Ellie Norman is the Chief Communications Officer at Manchester United, and formerly Global Director of Marketing and Communications at Formula 1. Obsessed with understanding people, she is passionate about ﬁnding ways to genuinely observe audience behaviour and ﬁnd exactly what makes people tick. Here, Norman sits down with Rankin to discuss the psychology of fandom, rethinking the deﬁnition of teamwork, and the responsibility that comes with leading creative at one of the world’s most recognised brands.
RANKIN: What’s the difference between working in something you love and something you've just been introduced to?
ELLIE: Working in F1 was a sport that I loved. Football is a sport that I haven’t really grown up with or followed. That brings another level of objectivity. It means taking the extra time to get under the skin and genuinely know what motivates and moves fans. It’s about really listening. What are the questions you're asking? Where are you going to put yourself so you can observe behaviours? And then distilling and simplifying that into: “What do we need to do?”. That's really appealing, because what interests me has always been people.
RANKIN: What’s one of the biggest challenges you face?
ELLIE: Fandom in football has been built around the fabric of community. By the very nature of human beings, we're really tribal, we want to be part of something. But on the whole, most people are quite fearful of change. It therefore needs a delicate touch as to how you evolve traditions that have existed for a hundred years or so.
In marketing and communications, we’re often working in the future. We're imagining the ‘what if’. So how do you stay true to the essence, but continue to evolve so you're relevant today, and you'll be relevant in the future? That’s a real interesting tension you have to work through without alienating your core supporter base.
I think you can take people on that journey, but it definitely requires some slower, more thoughtful changes to take people with you and show them you're taking your role of maintaining traditions seriously, but also doing a good caretaking job. The great thing with fans is you know when you get something right and when you get something wrong.
RANKIN: What is it like to work with a brand whose audience has such a massive feedback loop?
ELLIE: Having a ready-made audience that loves you is sometimes a double-edged sword. They will be quick to point out mistakes. Equally, when something goes right, you know they've got your back.
However, you are also a business and there's this fine line between working towards being a profitable business helping to enable the continued investment in playing squad, and recognizing that we're also just caretakers for the time we’re there. The legacy of your club or your sport, is far greater than yourself - what you do has to leave your sport or your club in a better place than where you were beforehand.
Balancing that role is certainly about having the right people around me. So recognizing what I don't know, being comfortable with not knowing what I don't know, and therefore [asking myself] who do I need around me that does know? I'm fortunate that everywhere I've worked - whether that's Formula 1 or now Manchester United - there are incredible people around that are kind of walking statisticians or historians that can really help to guide you. Through conversations, you really start to understand and appreciate the tradition and essence. But by coming into something from the outside, you can also open people's minds up to how you can evolve things or do things in a different way, which isn't going to be disrespectful to where the club or the sport has come from.
That’s where it comes back to what questions you want the answers to, and linking it back to ‘Who are you? Why do you exist? What do you do? How do you do it?’. Be really clear essentially on your brand and how you want to leave people feeling. And then use that as your start point. That's where you can start co-creating with fans.
RANKIN: Do you feel the added pressure of being a brand guardian for such a recognised brand?
ELLIE: Every single country you go to with sports, you're going to see someone wearing a Manchester United shirt. That is so powerful - all brands would kill to have that. But it does come with scrutiny and responsibility. You have to wear what you do with sensitivity. I think football, particularly in the UK, does require that sensitive, thoughtful touch, because from the roots of football it has been a working-class sport. Football is about community. That's where all football clubs have come from, and it's most probably why you've got names like City and United: those words that pull and bring people together - it's all about a place together. Football has been a greater constant in the lives of many fans than perhaps jobs, relationships, and family have been to them. Therefore, any change requires going on a journey with them, because it has been that constant, and it will be there for longer than any of us. It’s a responsibility because you're part of creating a legacy. Everything is about the club, and you don't want to mess it up.
RANKIN: Do you think that doing motorsport and now being at a football club has reset your idea of “team”?
ELLIE: In sports, there’s a different – but also motivating – way to think about teamwork, of shifting it from being family. We’ve all experienced places where we work that feel like a family, and there's real power and value in feeling accepted and belonging. Because your family is your family, you can fall out but they’re still your family. Sports change that dynamic a little bit. When you think about sports, everyone knows the position that they need to play, and know they have to deliver on that position bloody well - otherwise you might be benched or not make it into the next [competition]. That is a really interesting shift of mindset. You can still feel part of something, you can still feel accepted, but you’ve got to know what position you're playing, and if you're not up to it, you might get dropped. If you're not bringing your all, if you're not delivering, then actually it's unlikely you're going to stay.
RANKIN: What’s it like to work with people at the top of their game?
ELLIE: As viewers and fans, you see the output or outcome - that could be 90 minutes on the pitch or 50 plus laps in a Formula 1 race - that's what we see. But when you strip everything back, the work ethic, the precision, the iteration of improvement is incredibly fascinating and I think what separates elite athletes from anyone else.
It’s that balance of creativity with precision, it’s that meeting of art and science, where everything comes together. When you think about sports, it’s about getting under the skin of how you’re going to get the best out of someone. But [it’s also about] scientific objectivity and precision as well.
And it's that mindset of being able to get under the skin of “how do you get to excellence”. There is this sense of constantly striving to thrive, and this relentless drive for perfection. And recognising that you, as an individual athlete or expert, are one part of the overall. And so knowing what position you are playing, but also who's around you to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And you can take some of that into business. It keeps it really exciting actually.
