Can the Magenta Project Beat the Clock?
There is simply no denying the huge impact the all-female Team SCA entry made on the last Volvo Ocean Race. While they were never challengers for the overall title, they won one offshore leg and two inshore races and finished the In-Port Race Series in third place. Back ashore, they utterly dominated the marketing and communications ratings war as their seemingly ever-increasing legion of fans swamped the race’s social media channels with messages of support and flooded each of the 11 stopover sites around the world in a sea of magenta t-shirts and frantically waved SCA flags.
For their backers, the Swedish paper products company, SCA who wanted to increase brand awareness of their range of feminine hygiene products by associating themselves with the global empowerment of women, an all-women crew competing in a male dominated round-the-world yacht race was a match tailor-made in heaven.
So it came as quite a shock when shortly after the end of the race the women were left high and dry by SCA’s announcement that they would not be sponsoring the team for another lap of the planet.
The former-SCA sailors quickly regrouped under the banner of ‘The Magenta Project’ with high hopes for a new corporate brand to come along and snap them up along with their global army of supporters. A year on from the finish of the last race, however, no one has yet stepped into the breach willing to pick up the reins where SCA left off.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and as the January 1 cut-off the women have set themselves drifts inexorably closer on the tide, the question is starting to be asked: Could time be running out for the all-women crew?
We sat down with former Team SCA watch leader Abby Ehler and navigator Libby Greenhalgh to find out how the crew planned to get themselves off this commercial lee shore. We began by asking if The Magenta Project’s sole goal was still to field another female entry in the Volvo Ocean Race or whether it had evolved into something broader?
Abby Ehler: To start with, a brief insight: SCA gave us a huge opportunity to compete on the centre stage of offshore racing as an all-female team in the Volvo Ocean Race. As the 2014-2015 race progressed we realised that away from the boat we were making waves around the world. People were engaged, motivated and inspired by our endeavours.
This comment in a note sent to us by Billy Jean King summarises that: “Thank you for showing girls and women around the world that we can accomplish anything and to dream big. Your perseverance, drive and commitment to this grueling competition is inspiring.”
The sailing team feels a strong sense of obligation to our supporters and all female sailors to continue this momentum and to help other young women to realise their own ambitions within the world of professional sailing.
Hence, The Magenta Project was founded and although getting a team on the start line of the 2017 Volvo Ocean Race remains one of the objectives, our vision also has a much broader and longer-term aspect. We want to showcase the achievements of women at this level and raise the visibility of suitable role models who can inspire and encourage women to excel within the sport.
One of our longer term objectives is to create The Magenta Academy to help fund up-and-coming female sailors and provide apprenticeship opportunities for women within associated trades.
SRM: Who from the original Team SCA crew are a part of The Magenta Project?
AE: All of the former Team SCA crew are involved in some shape or form. Geographically we are widely spread now, however our core group is UK-centric, which is where the project is essentially based.
SRM: Are any of the Team SCA shore-side management still directly involved?
AE: All the members of the former Team SCA management team are on hand to offer advice and assistance, however we are not formally engaged with them.
SRM: Who is now responsible for the various aspects of The Magenta Project?
AE: In terms of the umbrella organisation, ‘The Magenta Project’, Libby looks after the operations aspect, Sally Barkow is focused on the athlete development side, while Annie Lush and myself deal with the media and events programme.
In terms of the Magenta sailing teams: Sally leads the Team Magenta 32 crew who are currently competing in the World Match Race Tour and on the M32 circuit. We are also keen to encourage other teams to form under the Magenta banner. Then Libby heads up the Magenta 65 campaign, whose sole mission is to have a team in the 2017 Volvo Ocean Race.
SRM: Do you have any external expert support from outside the core squad?
AE: We have in place formal support from a prominent business woman, Lan O’Connor, who is Corporate Vice President of Capgemini Group. Lan has come on board because she believes in our project and its values and she has been a huge help. We regularly seek advice from other leading business people and sailing organisations, as well as having a number of Magenta Project Ambassadors who perfectly understand and promote the project’s values and share their knowledge and experience in the sport.
SRM: Without a sponsor how are you funding the project at the moment?
AE: We are currently self-funding it and are actively seeking seed or grant funding to cover the overheads and to help us springboard our objectives.
SRM: How would you sum up the current state of play of the project?
AE: We are still in our infancy following the launch of the project roughly five months ago. We have received tremendous support and engagement from our existing followers as well as creating and building some new relationships. We have plans for a summer of activities with representation at major sailing events to maximize our exposure with minimum financial outlay until such time as we secure some funding.
SRM: What type of companies and organisations have you been targeting to try to raise the Volvo Ocean Race funds?
