The MT Interview: Chris Townsend

The commercial director of the London Olympics has shrugged off the recession to bring in the £2bn needed to stage the games. But, with some tickets still to sell, can he avoid another outcry from disappointed fans?

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

So, the nasty question first: just how many tickets did Chris Townsend's family get in the great Olympic ballot? He laughs when I ask.

'None, my family all lost out. But, yeah, I'll probably get to go. I'll be working.'

That's an understatement. For if anyone is going to be running round next July, it's Townsend, commercial director of Locog - the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. Just like the athletes, he's in training, that's how seriously he takes his job. 'All my spare time at the moment is spent keeping fit for this,' he says, gesturing around. 'Got to be fit in body to be fit in mind - that's my mantra.'

If you can detect an edge in his tone, you'd be right. Compact and dapper, Townsend is sitting in a tiny office in Locog's base on the 23rd floor of the Barclays tower in Canary Wharf. Outside his shoebox room sits a scrum of people staring at screens. A sign down one end says 'Ticketing'. It looks a bit haphazard for an organisation shifting nearly seven million of the things for next year's Olympics.

And that's just part of Townsend's remit, in a marketing job quite unlike any other in Britain at the moment. He was the man hired to raise the £2bn needed to build the London Games and put them on. Around a third has to be negotiated by him in broadcasting and sponsorship deals for the International Olympic Committee - the rest must come from tickets plus sponsorship, merchandising, retailing and more. Little wonder he'll be hand-holding sponsors through the Games themselves - he'll probably be selling programmes, too, hence his obsession with fitness.

And all the way, the media is watching his every step. Hoping he cocks up? Townsend flicks his eyebrows as if to ask what I think. No, obviously we're just checking he's not living high on the hog with all that ticket money.

And unless he's got a better office hidden away in Belgravia, he's not. 'Do you want a coffee?' he asks, offering a seat. 'Oh yes, it is instant.' I think I get the point.

First necessity for the job - very thick skin and nerves of steel. Second, the ability to soothe the egos of plutocrats, politicians and the press. And that's before you get to ratecards, processes and selling. So how interesting that Locog turned to the man who launched Premiership football on BSkyB for Rupert Murdoch, and sold the Oyster card to Londoners for Ken Livingstone. Townsend clearly has a yen for the dangerous.

'Yeah, well, I always knew there was a risk here,' he says when I bring it up. 'But I've lived with it before. Remember, when we took football off free-to-air TV we were pariahs. At dinner parties I used to tell my wife I was going to be a bus driver that night!'

Townsend, 55, doesn't seem too bruised by it all. Driven and intense, he has a reputation as a competitive technocrat, with a love of systems and a hatred of failure. That, so far, has worked to his favour. Some have given Locog a bashing for the complex way tickets have been distributed, via deposit and ballot, but anyone with experience in the sector knows it was always going to be tough. Too many people wanted to see the top events.

But beyond ticketing Townsend has a good story to pitch. Despite one of the worst financial squeezes in memory, he has raised nearly all the money needed a year early. He could be forgiven for serving champagne, not instant coffee, but inevitably he is treading carefully. So much could still go wrong.

And to meet, he is hard to gauge. He looks lean and modish with his black suit, white shirt, beaky features and a Trevor Eve haircut. Yet, for a marketing man, he talks sparely, as if continually assessing the risk value of his words. The surprise is his CV. He started as a salesman at EMI, hawking punk round London's record stores, then moved through computer retailing, database marketing, digital broadcasting - at both the BBC and Sky - and public transport. That's real breadth.

In fact, he has been a big wheel in marketing for so long it's surprising that he hasn't made that final jump to chief executive. Others suggest he prefers to operate away from the scrutiny that comes with top roles. He shrugs when I put it to him, saying 'moving up to MD' was his ambition before the commercial director's job at Locog came along, and it will be again afterwards. But he couldn't resist the London Olympics.

'It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on the greatest project anyone could be involved with, and it appealed to me to achieve the greatest commercial goal, it was like extending my personal best.'

