Today we are really fortunate to be able to chat to Antony Hodgetts who has been working in the gambling industry and affiliate marketing over three different decades.
Over the years Anthony has worked with all of the big names and has seen the industry evolve and change. In that time he has seen just about all there is to see in this niche and has become an affiliate marketing guru.
He now works in consultancy with TAG Media specialising in establishing new affiliate programs, helping faltering programs, scaling programs up and in repairing reputations.
Antony started out in a time very different to now and worked in Gibraltar in the early days as it was becoming the place to be for online gambling companies. In this interview he shares details and stories from those times and shows us how the industry has changed and where it might be going in the future.
Hi Anthony, thanks for agreeing to an interview. Can you give our readers a bit of background on yourself and how you first got involved with the gambling industry?
Well it all began for me way back in 2006 when I moved to southern Spain with my family. I needed to work in Gibraltar but with no experience of either high finance or insurance the only option was the gambling industry. I’d worked in Support and retail previously so was able to get hired to respond to player queries at a gaming operator’s Customer Services team.
Six months later and they’d spent a large amount of money preparing to launch an affiliate programme but hadn’t managed to give the relevant affiliate manager access to the relevant inbox – by the time he did there were 5,000 emails waiting to be answered!
Long story short; he needed an assistant to help him so the following Monday I was moved to marketing and 17 years later I’m still in the same niche – I have an IT access error to thank for gifting me a career!
You were involved with online gambling companies in the early days. How different was the industry back then?
It was a much smaller number of operators back then and they were all separately owned; none of this ‘Super Corporation’ structure that you see today. Weirdly; job titles were different then, if you had ‘Executive’ in your title back then you were probably in an office on the top floor with your own coffee-machine. Now it’s more often added to the end of an entry-level role, not sure why it changed
Gibraltar certainly felt to me like the very centre of the iGaming world and with so many operators there and so many excellent colleagues it was a real ‘hot house’ environment for developing my knowledge.
This was pre-UIGEA legislation so everyone faced their efforts towards the US market and Poker was king. When we woke up and discovered, seemingly out of nowhere, that the US was closed to us now it was like turning a super-tanker around but, looking back, I think it was the best thing for us in marketing roles.
Suddenly we had to find how to tailor our services to very different demographics and ultimately it forced everyone to become much more creative and innovative as a consequence.
When you started out most brands were independent, now many are part of these ‘super corporations’. How has this affected the industry and your role in it?
The industry has become much more homogenised. A PLC with multiple gaming brands will look to streamline their list of suppliers and back-office systems. As well as this, their departments get merged and serve multiple properties at once so respective brand values and differences become little more than cosmetic – The same games, the same odds, the same platform and same back-office – so would Sir prefer the blue bookmaker or the red bookmaker?
My little bit of the industry has had to become much more professional much more quickly which I think is a good thing… stories I was told about the industry before I became an affiliate manager are genuinely jaw-dropping!
It’s now accepted that brands will be bought and sold and you’ll likely work for several different affiliate programmes in a career so creating trusted relationships with affiliate sites that are rooted in long-term co-operation is crucial.
By next week you could find yourself working for a different programme with totally different (and not always better) USPs so YOU and your ethos and your relationships have to become the consistent thing that you ‘sell’.
How has affiliate marketing changed over the last 20 years in your eyes?
In a word? ‘Mergers and Acquisition’ – OK, I know that’s actually three words but the point stands. I’ve been in the game long enough now to have seen three distinct swings of the M&A pendulum – First it was operators and then the power shifted to affiliates who began getting bought up.
Some friends sold at the right time and spent their money well, I remember talking 10 years ago to affiliates whose entire business plan was about building up and then getting bought.
What began as a role maintaining multiple relationships with so many small affiliates who were each unique and distinct characters became gradually more corporate. In some senses it became easier as one conversation with one person could now lead to deals with several sites but I think that the affiliate industry lost a lot of colour along the way.
There are signs now that the ‘arms race’ of consolidation and acquisition on the affiliate side of the fence has slowed or even stopped. Large super-affiliate agencies are selling off certain sites, some of them even the ‘crown jewels’ of gambling URLs, as they’ve not been able to squeeze the operators well enough to cover all the costs and consequences of their acquisition.
Will the pendulum now swing back? Certainly it will; that’s what pendulums HAVE to do but hopefully we’ll see something more closely resembling equilibrium.
You worked in Gibraltar for a long time. Why is it that Gibraltar is the base for so many online gambling companies? Is it just for tax reasons? What is it like to live and work there?
It begins with Victor Chandler; the Gentleman Bookmaker, who was the first UK bookie to offshore his business in Gibraltar. He is a legend in this business and is absolutely deserving of his title of Gentleman.
He recognised that the future of the industry was not on the high streets or the racecourses but was first in telephone betting and then the evolution to online. Other UK bookmakers missed this first wave of opportunity and procrastinated for years, not convinced they would ever even NEED a website! (I’ve spoken to those who were in those boardrooms at the times this was discussed and they confirm this)
Ultimately, these decisions by the industry to move to Gibraltar were driven by competition and tax. Corporation Tax in Gib is much more favourable than in the UK and, at the time, the location of the computer servers in Gib was crucial – even if the punter was in the UK, the bet was considered to have been taken in Gib as that’s where the servers powering all this were located.