Libby Greenhalgh: We have spoken to a wide cross section of organisations, but we are focusing in on the computing/IT and banking sectors where there is a groundswell movement to assess the levels of diversity amongst their work forces.
SRM: Do you have any potential sponsors ‘in-play’ right now?
LG: We have a short list of targeted companies and are working hard to build relationships within those firms. There are two firms that we have gained some positive traction with and are making slow progress in the right direction.
SRM: What are the biggest challenges/hurdles you have been facing?
LG: The biggest challenges have been making the connections at the right level within the companies that we have researched and identified as being a good fit. We have been very fortunate to partner with Lan O’Connor who has been a great help in this area. Lan’s offer to support Magenta 65 despite the lack of funding demonstrates the impact Team SCA had and reinforces our belief in how powerful this commercial proposition is.
Finance has been another challenge. There are costs incurred throughout the networking and pitching process and we would like to be able to employ some additional skill sets to enhance and progress our campaign in the short time frame. That’s why finding seed funding is so critical.
SRM: How has the VOR organisation been helping?
LG: We are regularly in contact to update them on our campaign and to check on any potential leads that they have found. It is important to share updates and information to avoid any doubling up on contacts and possibly harming each other’s existing leads or negotiations.
SRM: Do you think there is a risk that people see the Magenta Project logo and presume you have already found a sponsor/backer?
LG: Potentially yes. There was certainly a lot of momentum carried over from the Team SCA sponsorship and maybe there was confusion as to whether SCA or another company were now backing the project. However, we felt it important that The Magenta Project profile became visible and closely associated with the continuing achievements made by women in the sport.
Our brand identity is building via a network of female athletes committed to performing at the elite level of the sport, which in turn should assist to ensure growth, recognition and opportunities for the future, a key goal of which is to ensure women are competing in the next Volvo Ocean Race.
SRM: One route to funding might be to target the Corporate Social Responsibility budgets of large organisations? Is that somewhere you believe an all women team has a better proposition than an all-male team?
LG: There is currently a strong movement in the UK and across many other countries, calling for institutions to address the diversity of their workforce. Research reports a more diverse team/board/business is more effective and therefore any company seeking diversity and proactively showing their commitment towards empowering women in particular would have a strong correlation with an all-female team.
Take SCA as an example of this, they wanted to reinforce their philosophy of supporting women’s empowerment and helping them to participate fully in society in the same way as men – socially, emotionally, and professionally.
SRM: What is the VOR big picture plan? Buy a new boat or a second hand boat? Have as big a shore-based squad as last time or go for a smaller squad more like one of the all-male teams? Unite behind a single skipper or make it more of a cooperative-style squad?
LG: Budget wise, a second hand boat is a more realistic option and it would also enable us to be out training sooner. The shore-based team is unlikely to be as large as the previous SCA campaign given the shorter lead-time, boat familiarization and the Volvo Ocean Race’s revised Boatyard service scheme. That said, it is still important to have a dedicated shore team to ensure that the boat and sailors are in the best condition they can be and to cover areas that are not dealt with by the Boatyard.
In answer to the skipper question, while Team SCA was constructed in a less traditional way than most previous Volvo Ocean Race teams, because of the lack of VOR-experienced female sailors, the VOR is very much geared towards a spearhead skipper and this time around it is more likely that the team would be built from the top down.
SRM: The Team SCA campaign in the last race was perceived as a big budget affair. What budget are you looking for this time around?
LG: Team SCA’s budget possibly was the largest, however it was also the longest lasting campaign with two years of lead-in time to allow for the training to try to bridge the experience gap between us and our male competitors.
This time we are looking for around £15 million to run the sailing campaign. We consider that a modest budget that would not require us to cut corners.
There are varying degrees of additional expenditure depending on the level of brand activation and customer engagement that a corporate partner wishes to employ. However, we really should look at the returns when talking about budgets. Team SCA generated around a 1:3 ratio of return on investment in the last race.
SRM: If someone offered you the chance to team up with a male VOR campaign to form a 50:50 mixed-sex/co-ed crew, what would you do?
LG: We want to ensure there are women in the race and believe in taking every opportunity. Ultimately we hope that in the future the discussion wouldn’t be about male, female or mixed teams, rather that it would come down to selecting the best sailors irrespective of their sex. To answer your question, if we were offered a chance to team up with a male campaign, absolutely we would take up the offer. Who knows, maybe there will be both a mixed team and a female team in the 2017 Volvo Ocean Race – that would be a huge breakthrough.
SRM: Is there anything else you want to comment on regarding the campaign?
LG: A few years ago the Volvo Ocean Race mandated teams must race with two sailors under the age of 30 as it was deemed difficult to find a pathway into the race for the younger generation of sailors. Maybe in the future we will see a more female friendly ruling that creates similar openings for women in excel in the sport.