And perhaps some in the media - catastrophist by nature - forget that London's business community sees the Games as a fabulous opportunity. If Locog could get the pitch right, Townsend reasoned, there was enough goodwill to pull it off.

There were other reasons Townsend fancied the job. He had helped the London Olympic bid team in his previous job as marketing director at Transport for London. Sir Keith Mills, the London bid chairman, encouraged him to apply for the commercial director role. And Paul Deighton, the ex-Goldman banker who heads Locog, says he wanted someone with more than just brand marketing prowess - he wanted an executive with a track record of delivering big commercial projects on time as they faced 'the mother of all delivery deadlines'. Townsend also, apparently, gave the straightest answer in interview. 'He said: "I want to raise your £2bn" - from that point on I knew I was in love with him,' laughs Deighton.

It raises an interesting question: did Townsend ever want Deighton's job? Locog's commercial director pulls a face.

'No, and one of the reasons I took this job is that I wanted to work with Paul, I thought I could learn from him. You know my style is more Sir Alex Ferguson, his is Jose Mourinho, and what I've really learnt is how to manage a team in order to deliver.'

But while Deighton gets the spotlight, the commercial director must hug the shadows. Does that appeal? 'I am allowed one interview and this is it,' he grins. But he does get to be the man that makes it all happen.

And he loves the idea of a job with a finish date written in stone: 30 September 2012. As his career shows, he is an executive with perennially itchy feet. 'Yup, I like change, I like to be on the move every few years.'

First he has to finish selling those Olympic tickets, the part of his job that must, surely, have given him the most sleepless nights. He says his first shock on accepting the job was discovering that there wasn't a computer system in the world big enough to handle seven million ticket sales. A process had to be devised.

'Yeah, it's the bit I was most anxious about,' he nods. The tickets have to generate £500m towards the Games. A quarter are allocated to sponsors and international sport federations, the rest sell to the British public. And a key objective is making sure no events take place surrounded by empty seats - at Beijing, the authorities gave away tickets to fill stadia, then found many spectators didn't turn up and kept the tickets as souvenirs.

Townsend says the problems for London are different - in particular, huge demand for certain events. In the system his team devised - allowing people to make multiple applications and drawing winners by ballot -many have been left unhappy. Townsend says sorry, but that was always going to be the upshot.

'If there was one thing we could have done better, it was managing disappointment. There was greater demand than we anticipated, particularly for the popular sessions - one in three went away happy but two in three were disappointed. My obsession, and the one thing that will keep me awake at night, is getting the remaining tickets into the hands of the British public.'

Most will be tickets for the Olympic football, for which - so far - there has been muted interest. Townsend promises that will change. 'Once the Great Britain team and the schedule of games and the other teams are confirmed, they will sell.' Nothing is given away. Even tickets allocated to schoolchildren are paid for by corporate sponsors. Park tickets will be sold for the areas around the stadia and - just as at Wimbledon - tickets handed in by people leaving early will be resold.

Less well noticed has been his success in raising sponsorship. Others say he has played a fine hand, analysing carefully who would benefit from a connection with the Games, then selling hard to the target companies, backed by copious analysis. One old colleague describes Townsend's pursuit of sponsors as relentless. 'Nobody is better at identifying customers' needs, he's extremely focused and he doesn't give up.'

The result is that London has already hit its target. Townsend nods. 'There are a couple more deals to do, but we're looking to stop the programme earlier than any other organising committee.'

Townsend admits he was lucky. He started in 2006, before the credit crunch hit. Starting in 2008 might have been impossible. He looks thoughtful. 'It would certainly have been less attractive; 2006 was just a good time to take it on, as the corporates felt bullish.'

Even so, he revised the business plan he inherited from the bidding team, scaling back the sums expected from the top sponsors - the 'tier-one' corporates.

'The original business plan relied on a smaller number of tier-one sponsors investing significantly more money, but it was just not practical. The sponsorship market here is less mature than in the US, the Premiership sells its rights for £60m over five years, that was our benchmark.'

