The Football Association (FA) has cemented its informal relationship with IT consultancy Cognizant, which recently acquired digital agency Zone, by selecting it over a group of traditional digital agencies to lead its transformation strategy.
Cognizant has been hired to develop a “long term” approach for how the FA can modernise its services, which Russell James, director of digital engagement at the association, admitted have fallen behind what people expect from brands.
"This is serious step change in terms of our intention to embrace digital. It’s overdue but there’s never a wrong time to start these things. We’ve taken our time in finding the right partner in Cognizant; it’s a significant investment and one that will continue as we move forward."
Highlighting the breadth of the remit, Cognizant – as well becoming the FA’s ‘official digital partner’ – has also become the ‘official digital transformation partner of the Emirates FA Cup’ and ‘official digital transformation partner of Club Wembley’.
The consultancy will take on responsibility for overhauling the footballing body’s “back end work, some front end work and our database", said James.
“We needed a supplier that had experience in delivering big change programmes of that nature,” he added on why it was selected over a digital agency. “Cognizant fits the bill for all of these key aspects and bought into the vision of what we’re trying to do.”
The IT consultancy has been bolstering its marketing services in recent months. The surprise acquisition of London-based digital agency Zone and Netcentric in October put a stake in the ground for its intention to battle with the likes of Accenture and Deloitte for advertising budgets.
While other management consultancies have been shouting loudly about their advancement into the industry, Cognizant – which delivered $13.49bn revenue in 2016 – has been quietly picking up pockets of brand business.
It initially started working with the FA on two smaller digital projects earlier this year: firstly, on a digital platform designed to get more young girls into the sport; and then an overhaul of its ‘Full-Time’ site, which is used by some 40,000 teams across the UK to track their place in the leagues.
James said both have outperformed expectations, particularly the ‘For Girls’ work, which has seen seven times more traffic going to that content and more than 10,000 searches on how they can get involved with local clubs.
Moving forward, and with the all-important World Cup on the horizon, the FA said its first major piece of work with Cognizant will focus on improving the engagement with England fans.
“Within the grassroots game we want to improve the sophistication that supports those millions of people. We’re got more activity in that area from a product perspective,” James continued.
“We are building a ‘single participant view’ and having all of the information we know about [a user] to engage in a more personalised manner.”
However, the FA has only recently started on a journey to build itself as a brand in its own right and so the data management capability is at a rudimentary stage. That’s where the relationship with Cognizant is going beyond what a traditional agency could do to help the FA “clean up” and help understand where the value is.
“It’s a really big task and with GDPR on the horizon. It’s also about making sure we’re in compliance with the regulations coming our way," said James. "It’s a relationship that’s going to make us work more effectively and Cognizant are doing a lot of work on that now.”
In future, this may see the FA invest more in the its in-house digital team. Currently there is a “pretty light internal team” that’s working with the consultancy day-to-day alongside a more traditional content team as part of the wider marketing function.
James, formerly head of marketing, moved into his current role in January after a reshuffle that saw Microsoft's head of digital Georgina Lewis join the organisation to take over his responsibilites.
He said as the FA evolves and matures the operation, working out a new structure and bringing in more people with digital skills will be inevitable.
“This is not just a do it and deliver project. To deliver a programme like this that spans multiple years and multiple products you need a wide set of capabilities,” surmised Vivek Daga, vice president and country manager for UK and Ireland at Cognizant.
“We have to work with the FA and reimagine the participant experience, the design and solution of that, and the delivery. This is not a 'small agency' project. It’s something we can bring the best of Cognizant and the FA to, to deliver its vision."