Editor’s Note: Community is everything to us at Pixlee. We’re thrilled to welcome our community of #PixleePros in our latest series “Send Tweet: Insights From the #PixleePros.” This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Stallings! Andrew Stallings is the Founder and CEO at Athelo Group, an athlete management and property consulting firm based in Connecticut. You can follow Andrew at @AStallings88 and @AtheloGroup across all social media platforms.
Haley Fraser: I’d love to start with your background. Do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself? And how did you get to where you are in your career?
Andrew Stallings: I spent about 15 years in the sports and entertainment industry. All in all, I've always kind of known that I wanted to work in sports. But I didn’t know to what capacity. I graduated from Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. I got an internship at Sirius XM radio during my senior year while I was balancing a number of other jobs - bartending, coaching women's high school basketball, some freelance journalism, etc. Early on I took that role and elevated it from an internship to a part time experience and then a full time experience and ended up spending about 5 years there as a producer. I then switched over to the agency side because I'd built so many great relationships in media with agencies such as CAA, Wasserman, and Octagon media groups.When I wanted a new challenge, Octagon embraced it. They were ultimately able to bring me in as a senior account executive and move me up from Washington, D.C. to Connecticut, where their global headquarters were. I spent around four years or so at Octagon working on a variety of global hospitality, experiential and sponsorship activation programs with some of the world's biggest brands. My first client was with NBTY (nutrition products) but did a little bit of MasterCard, BMW, and Lexus, and then ultimately landed on the Anheuser-Busch team. We helped out with the global sports sponsorship strategy for FIFA and Budweiser for the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I was also overseeing the relationship between Corona and the World Surf League, so I got to understand the more global scale of partnership marketing and sponsorships and what went into the communication strategy and pitches. From there, I jumped around to a few other agencies and realized I had that entrepreneurial itch about three years ago. I had built so many great relationships with athletes in a variety of different sports properties that I really wanted to hone in on redefining the way that an agency and representation model worked for athletes at that scale. So we took two words: athletes and opportunities, and smashed them together to make a funky little run-on word that most people can't pronounce and boom - “Athelo Group” was born. What we aim to do is work with rising sports properties and specific athletes within these worlds and help them understand that there is assistance from your management team and your agency when it comes to building your brand, social media presence, philanthropic presence, and website design so that you have a very clear and concise stepping board into what's next in your career. Today, we manage about 25 professional athletes across a variety of different sports verticals. We don't specialize in American football, hockey, baseball, or basketball - the core four, as they’re commonly referred to. We spend a lot of time in sports like soccer, that are still very much on the rise here in North America. Motor sports, action sports, combat sports, different elements of that. We also work with about 110 different global brands and properties on consulting, sponsorship, and recruitment model projects to help brands understand the scalable approach to working with athletes that have a more curated and engaged community rather than just blowing millions of dollars on a tier one NFL player and having them do one tweet around the Super Bowl. We're always just trying to figure out new ways to help both our athletes and brand partners to redefine and reimagine what can be done. Our mantra is based on 4 E’s: the education, the evolution, the enhancement and the entertainment of how we bring things to the table and to life. There’s still a lot of room to grow but it's been a fun journey so far, and we’re just getting started.
Haley Fraser: It sounds like you've made some pretty awesome strides in those three years. At Pixlee, we typically see a ton of people working with micro influencers who have a more engaged community and brands tend to find more success with that. Since you’ve seen this side of the industry for a while, what are some things that you’ve seen change? What has transformed since you started?
