Leadership Huddle With Brendan Hannan, LA Galaxy

Welcome to the second installment of Leadership Huddle, a new series on the blog where leaders in sport and beyond offer perspective on digital today. Some of the guests work directly in digital while others will be leaders outside of the space (but get the work and advocate for it).

This post features a conversation with Brendan Hannan, the VP of Marketing, Communications and Digital at the LA Galaxy and StubHub Center. Brendan has been with the club for more than five years, overseeing all facets of marketing for both the team and the StubHub Center. Prior to the LA Galaxy, he worked for the Chicago Fire.

During my conversation with Brendan, there were several things that stood out. First, their team is structured in a way that allows them to approach their work holistically. Every consumer touchpoint sits under one roof, so each channel works together to tackle what they’re trying to achieve. And second, their work is centered on doing what’s best for the brand, their team and the business. Their team has done the work needed to lay a strategic foundation on who they are as a brand and what they’re trying to achieve. And, because everyone understands the vision, it empowers their team to run with ideas as long as it maps back to the larger needs. It’s a perfect balance, allowing focus but also giving room to push and innovate.

It was evident in my conversation with Brendan that he’s a fantastic leader who understands the big picture. Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.

To start, can you give insight into your role and the team at the LA Galaxy?

What we have is sort of unique across sports in that we have everything sitting under one roof. So, marketing, communication, digital, game presentation, broadcast, video, operations, events and our supporter relations sits with me in a big team of around 28 people.

What it has allowed us to do is eliminate the silos you see at some other organizations. We try to make our collective decisions based on a couple key things. Is it good for our fans? Is it good for our players? And is it good for the city of Los Angeles?

Once we can answer those questions, everyone has the autonomy within the structure and the group to proceed. Obviously, we have checks and balances and we work as a group, but there is a lot of strong collaboration that goes across the board. We are able to make sure everything we do is aligned with one over-arching vision.

In essence, we act as a mini-agency for the club and the facility. So any story that needs to be amplified comes through us whether that is driving revenue through ticket sales, creating content for global partners, creating programming and content for the foundation – we work cross-functionally across the board to make it happen.

I love this. And, I think it’s a challenge I’ve had in roles throughout my career: How are we holistically telling our story across consumer touchpoints?

There’s always a challenge for that. I think we’re all sort of beholden to the revenue and the all mighty idea of ROI. I probably consider myself a creative and have focused on storytelling and brand building, but I learned early on that you have to translate that storytelling to be able to sell what you are doing and show that ROI.

It’s taking the numbers that you get and making sure you are telling those stories as well. Often times, those stories are just as important. I mean, we all want more money or more headcount (more money to do these creative things), but a lot of times you want to make sure you’re not always beholden to ROI but that you are ahead of the game.

That’s one thing that I’ve learned.  At the end of the day, we have to look at everything holistically and how it maps back to the bigger picture. With that said, can you talk about the role digital and creative plays within the organization with the larger business needs?

Yeah, for sure. People are our biggest resource. With the team we have here at the LA Galaxy, everyone understands that showing revenue is important. You have to think about the brand, but we also have a direction where we can show the results. We try to utilize the creative and storytelling as a vehicle for us to drive that revenue. And then, we make sure we are merchandising those things across our organization. I think we are able to do that. 

We think that creative content, well designed social and good digital strategy will always lead to more revenue – we just make sure the storytelling we are investing in applies to our brand as we’re trying to show that ROI.

For people that are looking to advocate more for their work, especially as it relates to decision makers within their organization, what the biggest piece of advice you have?

The budget challenges or the silos that can exist within organizations can frustrate a lot of people. But, I would push everyone to keep on pushing. There is always a way to find an opportunity to get something done. I think being creative does not always just apply to the stories that you are telling; it also applies to the method that you are ensuing and building the brand with the budget that you have.

Communication is key when trying to eliminate a silo or getting something done. You have to vocalize what’s important to the brand and why it’s relevant to the business as a whole. Whether you start small or whether you have a seat at the table with the president or chairman, articulating why it’s important is crucial to getting anything accomplished.

How has the role evolved over the years?

It’s evolved slightly. When I first got here, I was doing the communications, digital and broadcast. After about two years, I took over the marketing pieces of it and we have been able to continue to grow and finesse that. It’s trying to have a level head and putting together strategic plans.

Planning is key for us. Being able to come up with a creative idea is one thing, but being able to put all the planning together is another. Making sure that everything is detailed and aligned across the entire business is really important to us.

That’s (the planning) something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as it relates to burnout and the frenzy within. There’s this internal pressure to be everywhere and everything to everyone. And, I feel like having a strong leadership voice because you can’t do it all. Can you talk about how you have set the team?