UK-facing operators now have to deal with a Point Of Consumption Tax, player bonuses and freebets have become part of the tax calculations for UK-facing operators which is what drove the rise of ‘crazy odds’ as a means of new player acquisition – 2/1 on Brazil to wear yellow, anyone? (new customers only, of course!)
Over time, the industry was able to sustain itself in such a tiny location as Gibraltar because, as more operators moved there, the pool of local talent, experience and ingenuity continued to grow. A brand new operator would arrive and the ‘Affiliate Manager Merry-go-round’ would begin – one of your rivals takes a new role and leaves an empty chair behind so every affiliate manager moves one space to the left – hopefully for a pay rise!
The biggest challenge Gib has faced to it’s position as the premier hub of igaming has been Brexit. The loss of simple and effective market access to customers all across Europe has seen a shrinking of the industry in Gib as, at the same time, it has swelled in places such as Malta and Cyprus.
Gibraltar itself is truly unique, it’s a collision of equal parts British, Spanish and Arabic influences. Both charming and irritating – sometimes even at the same time. Although I returned to the UK in 2018, I’ll always remember walking to work across the runway in the early morning sunshine or standing down by the lighthouse at Europa Point staring across to the continent of Africa, just 9 miles away, with huge affection.
You have worked with a lot of famous names; Coral, Betfred, BetVictor, bet365, Rank, Stan James, etc. What was the best to work for and why?
Just how do you make a UK high street bookie with huge brand recognition effective and relevant when it comes to digital business? What has fascinated me in my career is seeing how all these varied UK retail bookies have tried to essentially answer that exact same question and all come up with a different answer!
I have different distinct memories from all of those places and some stand out…
At Victor Chandler I was on an errand to the offices on the top floor when I walked past an open door and was stopped in my tracks to see a portrait of Victor Chandler, clearly by the acclaimed British artist Lucian Freud, hanging on the wall. There was no one about so I walked right up to it, just marvelling at being so close to such an expensive piece of art (by all accounts, Freud gave the painting to Victor as a way of settling a gambling debt).
Not sure how long I was there, but I suddenly noticed a faint whiff of cigar smoke in my nostrils and span round to see Victor Chandler himself standing there – I was in his office! “Not bad, is it” said the Gentleman Bookmaker with a smile before I made a hasty exit.
Bet365 was an unusual challenge because what can you honestly do differently or better in a job to try and improve a business that is already massively successful? That said, I’ve never had such access to senior management than I had in my time at Bet365.
We would routinely pick up the phone to ask Denise Coates a question, which feels unheard of now. I have huge respect for Denise Coates, for the consistency that she has made the correct decisions way before anybody else knew which was the right way to jump. She got them online at the right time and sold off their retail shops whilst they were still profitable – She seems to barely put a foot wrong and the rest is history.
Looking back, the team I was most proud of was the one at Coral. Coral had run its websites from the offices of the retail operation for many years and they struggled to get it right. Their reputation amongst affiliates wasn’t great and they were struggling to be relevant.
I was hired to work for a new Coral Digital business and with the help of Sarah Caskie and Debbie Blood we created an affiliate programme that showed it absolutely understood what affiliates needed and got to the point where we were sending out customised offers to affiliates along with links and copy and everything they needed 3 or 4 times every week – we were like a machine and turning around the reputation of the Coral programme is something we’re all proud of.
After 13 years specialising in sportsbooks I decided I really needed something new; something where I wouldn’t automatically know the answers and that would provide a new challenge so I moved to Rank Digital promoting Mecca Bingo and Grosvenor Casino brands. Nine months after I joined? “we’ve got a new project Anthony, you might be able to help” – They launched a sportsbook! Oh well, never mind.
In 2018 you moved into consultancy with TAG Media, what were the reasons for that?
After 13 years in Gibraltar and Spain I knew the time was right to return to the UK to be closer to my children. I took six months off which was a break that I really needed whilst I decided what sort of future I wanted.
At that point, Tom Galanis contacted me and asked if I wanted to come and work for him. We’d been colleagues at 365 until a redundancy was announced. I used my payoff to go on holiday whilst he used his to create a business – Smart lad; that Tom!
Working for TAG Media allows me to work from home (my commute is great but the coffee is shit when I get there!) so it is flexible and I get to work with a team of iGaming’s Affiliate Galacticos…, it’s like working for Real Madrid, I’d have been mad to turn this down!
Can you describe your role at TAG Media and what the company does?
TAG Media is an iGaming Affiliate Marketing Consultancy and I’m a Senior Affiliate Manager there. Our team has a combined experience in the industry of over a century and we can offer whatever kind of help an operator needs.
For some clients, they have no in-house affiliate manager and we run every single aspect of the programme for them. Other clients just want our help in strategy and staff development and we can offer as much or as little as an operator needs.
