Leadership Huddle With Graham Neff, Clemson Athletics

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

This series will focus less on the actual day-to-day and curated work examples, and instead, focus more on digital at a high level. The goal is to gain a new perspective on the role digital plays within organizations, how to build teams, etc. How can we advocate for our work, approach things differently and ultimately get buy-in? My hope is this series helps to offer a fresh perspective.

The first guest, Graham Neff, is the Deputy Athletics Director at Clemson University. He is a Georgia Tech graduate who served as Associate AD for Finance and Facilities at Middle Tennessee State before joining Clemson Athletics in 2013. Neff started with the Tigers as chief financial officer and has seen his role expand consistently in the five years since to include supervisory responsibilities in facilities, internal operations and external affairs. While at Clemson, he has been a major advocate for digital within the athletic department.

I’m extremely excited about this conversation for two main reasons. First, Clemson has been widely successful in the digital space. Their content consistently shines. They always innovate through platform partnerships. And, they have a strong focus on branding, fan engagement and recruiting. SB Nation even declared them the “National Champions of Social Media”. It’s clear they have bought into a vision and are working towards a common goal to elevate the brand (a good read on their approach here).

Secondly, the team has a unique structure and way in which they approach the work. The department restructured in the spring, moving digital out of communications to form a Creative Solutions team. Under this structure, the team works with different high-value areas of the athletics department to find creative solutions to problems. While many times it is related to marketing and storytelling, it also opens up doors outside the digital lane. This means the team approaches work by looking at the big picture vs. starting with the channels/tactics. There’s a lot to take away from it.

Leading the newly-formed department is Jonathan Gantt, Associate AD for Creative Solutions. The former MLB PR staffer is responsible for the strategy, structure and priorities of the team, working with senior staff to identify high-value areas of need where Creative Solutions can make a positive impact, such as football recruiting, ticket and licensing revenue and high-priority public communications. Leading those daily efforts in ideation and content creation are Jeff Kallin (Director of Design & Digital Strategy) and Nik Conklin (Director of Feature Video Production) as well as the newly-added Mark Majewski (Associate Director of Design & Publishing) who joined the team in mid-July to fill a new position, another example of the recognized value and resulting support from administration. But the athletic department still has 19 teams plus several other areas to service, so undergraduate and graduate student assistants looking to gain experience and opportunity help fill the gaps. You can read more about Clemson’s unique intern program and its impressive alumni list here and here.

It was evident in my conversation with Neff that the leadership at Clemson not only believes in digital but is also committed to it. And, their team’s stellar work is a testament to their commitment. Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.

When people talk about the best digital teams in college athletics (and sports in general), Clemson is consistently named. What have been the keys to building such a successful digital department?

Yeah, certainly the people. That’s probably an obvious start, but there’s so much truth to that between Jonathan, Jeff and Nik. Jonathan macro-social perspective, Jeff comes from the digital side of things and Nik through the video. The three of them have been incredibly first class in how they’ve gone about growing their work.

But I’ll take the people answer one step further in the sense of how we’ve been able to maintain and keep the consistency of that team. With their talent, level and recognition nationally, all three of them have had plenty of opportunities elsewhere. We have had to frequently increase our commitment towards them.  Financially yes, but really in terms of how we’re focusing and continuing to grow the level of importance for that department.

So it’s about people yes, but also the consistency of the team. “Keeping the band together” is a phrase we’ve used over the years because of how well each of those guys works together. Each of them has their own focus but blend together well – and that’s been key.

Let’s expand on the retention piece. It seems like lately there has been a lot of turnover in social/digital sports roles. How have you all built a culture that keeps people around, helps them grow and gives them new opportunities within your organization?

If you rewind back five years ago when Jonathon got here and subsequently started to build the team, there was certainly a fresh pallet in terms of our social/digital world. So, there was a lot of yard to mow to start.

Now over the years as we have matured, the question is how are we buying new yard or identifying new real estate for the team to mow? It has been a priority from a leadership perspective that the importance and scope of that team’s role is a focus and communicated internally.

Additionally, we have worked to widen the circle within the university. The team has been engaged across campus form an academic standpoint and with classes. There’s been some really positive reciprocity on how we have recruited and attained students to help with our scope.  We continue to make it a priority to incentivize them with responsibility and growth.

And yeah, innately there’s also the financial piece that we need to make sure we are incentivizing them to stay here too. But I think credit to those guys; the responsibility growth within our department circles and outside of it has been an area of focus and encouragement for them to seek.

You all recently restructured digital within the organization and formed a Creative Solutions team, which I find really interesting. Can you talk about the reason behind the move and the impact/value the team has beyond digital?

The restructure thought was to separate the creative team from the communications vertical and create its own department (Creative Solutions). The separation outside of the communications vertical was done to amplify the scope of what Jonathan, Nik, Jeff and team do.

From an organizational standpoint, we found that sometimes the team became a checklist when there was a communication project or task (again, because they were in the comms vertical). Can they amplify our brand via a tweet or not, in an incredibly rudimentary term?

