Game-changer: how one of Australia’s brightest marketing minds helped redefine football
Meet Jemma Wong, head of audience growth at the AFL, and the woman behind the game-changing brand, AFL Women’s. By Michelle Keomany.
This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue, our August/September issue of Marketing magazine.
Jemma Wong describes herself as a brand storyteller, and you can tell from the way she speaks that this is how she approaches all aspects of her role.
Her tone is infectiously positive, yet also realistic. In 2015, Wong won the prestigious Cannes Young Lion Award for Marketing, in 2016 she was an ADMA Young Marketer of the Year finalist and, most recently, she was named the Mumbrella Awards Under 30 Achiever of the Year.
Wong is the perfect example of someone who can move seamlessly with business changes and demands. “More and more you’re seeing businesses invest in or build corporate accelerators and work with start-ups,” she says. “That’s having a huge impact on the way we market, move at pace and design for growth.” It’s now the role of the marketer to drive brand change and break the traditional structure of marketing.
She has always been drawn to the entertainment, sport and the arts industries. “I love these industries because they showcase modern storytelling of the human condition,” she says. “I’ve tended to work for cultural institutions – City of Sydney, Sydney Opera House, The Australian Ballet and now AFL – that have an appetite to grow, evolve and set the future agenda for culture or sport in this country.
“It’s about unpacking their history and their unique DNA and helping them make sense of it in a new world order. Because they all have a role to play in driving culture and meaning.”
Wong is head of audience growth at the AFL – overseeing AFL, AFL Women’s and all new marketing opportunities for the league. She’s not just thinking about the next season, but what the AFL’s story will be in 2030 and even 2050.
Wong is truly excited and passionate when she talks about her role, she sees the bigger picture of what sport represents within our society and that she needs to literally stay ahead of the game to continue to succeed.
“Sport is never uniform, performance on field can be unpredictable, which means your strategy needs to be nimble and constantly move at pace. It forces you to market with fresh eyes, every time,” Wong says.
So how did a girl from Western Sydney who knew nothing about AFL end up redefining a sacred Victorian sport?
After moving to Melbourne for love, Wong says that she was actually approached a few times for the role, but what eventually won her over was speaking to the general manager. “I said, ‘I don’t see myself reflected in your brand or your workforce and I just don’t see myself fitting in here or thriving here,’ and he said, ‘that’s exactly why we need you’. I thought ‘yeah, actually, that is exactly why you need me.’
“They do some pretty incredible things here, they have the willingness to change, the willingness to build and the willingness to grow. They were ready at the right time.”
It’s this readiness for change and innovation on the business’ side that isn’t usually given enough credit. It’s a common mistake to hire the best and brightest talent, but without nurturing change and innovation throughout an entire organisation, only so much can be achieved.
Launching such an ambitious new brand was always going to have its challenges. The AFL is an organisation the sole purpose of which – up until now – was to put on six months of football a year. Shifting this structure was one of the biggest hurdles that the women’s league had to overcome from the very beginning.
Wong says, “We were effectively building a new league and a new vision and chasing the audiences in about a six- to 12-month time-frame – very much with a start-up mentality. That was a pretty big challenge for my team and me, but so was the fact that there were also a lot of unknowns. To be really honest with you, there still are: we were making the invisible visible for the very first time.”
For someone who was completely new to AFL, Wong speaks very respectfully and with an instinctual understanding of the history of the game and everyone involved, from her co-workers, players and fans, to the future fans and players. She’s incredibly aware of how the game touches so many Australians in so many different ways and how important the role she has in shaping its narrative.
Wong speaks about how it felt at the beginning and what she had to do. “Our expectations were really high for sponsors, and fans and the playing group as well, so we had to work really closely with them to help create something for the very first time and hoped – fingers crossed – that we got the balance right. The right balance of crafting a story that was respectful of the 150 years of history and legacy and the DNA of our game, but that also had this open space for difference. That was really, really challenging.”
At the end of the day, it’s these types of challenges that drive Wong to succeed. “It’s a bloody marketer’s dream to bring about brand change – it’s what we fight for and what we work for. So to have the opportunity to kick start a movement like this is something I wasn’t going to let go of and I knew we had to do it right from the outset.”
An all-new league needed an all-new marketing approach. It’s inspiring to hear how Wong approached this mammoth task. This was so much more than a new ad campaign or product launch; she was responsible for setting a new standard for women in sport and reaching an uncharted audience through new mediums.
“It was looking at the game through an authentic female lens for the very first time. Perspective and perception was where we had to start. How do we start to rewrite a narrative around women in our game and women in sport? And if we did that right the rest would follow.”
She goes on to say that, rather than taking a traditional sports view, it was about looking at the product through a more inclusive, female view. “For the first time, women actually needed to have authority and ownership of the game in a way that they hadn’t had before.”
Wong describes how they were conscious of fostering a different way of marketing in order to do their vision justice. A way that was about collaboration over instruction and nurturing a master story of women as fierce leaders doing the impossible and taking the game to new heights. And because a lot of their content focused on giving visibility to the female faces, voices and players of the game, who better to collaborate with than female screenwriters, writers, directors and photographers?
It’s genuinely moving to hear Wong recount what it was like at Princes Park at the inaugural AFLW game between Collingwood and Carlton on 3 February 2017. Wong says, “I remember sitting there with my laptop at the field with rehearsals going on around me and it was 1pm and I was bashing out so much stuff and then at 3pm out of the corner of my eye I was like, ‘Oh I think there are some people outside the gate, that’s a bit strange, they’re getting here really early.’
And then at 5pm when the gates open they started to flood in and then at 6pm they’re still flooding in. It just kept going.”
There was a capacity crowd of 24,500 at the 20,000-seater stadium and it was necessary to enforce a lockout to manage the thousands who came out to witness history in the making. “I remember turning around to the head of female football… I just grabbed him and said, ‘Josh, this is happening, everything we thought of, everything we wanted, the whole vision to build a cultural movement – this is happening!’
And then the announcement came out that we were hitting capacity and we were on lockout and there were 2500 people outside the ground. I can’t even tell you how that felt – I burst into tears. It was such a moment for everyone in the whole bloody industry. It was just unbelievable”.
While Wong is making a name for herself as a woman in sports marketing, she’s not alone. She’s just one of the great examples of how inclusive the industry is. “It’s amazing once you step into it, how inclusive and how ready they are to wrap their arms around you,” Wong says.
“There are phenomenal women working inside AFL and the broader industry – women who are leading in their areas and are driving the culture and agenda of the business, it’s awesome to see. In sport, you’re dealing with a predominantly masculine product… so it’s important to take the time to provide context for the female economy inside your organisation.”
She’s excited that this is really only the beginning of what they can achieve. What gives Jemma Wong confidence is that change is truly happening – there are more women in every role, playing the game, in administration, in coaching, which can only mean even better things are still to come.
Michelle Keomany is a social/content strategist at DigitasLBi France.