Things start at the top. Our leadership trusts us and believes in what we’re doing. We try to present very detailed plans and ways in which we want to do it. At the end of the day, they trust us to get the job done. And when you have that level of trust at the top you can emulate that across the organization.

We try to understand the stresses that can go on, so we make sure that we have a collective group that can contribute. Everyone knows the tone and voice and everyone understands the way in which we want to be represented, so it does not need to be one sole person handling that social and digital. The tone and voice are pervasive across everything we are trying to do.

We understand that work-life balance is important. People need to take breaks and go on vacation, so having a group that can fill in is in crucial.

Can you dive into how many people you have working on digital/social and what your creative arm looks like?

When you say everyone can pick up and do everything, that’s pretty literal. We have three people dedicated to digital/social every day. Chris Thomas, Vanessa Alexander and I come up with the direction and overarching strategy across all of our business units. On the digital side Andrew Schwepfinger, Chris Hybl and Adam Serrano serve as the digital hub while Christian Delarosa handles the email. Content is a little different. We have a video team of 2.5 and a creative team of 2.5 people led by Brad Saiki. That team puts together a lot of the day-to-day, but I would not say that anyone is working on “just digital”. 

For example, right now our creative director (Brad Saiki) is working on a mural for our garden, ticket sales templates and creative visual communication for social. Everyone is multi-faceted. In MLS it’s crucial because of how nimble you have to be with our business and our budget.

I also think it’s interesting from a growth perspective to have to have that type of structure. It’s important for people, especially early in their career, to be exposed to a holistic view of marketing. Your structure allows them to understand all pieces of the business (from a marketing perspective).  

Yeah, I think everyone needs to have an understanding of all the different things. From my perspective, it’s always a challenge to put labels on something. I think communications is marketing. I think digital is marketing. I think digital is a communications tool. At the end of the day, throw out the label. Everyone is going to have a certain level of expertise, but the broad understanding of how to grow brand relevance is something that everyone within the organization has to have.

I love that. I always say that digital is marketing and marketing is digital. We almost need to rid with titles. We get too caught up in the tactics and not enough in the big picture. 

You know, we talked about planning. For me, that is so important. The day-to-day stuff can become a grind, but it is certainly essential to the business. As you become more experienced in your role you have to force yourself to think conceptually. And you have to think about the future — what does one year look like, three years, 10 years? That type of conceptual thinking is challenging, but I think the more that you can start that type of thinking with your younger staff and instill in them the conceptual idealism it helps them grow and helps them see the bigger picture. 

You nailed it when you said it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, especially in sports. What advice do you have for teams trying to shift the thinking and engraining strategic thinking into their roles?

You have to have a little bit of a sense of humor. We work in a business where you can control some of the results, but we can’t control what happens with the game of play. We can prepare when the key moment hits, but you can’t control a lot of the other stuff. You have to understand that fans are passionate and they love their team. If you are working in the day-to-day social, you have to understand that not every day is going to be easy. 

With the right planning and the right team around you, you can get through the challenging part with the understanding that we are all working in sport. We are trying to bring joy and excitement to people’s lives. So when times are tough and people are all up in your mentions, being able to respond playfully if the moment requires it or take it on the chin and figure out what the best message is next is usually the best advice. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge and how teams offset that challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is always budget – but again, if you have the idea and the proper planning, I think most organizations will provide you the budget that you need. And if it’s not the exact budget you were hoping for, that’s when you have to get creative to make sure you’re able to make something happen with the budget you have negotiated for. That challenge exists everywhere. No one is naive that the goal is to grow revenue and try to reduce the expenses. As a marketer, digital person, or anyone that works within a business, you have to recognize that and recognize the best way to tell the story.

Last question. What excites you most about the future of digital?

I’m always excited about what’s next. I think the most exciting thing is that people are always trying to innovate in the space and that pushes others to innovate. Being able to be challenged by others and try to be competitive and be the best in your field is always exciting to me. Production value and the time and energy that is put into social now is constantly asking others to be challenged and see where they can improve.

Also, there’s an opportunity to invent and reinvent. This year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his signing with the LA Galaxy with a full-page newspaper ad in the LA Times. It’s such an old form of media compared to the digital space, but it got picked up, people shared it on social and people talked about it. Trying to reinvent and play with all the mediums is exciting.

A big thank you to Brendan Hannan for you his time and perspective. Connect with him: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram.  And, be sure to follow the LA Galaxy across digital for some great inspiration. 

And, if you enjoyed his conversation, be sure to read the conversation with Graham Neff

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