RANKIN: Is the culture of working in sports different from a non-sports environment?
ELLIE: The iteration, the constant improvement, and measurement really permeates much more than in other businesses. I think it keeps you honest, because everyone knows, and everyone is aware and everyone is accountable for where we're going, how we are measuring that, and making sure that we’re on track.
RANKIN: It must be amazing being around those types of people. Does that give you a buzz?
ELLIE: Being around people at the top of their game is really exciting because you want to be at your best, because I am part of a group of people that are there to be the best that they can be.
There's a responsibility to bring my all and put everything in versus holding back. That drive is really motivating. It’s where I feel alive and my energies will be really flowing and come out, because I want to be part of something that's hugely successful and to know that I've made a difference. That's what gets me up and out of bed every day.
RANKIN: Sports is so much about mathematics – you’ve got your wins and losses, the results are on paper. Whereas creativity is so much about feeling, about an idea. When you’re working for a sports club, how do you get them to buy into a feeling or something you can’t show them yet?
ELLIE: In previous roles I’ve had, creativity has been defined by campaigns, and those campaigns are there to sell products. You have a start and a stop before that next new model comes along.
In sports, you have seasons. So although a season will have a beginning and an end, it rolls into the next season. For creativity to come to life in sports, it’s about recognising that so much of that creativity is not going to be framed by a campaign, but is much broader. It’s within the hands of your fans, and how they choose to support, and that’s right through to banners and traditions. That’s where creativity comes from: through driving a feeling of “how do we want to leave people?”
RANKIN: How do you brief a creative team?
ELLIE: It’s about being super clear about why you exist, and really getting under the skin of your essence and being able to decipher and codify it. How are you going to show up in words and pictures? If you had a sound, what would you sound like? What do you smell like? What do you taste like? I think about a broad 360 brand, and if you get that deciphered and codified, everything stems from that.
Then there’s a common understanding that the creative can show up in a number of different ways but will always leave you with the same feeling.
With briefing, it's being really clear in your brief of what you want to get out of your why, and a framework of how that's codified. So you then can hand that over or share it for people to interpret - whether that is creative partners, internal functions or fans - for them to interpret and bring it to life in a way that feels true to them.
I think many brands are recognising the importance - particularly within a creator economy - in being really sure about who you are and why you exist, but handing it over to other people because that's where culture comes from. That's where brands and sports teams get embedded into society.
RANKIN: How do you manage creatives?
ELLIE: I'm a huge people person, and so a creative relationship is no different to any other friendship or relationship: I want to have that chemistry and spark and that little bit of uncomfortableness that you're going to be pushed and challenged.
And then it's about trust. You have to get to know people at a human level and be able to share vulnerabilities. As you go on these journeys together, you can then surrender being in control of a process because you've aligned on where you both want to get to and know that you can't control everything.
I think one of my early lessons was knowing that creatives aren't 9 to 5 people and understanding their process isn't going to be within a 9 to 5 framework. That can sometimes be a challenge because as a client, you are going to have a deadline. But you need to create a space and environment where they have the time to really get to an idea that they are excited by. And as soon as you see that excitement in their eyes and their body language, inevitably it’s just going to get better and better.
RANKIN: How do you know if something is a good idea?
ELLIE: For me, it’s recognising the feeling in your gut of “does it make you feel scared?”. Even when you can't visualise what it's going to look like in the end, does it give you that exciting fizz inside? I always look for that because inevitably when it does get born and show up in real life, it's going to have an impact.
RANKIN: What’s one of your greatest strengths?
ELLIE: The ability to remain calm, have diplomacy and sit above chaos.
I think it comes from having divorced parents at the age of seven and being in a big family - I'm one of seven. Diplomacy, relationships and how you can bring people together and move things on is something that has been central to me from day dot. And the other side of that is being really, really comfortable with change. That's massively important within sport because no matter how much you plan for something, you can never really be sure what the result is going to be. Therefore, maintaining that element of calm and being able to sit across the top, understand the landscape, and not get so caught up and paralyzed by a lot of the detail needs to remain a superpower.
RANKIN: What’s your view on risk-taking and creativity?
ELLIE: It always comes down to “what's the worst that can happen?”. If it isn't going to risk someone's life, I'm pretty open to giving most things a go. I'm pretty comfortable with taking risks and making decisions without having all of the answers – it’s about what data or evidence do we have and what’s enough?. Within marketing, if we're not leaning into risk with our creativity and what we're doing, are we going to achieve the future that we're setting out to achieve? Everything that has the potential to be great comes with an element of risk.
What was your career lightbulb moment?
ELLIE: I don’t know if I've ever had a lightbulb moment. I'd like to think my light has got brighter with time; with each chapter into environments where I can really add value and have impact.
I still have the voice in my head that says, “oh, you're not good enough. You don't know what you're doing” – the same voice that a lot of people have. But it's recognising we're all on those confidence journeys, [and asking yourself] when are you feeling confident and what sort of situation is that? And for me, that is when I can have an elevated, holistic view and understand how landscapes move, and to see dots and begin to connect those together, to really lift people up into “where do we want to go?” And hopefully create different paths for us to get there and to tell those big broad stories and what we want to be known for or leave people feeling. That's where it's exciting.
Join us next time as Rankin sits down with Peter Semple, Chief Communications Officer at Manchester United.