From Nike to the Olympic Games: Q&A with the Head of Marketing for The Olympic Games, Matt McKie

Matt McKie, Global Head of Marketing at The Olympic Games
In this Q&A, we're going to ask him what he's learned about marketing in a career that has taken him through some of the world's best-known brands (not even hyperbole).

Key takeaways

  • Any type of professional success can only be achieved if you decide to follow passion over money.
  • There are few things more powerful for growth than mentorship. Imitate them, ask them questions, and be open to their advice.
  • The fundamentals of marketing are always the same no matter the company. The manner in which you make use of these fundamentals depends upon the organization.
  • When looking to create a marketing plan, the first step is to slow down and listen. Let the culture wash over you, be receptive to feedback, and create your plan from there.
  • Any brand at any level can serve as a platform to inspire.
  • To develop thick skin as a marketer, detach yourself from the work. This will help you to become more receptive to feedback and create a mindset driven to always improve.

Q&A with Matt McKie

Q: How were the Olympic Games for you?

A: It was amazing. I joined in January. On New Year’s Eve, I relocated to Switzerland where they were based in Luzern. There was, of course, a plan for the games, but there wasn’t a marketing plan. The marketing department was brand new, in fact. It was an intense journey. The world felt the magic of the games and the people in Tokyo were so kind and loving. The Olympics is a powerful brand that changes lives on both a macro and a micro scale because, even in between those two years, it exists to fund local sports organizations, federations, etc. My goal is to improve lives and inspire people beyond the flames.

Q: What have you learned since January?

A: I haven’t had time to reflect because the Beijing Winter Games are in February. So, we’ve come straight out of Tokyo and straight into Beijing with almost 100 days to do around the middle of October. But the interesting duality about the Olympics is that it’s an over-100-year-old organization that has played an epic role in humanity, let alone business or marketing. From a marketing point of view, there have been marketers in the Olympics, but a department focused on digital marketing is new. It feels like a startup in this big organization. The Olympics have been about small wins. It’s been about proving the value of marketing. It isn’t about the games, but about humanity and what we are going through in the context of the athletes coming in from around the world. What was important was not what the brand stood for, but how to articulate that message to different audiences, particularly to different age groups.

Q: Was there any cynicism or barrier that you had to overcome to prove the value of marketing?

A: Because we were a new department, there was a gap. There were a lot of unknowns because we were speaking a totally different language. Instead of focusing on the short-term numbers, a lot of the marketing I’ve done is long-term and brand-driven to actually change attitudes toward the company. I focused the branding not just on getting eyes on Tokyo today, but on piquing the interest of the younger generations to prepare them for future Olympic Games.

Q: You’re a relatively young guy for this role. Have you always been deliberate when making career choices?

A: I’ve definitely been very deliberate. But I never actually focused on sports. Sport just manifested as I moved through my career. I now specialize in sport but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t step out of it if given the opportunity. My first job was in consumer insights at Unilever, and that time was really important in forming my career path. I wanted to be the guy being given these insights to go do the fun stuff. From there, I only wanted to take on roles that I was passionate about. I decided to follow passion over money.

Q: Have you ever had a mentor in your career?

A: I’ve had loads of mentors and I really believe in the power of mentorship as well as allyship. I actually don’t often acknowledge the mentor-mentee relationship. I just look up to a person and cherry pick or borrow things from there. In fact, beyond looking up to them, I reach out and ask questions. I “pretended” to be a marketer throughout my career just by following more successful people. Mentorship is intensely important. It’s really been the backdrop of my career.

Q: When you start something new with no strategy in place, as you did in January, what are the initial steps in putting together a marketing strategy?

A: It depends on the content of the organization. This is a bit of a cliché, but regardless of the context, the first step is to listen—to genuinely, genuinely listen. Sometimes, marketers can have egos. When I was at Nike, I learned to listen and let the current culture wash over me instead of just letting others tell me what they think I ought to do. What I rolled out was from the position of empathy. I approached the Olympics the same way. The fundamentals of marketing are always the same no matter the company. The manner in which you make use of these fundamentals depends upon the organization.

Q: How do the Olympics harness the power of their personal brand?

A: Athletes are becoming so influential in the world. This is not rocket science. They are motivated to change the world by tapping into the power of their personal brand. The Olympics is a platform. Usain Bolt became Usain Bolt at the Olympics. It was a springboard for his personality and his athletic prowess. These people exist outside of the games. My job was to discover, on both a micro and a macro level, how the Olympics could become a platform for their message to inspire. But any brand at any level can do the same thing.

Q: What can the world learn from the Olympic Games’ marketing strategy, especially from a B2B and B2C perspective?

A: We haven’t even scratched the surface at this point. I guess there are expectations of what the games are, and those expectations usually revolve around the different sports in the Olympics. What we tried to do was to subvert those expectations built up over 100 or so years, to orientate perspectives to new places. It wasn’t just about who won or who lost a game. The messages we tried to convey through the Summer Olympics are progress over perfection and not being afraid to fail.

Q: At Euro 2020, we saw Ronaldo snub Coca Cola. While athletes perhaps don’t possess the player power we see footballers have, do you think major sporting events/leagues/organizations are beginning to really consider partnerships more? Will brands also consider following the response by consumers at Euro 2020?

A: If you’re doing an endorsement, authenticity is so important when you partner up with athletes because these people are always on. Ronaldo’s value is not just from him showing up on an advert or on the pitch wearing your products. If he really believes in the products and the company’s mission, he’s 365 on his social media. He’ll be endorsing you around the clock as your ambassador. It has to be authentic. You can’t just write a check for athletes.

Q: With such a prominent role as yours, have you had to develop a thick skin?

A: Having a thick skin applies internally as well as externally. I actually prefer speaking to strangers versus friends and family because I feel more judged by those who I know. I’d take comments more personally from familiar people than from unfamiliar people. But a mentor once told me, “You need to detach yourself from the work. People aren’t critiquing Matt McKie. They’re not saying you’re no good. They’re trying to help you improve your work.” That advice helped me to become more receptive to feedback and created a mindset driven to always improve.

Q: What books, podcasts, and other resources do you recommend for those tuning in?

A: I love the book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, the podcast How I Built This and anything by Adam Grant.