The current group of seven tier-one sponsors - Adidas, BA, BMW, BP, BT, EDF and LloydsTSB - are believed to have paid around £50m each initially and pay further sums to 'engage' with the marketing campaign, according to one source. That engagement is being ramped up now we're in the final 12 months.

Then there are 'worldwide partners' and 'official supporters'. Remarkably, none reneged on promises made before the credit crunch bit, despite senior management changing - locked in, no doubt, by contract. Each sponsor gets exclusive rights in its sector and helps Locog 'deliver' the Games to the British public.

'It's a trust thing,' says Townsend. 'We want it to be a great success for them, we have sold it as a business partnership and each company defined its business objectives before we signed the agreements, and we review those monthly and quarterly and we'll be doing it during the Games and after to see if we delivered.'

Soon you will see the Games logo - initially derided, latterly admired - everywhere. Further agreements have been signed with 'official suppliers and providers' which trade services for sponsorship rights.

The merchandising begins in earnest next year, with a megastore in the Olympic Park and licensed items sold across Britain. 'We signed up 50 licensees to manufacture around 2,000 products to sell across 30,000 retailers. We'll have to turn over £1bn to generate £100m in revenues, and 90% of that will happen in the three months up to the Games.'

The team GB football shirt, made by Adidas, is expected to be the single biggest revenue generator. 'We're just waiting for the team to be announced.'

Then there's procurement - also part of Townsend's remit. 'We have £750m to spend and our savings target is 10% against that. So we're looking not just for the best supplier but the best deal that will generate savings.'

The first rule Townsend established was that no hospitality must be accepted. 'You do not mix with potential suppliers in any way, it's the No.1 principle.'

And is he happy with the press Locog has got so far?

Townsend sighs. 'I think I was surprised at the hostility of some of the press over ticketing and disappointed a balanced case was not presented. But we worked hard with Ticketmaster, which is a tier three sponsor and responsible for delivery, and the good news for us is that the ticket system has been robust.'

You can feel him treading carefully. Townsend is well known for the restless drive he brings to his work. Born in Rhodesia to British parents - his father was a vet researching tropical disease in animals for the UK government - he only came to school in England aged 11 and retains that sense of being an outsider fitting in, never quite happy to stay long in one place.

Was England a culture shock? He nods. 'I ended up at a Roman Catholic school in Crawley and couldn't wait to leave. The only joy I had at school was the band The Cure were there and I was involved with them, and that was my inspiration to join the music business.'

After reading maths at Newcastle University - and switching to geography halfway through - he joined EMI as a graduate trainee in 1979. He shared a flat in Kensington with three other record company friends and had the time of his life. 'One day I'd be in a suit selling Scottish dancing records into Harrods, next in jeans and T-shirt selling Stiff Records into Rough Trade. Every night of the week we were at a concert. I spent time with Jagger, McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush ...'

But he earned little and jumped to Riva, the biggest distributor of Hewlett Packard computers in Britain. Why? 'Because in my first month I made more money than I had in my entire time at EMI. I love technology and that leap has since defined a lot of what I do. And, yeah, I like to be on the move.'

Four years later he was headhunted to Laskys, the computer store chain. There he set up an early database marketing programme, selling accessories to early Apple buyers. It revolutionised the sector and led to him joining first DMB&B, the marketing agency, then BBC Enterprises, the broadcaster's commercial arm, to advise on setting up subscription channels. Townsend entered the world of multichannel television just as the sector was taking off.

Luck or judgement? Townsend shrugs. At the time, he says, he just wanted 'something completely different'. But he clearly has a nose for the Zeitgeist. Townsend joined Sky as marketing director in April 1992 to slow the churn on its pay channels. He was summoned to the boardroom on his first day. 'They said the job had changed. They had just signed the Premier League and I had to launch it as a subscription channel.'

Townsend helped establish Sky Sports as the bedrock of the business's success - it has been so ever since. At Sky he reported to Sam Chisholm, the broadcaster's notoriously fiery chief executive. A shock after the BBC? Townsend just looks at me and goes: 'Um ... yes,' before laughing. 'It was a culture of management by fear at Sky, sink or swim, and a lot of people left, but I adapted to it. It's about agreeing objectives and delivering and taking on the responsibility.'