Moving them outside the communication vertical means the team is not on the communications checklist, so to speak. They are on the solutions checklist. So, let’s say our athletic director needs a project for a presentation to our board of trustees or we’re reviewing how our facility rental usage works – they’re part of the conversation to add value.

How I think about it from a leadership standpoint and the scope of our operations: Having them outside of the communications vertical, allows more exposure for them and solutions to be a part of within our department.

Digital and social are often thought of as so tactical. It’s that “check the box” mentality. It sounds like this new move allows the team to think more holistically and the big picture.

That’s exactly right. It’s really a testament to the leadership of that team. Jonathan now sits around senior staff table. Yes, that means for an hour and a half each week he has to listen to a compliance update that might not be relevant for him. But, maybe there is one thing that is said that causes a spark and a unique spin on a solution or idea.

That vertical or top-level exposure for that team is going to show its value as the scope grows. There is going to be a cool project down the road that will innately be brought into the Creative Solutions world because there’s a different way to think about it. That exposure (and the seat at the table) is important. Jonathan has the gravitas and perspective to sit and listen and add value from a creative solutions perspective – but also, a department leadership standpoint.

There are a lot of people in digital roles that are looking to have a seat at the table and trying to get buy-in from an executive standpoint. What advice do you have for people who have not gotten the same type of buy-in from the executive team that you all have at Clemson?

A lot of it comes down to the ability to have a broad spectrum of input and understanding. I know that’s easy to say but hard to self-create.

My point being, it’s easy to have the connotation as a staff member to say “oh, that’s our social/digital guy, so we’ll hit you when we need a picture, a tweet, etc.”.  So, you have to find opportunities that present themselves to add a unique solution, a unique idea, to a topic, idea or task that is totally outside of that digital realm. And then, link it back to your expertise to demonstrate the more comprehensive nature that could be offered by a digital expert or team within an organization.

I’m thinking back to the growth of our team. We saw that Jonathan just has a good perspective. He is a good solutions person who offers ideas. Innately, that has grown to the team’s perspective is important to have in a much broader scope for the department.

I think college athletics has invested more in digital/creative than other sports properties because of recruiting and the role that organic social plays there. Can you talk how the role digital/social has played in giving the university visibility?

Yeah, it’s been huge. There’s a little bit of a perfect storm and our guys would certainly self-admit to the personalities we have to the success we have had on the field, for sure. But I think that has provided content and exposure for us to further that brand. There have certainly been a lot of digital teams that have lifted their brands and reach without some of those built-in Clemson things we have been fortunate to have.

But, I feel like it’s been augmented. And, I’ll give a great example of how it’s been recognized even locally here on campus. Rewind back a few years ago when we first started to supercharge and move the needle from our reach and that brand elevation. That recognition locally on campus was certainly seen – and is now going through a mimic/mirror image on the campus side from a student recruitment standpoint.

We’re mature from a football-recruiting standpoint with exposure, but I don’t know how much that has been focused on from a student-recruitment standpoint. My anecdote is that as the focus and success were seen athletically, the identification and the utilization of that similar model have been used on campus from an academics area and admissions office. And, they’re hiring talent. It’s been cool to see that brand lift (and there are a lot of factors to that), internal recognition and how the model has been used in admissions.

I’ve been spending time with Enrollment Services to talk about how we have built and focused on digital from a recruitment standpoint. Because yes, we’re trying to recruit a five-star player but they are trying to recruit a five-star physics major. There are a lot of similarities to how we try to educate about the brand. It’s a really intriguing opportunity from a higher standpoint. And, a lot of the interest in it has come from the success and talent of our athletic digital team.

That’s fantastic. I don’t think we always look at digital holistically, and I have to wonder if the work you all are doing within athletics has also helped to recruit students. The work has certainly given the school visibility.

Finally, what excites you about the future?

One of the things that really showed itself to me outside of the direct communications and digital world; a lot of what we’re building organizationally and scope of services is an agency. As we embark on this new creative organization athletically and their scope is going to be broad and deep within athletics, I would tell you that it’s not lost on me that this team could eventually become some university-related agency.

They could be loaned out for a cost recovery or revenue piece. This could be with the chemistry department or alumni services or admissions – you name it. Projects could be a cost recovery back, generate revenue and create an opportunity for increased resources.

That’s not the “why” around the new structure. And, that wasn’t what Jonathan and team offered when we went through this, but that is certainly something that showed itself. And, that could be the path down the road.

This is so good to hear. I think the biggest challenge we have is to think bigger. So while we might not always be able to have a direct tie to revenue or ROI from organic social, we’re building these vast audiences and have insanely talented/creative individuals within digital teams. How do we think about driving value back to the organizations in a way that’s not always so black and white? It’s this big-picture thinking around the agency model that is exciting and needs to be told a lot more.

It’s mutually exciting to see where they are going, their growth and responsibilities and how we retained the team. But also, how we are going to be able to continue to deliver solutions to atypical digital communications answers.

And, I imagine if they are taking on more projects from a high level it also helps you get buy-in from a headcount perspective because their scope has expanded.

That’s a great bow on it. It’s very circular in nature in that sense.

A big thank you to Graham Neff for you his time and perspective. Be sure to follow Clemson Athletics across digital for some great inspiration. 

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