was a pivotal moment. You saw the athletes everyday on your way to work on billboards or the side of the bus, you felt like you knew them. Now it goes beyond the athletes – people are interested in those around them too; the coaches, the sports scientists, the families. Because of the huge proliferation of broadcast and social media channels, there is more scope to tell these stories.

If you make sport with a capital ‘S’ more interesting through the people in it, then more people also look at participating in sport with a small ‘s’. Many have disassociated themselves with sports historically, but now find a way to have a relationship with a sport because of a certain athlete who they can get behind. Sponsors are seeing this and are looking beyond the more tangible metric of how many people or what’s the reach? Now they are asking what they genuinely get out of their sponsorship and what is the DNA that can make their brand more appealing or more sustainable?’

I was very surprised to be given a place on the Sport England board in 2013.

In my interview I was quite forthright and remember saying, ‘most people don’t know who you are or what you do, or where you spend your money’. But it worked. They wanted some entrepreneurs and commercial thinkers – people who understood communications and marketing. Still, I remember being slightly intimidated when I walked into the room on the first day seeing people like [1992 Olympic gold medalist] Sally Gunnell. I had a slight ‘imposter moment’, as Sheryl Sandberg would call it. But then they seemed to be as pleased to see me as I was them and I really got my teeth into the role. I was certainly not a board member who would just read my board notes, turn up for board meetings. I really wanted to make a difference.

The This Girl Can campaign initiated genuine change in the UK.

I was asked to look at the problem we had with female participation and we were fortunate as we had a staggering amount of insight and numbers to work with at the start. This helped me write the brief for This Girl Can. We wanted a campaign that didn’t look like a government campaign, would disrupt the market and would really explore how women feel about their relationship with being active.

When the television campaign was launched in 2015, it was one of the proudest moments of my career. It was appalling in one sense that women with cellulite had never actually been shown on TV in shorts running up a hill. But the reaction was everything we hoped it would be. The numbers that followed were phenomenal and millions of women became active. It was a real boost for women’s sport. Importantly it also encouraged brands to speak differently to women and we started to watch other brands’ ads change. This has been really gratifying and it was good fun helping Sport England to be braver and more ambitious about how they could do things in the marketplace.

I have many heroes in sport, but two really stand out.

Baroness Sue Campbell has made a historically significant difference in sport through her work in the Youth Sport Trust and her work now leading the FA’s women’s strategy. She is an incredible thinker, a brilliant politician in sport. So many positive sporting changes in the UK can trace their roots back to her. She’s a ridiculous worker, a northerner like me, and has this brilliant ability to bring people together to make significant strategic change in sport.

Tanni Grey-Thompson is another I admire hugely. She was a phenomenal athlete who spent a lot of her career overlooked because the Paralympic movement had not quite had its day. Yet her achievements [in wheelchair racing] are unprecedented. She’s also a mum and she’s a right laugh too. She cuts through the crap and has also made a tangible difference to sport and to the Paralympic movement. More broadly, I think she’s a huge role model for women and for mothers and for athletes. Look at our young female para-athletes who are competing now, they are phenomenal. She paved the way to make that happen.  

This year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup will be a game-changing tournament.

I think finally women’s football, like women’s sport in general, seems to be getting the global attention it deserves.  Significant change in any industry requires a level of confidence and commitment at leadership level. I would say that FIFA have been late to the party but at least we are seeing change now. Post World Cup I expect some of those women will become household names and that then brings in interest from sponsors and brands – which of course means money. Once you start to generate that commercial flow of funds into a sport, that’s when it starts to make a really big difference. I think there is a sort of order of play. How do you drive mass participation on the ground? You have to be able to invest in the infrastructure as well as create role models and heroes for people to follow and buy into.

I remember hearing once that the ambitions of the England women’s team were not about silverware. It was about laying the pathway for other girls to get into football, to make it as easy for girls to get into football as it is for guys. That’s it. That is their mission as a team and you can tell. They have carried this responsibility with joy and they are inspiring a whole generation of girls to pull on their football boots.

The Middle East still needs to do more for women’s sport.

In 2016 and 2017 I spoke quite a lot in the region and everyone was tremendously positive about the potential for improving women’s sport participation. I was really excited but feel slightly dismayed that I haven’t seen too much progress in terms of women’s sport. Accessibility and inclusivity are the two keywords – whether it is women or children, it needs to be easier to be physically active.  It is about creating new cultural norms in the region which isn’t always easy but I think encouraging families to be active together would be a great start. My hope is that it’s been slow because they are building sustainable infrastructure and programs which I know takes time. If progress has been made then the region should start to celebrate it.