Andrew Stallings: In any industry, especially when it comes to the different properties that I can speak to, from the media side, there's a very traditional and old school way of doing certain things. When it comes to events and activation and strategy, there is still a process. I think there's a lot to be said about process as we look at things but I think in terms of overall relationship building, there has traditionally been an A to B model. In a lot of ways, this pandemic has been a blessing in disguise because it has helped a lot of people reimagine and rethink the way that the world works and we go about doing certain things. For example, traditionally, sponsorship is defined as being very transactional. I am giving you this, therefore you are giving me that. I think in the world we live in today, there still is an exchange, but we also want to know what the long term effects of that relationship are. I think that having an open mind while having that dialogue helps both parties understand the evolution of how a relationship can build. Specifically to our athletes and partners, obviously, there’s a business model in play but at the same time, we’re thinking about what we can bring to those individuals first, whether that’s an understanding or an explanation of what we can deliver or how we can supplement something that they’re already working on. Ultimately, it comes down to how we build together and try to cohesively bring different tools to the table. For us, it’s about going back to that community based exercise element. We’re always trying to help people understand that if we don’t have the answer, we probably know someone who does. We have big tier one clients that might come to us for a TV commercial and they’re like, ‘Hey, we need a one armed volleyball player, a WWE wrestler, a marathon runner from Zimbabwe, can you get that for us?’ We may not represent them directly but we have a Rolodex of 200 different athletes and agents that we can bring to the table. So I think it’s all about redefining what it is that you’re bringing to the table and understanding that transaction is secondary to empathetic marketing. I think the long game is more of the fundamental focus for people these days, whether it’s a marketing campaign, business exchange, or influencer marketing. Nothing is short term anymore, everything now is thinking ahead 3, 5, or 10 years.
Haley Fraser: Definitely. That makes perfect sense. How does empathy fit into your process with your athletes and your clients?
Andrew Stallings: I think, fundamentally, in business, we’re always pitching. If you wake up every day, as cliche as it may sound, and you remind yourself that no matter what your job or role in life is, you’re always having to convince people and showing them that they need to trust you. Remembering that trust goes into so many of the decisions that we make as humans is completely vital to the success of how you even get to those exchanges and move your business. At the end of the day, when I have conversations with people, some of the best skills that I’ve learned were from my father, who was a banker for 42 years in southeast Virginia. If we’re at a gas station in New Jersey, and somebody is filling our gas, asking them how their day is going and just having that empathetic exchange to continue that dialogue may make someone’s day and make them realize that someone genuinely cares about them at that moment. We’re seeing now more than ever that big money, reach, and opportunities are great, but you can’t have that if you don’t have the emotion that fuels that entire fire. Far too often, when we’re dealing with big businesses and big projects, we lose sight of that. For my team, when we’re having conversations with prospective athletes, new clients, or existing clients, we always have to remind ourselves that our pitch is people and understanding that their struggles are just as relevant and important as ours. Again, the patience and persistence of human nature is what answers that long term approach into what we do. So when we’re harnessing that pitch, it’s important to understand that that small little seed of how things start is the most important thing, whether it’s business, marketing, or people, it’s fundamentally the number one thing you have to worry about.
Haley Fraser: I love that too. I was recently looking through the Havas meaningful brand survey and this year they were talking about how most people don’t trust brands and I think it’s something to do with the lack of empathy and that people know when brands are putting out content that isn’t genuine. Are there any brands that you can think of that are doing well with this? Who is embodying the nano and scaling it?
Andrew Stallings: It’s tough for me to speak to some of the bigger names in terms of agencies or brands because I don't think anyone is really mastering it. But then again, I'll also remind you that, going back to my terminology usage, I don’t ever believe in words like ‘master.’ I think that we can always grow and build beyond our skillset. I just don't know if anyone has nailed it to a point where it’s been the case study. And in marketing, even if you did nail it, it’s like 15 seconds of fame and then you move on. Even if individuals like you and I were sitting here talking about this, is it really remarkable and memorable if it’s only one time? The answer is probably not. Those that are doing it consistently and putting it into habit so that it’s redefining their business model are the ones that we’re going to remember. When you look at some of the bigger agencies like Octagon and CAA, there’s a reason that they have done so well for so many years. But I think that with every pro, there are cons. What I learned from my time at different agencies, I’ve tried to apply to my current business model. When we work with clients, a lot of our employees are consultants and freelancers, we’re not hiring 80 full time people to work on a piece of business that is going to renew in a year and leaves the volatility of what we’re going to do with all of these full time employees at scale. One may argue, “Well, yea - because you don’t have the same size clients they do or budgets.” which may or may not be true - but I also have very little interest in the massive powerhouse budgets or projects. As the saying goes, “Mo money, mo problems…” What we’re trying to do is reinvent the way that people spend their time. We have employees within our agency that work 9 to 5 at other companies, but in their off hours are able to contribute to projects that we’re doing with our athletes and other brand partners. Time, energy, and overhead is something that we’ve reimagined and that’s been very important. Time management and where you’re putting your resources is also super important. Right now, we don’t have an office, and I don’t know many people that are going to have an office again anytime soon. With my clients, I can hop on a plane and go to them. Oftentimes, they want to go somewhere and have an experience or exchange that will inspire and enhance our conversation, whether it’s a dinner, a show, or a game. They don’t want to come sit at my office. So it’s really about how you look at where your money is being spent. For us, I keep trying to recycle our money back into our athletes and the opportunities we can give them and the connections we can make. We’re certainly not perfect, and what we do now could certainly change overnight but know that it took a lot of careful thought and planning to get there.Consistency is key. What I would like to see is stuff that is not just being done for PR or a publicity push, but for something that can really make an impact and make a change. My focus is really on giving athletes opportunities in more ways that are even defined to date. That is my team’s constant right now. We all need a north star.