At Sky he oversaw its shift to digital and personally patented its first electronic programme guide - 'They gave me £1 for it when I left' - before his itchy feet took him to rival Telewest. 'It was launching a digital platform and was keen to get an expert on board.'

Later he helped merge Telewest into NTL then jumped to Transport for London. Why? He says he had made enough money from selling his Sky shares at over £20 each - he won't say how many shares - to re-assess his life. He wanted a job in the charity field. He's long been a committed Christian, attending both C of E and Roman Catholic churches.

But then he saw the ad for TfL's marketing director in the Sunday Times and was intrigued. TfL was planning to launch a smartcard called Oyster as a premium product for commuters. Townsend helped redraw it as a travelcard for the whole public transport system. Instead of a targeted one million users in three years, he got five million in two.

'It was a great time, tough but very successful,' he says. And yet he left, as he always does, one step away from the top job. Often, he says, he leaves when the team around him goes, off to find another challenge.

So what will he do after the Olympics? 'My plan is to step straight into the next job, no holiday ...' And he has little idea what that job will be. 'Something between high tech and music, ideally.' He still attends a couple of gigs a week. 'Arcade Fire last week, Fleet Foxes, Noah and the Whale before, it's my passion'. And he has thousands of records in his collection at home. 'Rock, reggae, Motown, classical ...'

Deighton says Townsend has the skill set to make a top chief executive. 'He just needs to add a greater degree of subtlety in adjusting his style to different personalities and different markets.'

Chris Satterthwaite, chief executive of Chime Communication and an old friend from his DMB&B days, predicts Townsend will be in demand, as he's likely to have a very good Olympics. He points to Townsend's relationships with Lord Coe, Locog's chairman, and Deighton as key. 'They are simply a very good team. Coe is a passionate expresser of ideas, Paul is a modern manager - not a huge ego but a great facilitator - and Chris is very clear about how to market the Games.'

And even before those Games start, Townsend is advising on the next ones. 'I have started working with the Rio de Janeiro team already. I went down there in February. They wanted to know why our local programme had been so successful.'

Each Olympic delivery team tends to poach personnel from the previous one - so how does he look in a thong? Townsend bursts out laughing. 'I won't even answer that. I will help and advise, that's all. Anyway, I've got to sort out the marketing plans for the London Paralympics now,' he says, pointing to his next meeting.

How do you get people excited about the Games after the Games, when so much has already been invested in the Olympics? 'That,' he says, 'is a really good question.' And off he goes to answer it.


Ensure as many people as possible receive the remaining tickets for Olympic events

Raise even more than the £2bn in revenues targeted and leave a surplus for the British Olympic Association

Ensure the procurement programme delivers all the products and services needed for the London Games on budget

Find a chief executive slot worthy of his skill set when Locog is disbanded

1956: Born in Salisbury, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
1974: Starts maths degree at Newcastle University
1977: Joins EMI Records as graduate trainee
1980: Jumps to Riva Computers
1984: Headhunted to Laskys
1986: Joins the DMB&B Direct agency
1990: Works on subscription channels for BBC Enterprises
1992: Launches Premiership football on Sky as BSkyB marketing director
1998: Becomes director of interactive services at Telewest
2003: Joins Transport for London as group marketing director to launch
Oyster card
2006: Appointed commercial director of Locog

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Books for the weekend: Daniel Goleman, Jack Welch, Nelson Mandela

Beaverbrooks CEO Anna Blackburn shares her reading list.

What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with...

Coronavirus communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard...

Leadership lessons: Mervyn Davies, former CEO of Standard Chartered and trade minister

"People talk about pressure – I worked 24 hours a day. There is more pressure...

How to reinvent your career through motherhood and midlife

Pay it Forward podcast: Former Marie Claire editor-in-chief Trish Halpin and BITE managing editor Nicky...