We’ve recently launched a service called TAG Connect which has proved hugely popular as it allows operators to get cost-effective access to the expertise of our team to help them locate ‘hard to get’ affiliates, especially in emerging new markets where we may already have years of experience.
You have kind of become a fixer for affiliate programs with a bad reputation, what is that leads to so many affiliate programs getting bad reputations? What are the most common elements that need fixing?
It’s almost always engagement. Strange as it sounds, the affiliate channel is still misunderstood by many senior people and they approach acquisition via affiliates the same way they would any other channel which is where missteps can frequently occur.
You can’t simply ‘switch on’ an affiliate relationship and then switch it off in the way that you can with something like Google Ads or Display or TV advertising. It’s a relationship and you are asking an affiliate to invest their time and traffic in YOU – you should talk to affiliates like potential investors because that is what they are doing.
The lack of understanding of the importance of the affiliate channel means that the average age of a fresh Affiliate Manager is just 23 and yet they could be managing budgets of millions and they’re responsible for bringing in 23% of the companies revenue, perhaps even more. Not sure I would have trusted a 23 year old me to handle all of that!
The role of the Affiliate Manager is honestly unlike ANY other role in the industry. I need to have a good working knowledge of every single aspect of the business. I’m not responsible for Graphic Design but I need to know what a good landing page looks like because it affects player conversion which affects the cost I have to pay an affiliate for their traffic.
Same applies to our deposit options, our withdrawal times, the quality of our casino games, the competitiveness of our odds, the effectiveness of our CRM and player retention – everything, because it all impacts how much I have to pay the affiliate. The people that actually do all those things in the business likely don’t understand what I do because they don’t need to in order to do their job but I need to understand the concepts of what they do to a good level
The good affiliate will be interested in ALL of these things before they invest their time and traffic in my brands so showing them that I understand these things too is important and helps build trust from the start.
You appreciate that affiliate marketing is a people business. Why is it that so many affiliate programs have poor relationships with their clients?
Throughout my career I’ve always advocated humanising the affiliate process. We’re in a digital industry selling a digital experience to consumers who are online. So much of our interaction is via a screen that it’s easy to forget that it’s an actual person on the other end with their own motivations and goals.
Sounds simple but you have to be honest. Do affiliates TRUST you? If you think that your brand isn’t going to be a blockbusting earner for an affiliate but you still want your brand on their site then don’t try and portray it as something that it isn’t. If it is going to be a really reliable 2nd-tier earner for them then say so – be honest.
Affiliates are constantly getting 5 emails a day from affiliate managers all saying “we have the best online casino in the world” and I just don’t understand why they do that – stop it!
If I look at an affiliates’ website and think that a specific other brand would work really well there then I’ll tell them and, even better, if I have a contact at the other brand I’ll offer to introduce them if they want.
For a billion-dollar industry, it’s a remarkably small group of people. Reputations are hard-won and soon lost. If I’ve connived and conned an affiliate when I was at Betfred then what are they going to think a year later when I contact them to say that “I’m now at Coral and would love to do a deal.”? So, be honest.
Like the operator side affiliate marketing has changed a lot in the last 20 years and we now have large affiliate companies dominating the landscape, partnering with newspapers, etc. Is there still room for the small affiliate anymore?
There’s always room, even if it feels very squeezed sometimes. Whilst it won’t be easy, if you can make connections with affiliate managers out there and get their advice, look for other affiliates that do well the things that you find difficult and make connections with them then you can continue to improve by degrees.
I’ve always made the effort to give time and attention to small/medium affiliates because I know that other managers ignore them and simply fight to try and find ways to just give the big boys more money which I think is a little lazy. If I can find the next oddschecker and help and encourage them and pay them fairly for their early efforts then hopefully they’ll remember me when they’re huge and I need their traffic!
What in your experience can smaller affiliates do that the bigger affiliate companies cannot?
Small affiliates can be closer to their actual audience than a large corporate site can be. A small affiliate can actually have more ‘room’ to develop a unique ‘voice’ than a corporate would ever be given the freedom to do.
Try to identify where your competition can easily out-point you and don’t go head-to-head with them there but compete where you are strong and they are not and identify your niche.
For example, if I was starting from scratch as an affiliate today I wouldn’t go for a site offering general sports news surrounded by betting ads or a site specialising in betting previews for Premier League games. The competition is just too long-standing and well funded and competent for me to succeed and thrive there.
Don’t Broadcast but instead Narrowcast – find your niche and then mine it, the narrower the better. I’d focus entirely on something like stats analysis on lower league British football and recommending BTTS bets.
Try to find subjects and areas that are routinely ignored by the big affiliates and go fishing in those pools.
Are there any other insights you would like to share with our readers?
I love working in this little niche within a niche that is Affiliate marketing within the online gaming industry.
I’ve been doing it for 17 years but the industry is still young; not all the rules are set in stone yet. It’s a job with such amazing variety that has brought me into contact with so many people who have taught me things… and ALL because of a marketing manager who couldn’t get access to his mailbox for a few weeks in September 2006.
Somewhere out there is a veteran of IT Support (pop3 & imap) and I owe them a pint!