Haley Fraser: That's a very good point. Being consistent with the small things is much bigger than one big splash and then letting it go. A little bit of a divergence, but how does community impact your life as a marketer and in your role specifically?
Andrew Stallings: For me, it's everything. I alluded to it a little bit earlier on, but my father was a banker for 42 years. He is a small town guy from Wilson, North Carolina that moved up to Virginia. My mom was a well-known nurse in the Tidewater, Virginia community. I was always taught that the number one strength that you can have is asking questions to individuals and getting them to smile. But your questions should invoke that emotion. And if you can get emotion, whether good or bad, that is the ultimate control tactic. So I started off at an early age just asking people the most inquisitive questions and I would be asking them things that usually warranted reactions like, ‘What the heck? Why is this kid asking us this?’ It caught people's eyes and attention. To this day, I'm the kind of person where I thrive off of how I can creatively position ‘the ask’ earlier on and how I can understand how people address their needs to me. When I was applying to colleges, I was rejected from over 13 of them. The last college to reject me was Marymount University. I sent the Dean of Admissions a handwritten letter saying why I wanted to be there and basically asking them to conditionally accept me under certain terms. A week later, I got a phone call saying that I was accepted. So, communication is what got me into college. That was the first time that I realized that if you are really passionate about something and you can put emotion into it, you can build a community of people that are going to trust you and believe in you. So I think that community is just another word for opportunity. If you’re building the right team of people around you, it’s not so much about volume and depth but rather who will be your champion and tell other people about your business or social media posts, things like that. When your brand ambassadors are your best friends, I think there’s something where you have to understand that scale at times and you always have to make sure that they’re provided for as much as they’re providing for you. It’s a fun and exhausting game. I’ve been so lucky to have so many friends, family members, and colleagues in my life that have played that game with me. It’s really about how we establish those long term relationships that move the meter and makes a difference to what you will end up doing moving forward.
Haley Fraser: Definitely. Never underestimate the power of a handwritten note. Over the last year with the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of changes in regards to community. What are your thoughts on things shifting online? Has going online helped in terms of building community? Is it taking something out of the equation?
Andrew Stallings: I think it's one of those things where it's, fortunately, and unfortunately, necessary. The ability to get in front of people and to get their attention and to find them has never been easier. The accessibility of it has certainly been beneficial. And I speak for myself, for somebody that has to be addicted to social media and be aware of trends so my screen time is so high and I wish that I could get away from that more and I know a lot of people feel the same way. I also think that the shift to digital has tested many people’s discipline which is never a bad thing. Like, saying that you’re only going to be online during a set time period and that you’re only going to have meetings during a set time period. I think putting up those boundaries helps us build the necessary discipline as a society that’s going to help us on the personal side, mental health side, and even the physical side of things. The sooner we can do that as business leaders, it’s going to help the world get into the right mindset and it’s going to be one step closer back to some sort of normal that helps us all out. So I think that digital is a necessary evil, we’re not going to stop absorbing content at a rapid rate anytime soon and I think we need to be creative, but we also need to be refreshed and know when to shut it off. If anyone knows how to shut it off and can provide help, please DM me! Haha!
Haley Fraser: Definitely, boundaries are rarely a bad thing. A little bit ago you mentioned being naturally inquisitive, so what's your favorite job interview question that you've either been asked or that you like to ask?
Andrew Stallings: I think the one I like to ask the most is, ‘What’s your biggest fear?’ It’s kind of standard but I can depict a lot from it. It’s one of those questions that you want someone to answer very creatively, and you want somebody to come up with an emotional and entertaining answer. I was interviewing an intern a few weeks ago, and I asked him this question. He went on a 20 minute rant about why he has a fear of the unknown and it was a multiple chapter story that led to his fear of the unknown. I was taken on a magic carpet ride and I loved that. The question that I always love getting asked is, ‘If you could give one thing back to the world, what would it be?’ I’ve been asked that a handful of times, but it’s a question that constantly stumps me. My answer changes every single time I think about it and I love questions like that because it challenges you and puts you in a position to think in the here and now. It evokes self reflection and goes back to the different ways and methods of where we’ve come from and how we can change over time.
Haley Fraser: I love that. On that note, since you’re mentioning interviewing interns, what’s some advice you would give to anyone graduating college and looking to get into marketing? What would you tell them?
Andrew Stallings: I think that getting your verbal illustration pitch down to a tee has to be everything. It’s a skill set that is completely invaluable. We often-times rely on the vision of pitch decks or content, but I think those that can grasp people with their words and their tone and the highs and lows of their pitch - it is so invaluable. If you look back historically, some of the best leaders in the world are the ones that are very well spoken, and they’re very unique and dynamic. Having those communication skills and considering and adapting to your audience. The bottom line is really understanding your communication styles and your audience and adapting to your audience through communication. If you can do that, you’re going to be able to emotionally connect with somebody and your resume on paper won’t matter as much.
Haley Fraser: That's great. We’ve talked a bit about the past and the present, but what’s next for you?
Andrew Stallings: This is an interesting one because I don’t think we’re aiming to become a massive global agency that takes over Wasserman or Octagon like people might expect. Harnessing and building on the relationships that we have while constantly looking at how we build those relationships long term is really where I want to focus our business and how we go about doing it. For me, as a business leader, I want the opportunity to continue helping these athletes, whether I’m managing them or not. I want to be remembered as a resource for athletes for the rest of time. If I could have it written on my tombstone, like ‘The athlete whisperer’ or something completely corney like that - I would love it because there are so many opportunities that athletes can capitalize on and they are often overlooked through ego or business. Personally, and this is the first time I’m sharing this publicly, but my wife and I are expecting our first child in October. We’ve had a hell of a journey. She battled breast cancer early on in our relationship and she’s been through IVF trials and everything so we’re really excited. This is kind of our miracle baby. So the next chapter for me is, what I told my wife on the first date, which was to be the best husband and father I can be. It should be pretty fun.
Haley Fraser: Well, that's so exciting! Congratulations! This one is sort of silly, but what did you want to be when you were a kid? And how does that relate to what you’re doing now?
Andrew Stallings: I wanted to be a hockey player. I am a huge hockey fanatic, and coming from a beach town community, it made absolutely no sense that I wanted to be in colder environments playing ice hockey. But ice hockey is just the biggest passion point for me. I still coach women’s high school hockey up here in Connecticut and I play in a men’s hockey league once a week. I’m certainly not Wayne Gretzky by any means, I’m a pretty chippy and aggressive player and I tend to still take it too seriously but it’s my outlet. I’ve loved watching the evolution of it. I think my number one goal to this day is to own a minor league hockey team. So many people I know think that minor league sports are the ultimate white canvas for marketing right now. I’ve always just loved hockey and I look forward to coaching it and continuing to coach it. I’ve had like, 17 nephews and nieces from all my siblings and none of them have played hockey so you bet that my kids are going to play hockey! If nothing else, we can watch some games together and they can understand how to feel passionate about something as I did so much in life.