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IN-DEPTH 2 July 2018
Marc Etches: Creating a benchmark for consumer behaviour
GambleAware has just completed the first year of its new five-year plan, have you achieved all you set out to at this stage?
By Gambling Insider

We published our five-year strategy in December 2016 and we are now one year in to the delivery. We are pleased with our progress so far, as we’ve just disclosed in our most recent report: During the 12 months to the end of March 2017, GambleAware raised £8,621,499 and spent £8,262,328 including: £1,469,189 on research; £1,199,805 on education; £5,224,847 on treatment; and the cost of generating funds was £368,487. That expenditure is a figure that has doubled over the last four years and in the current year we expect to exceed £10m of expenditure.

However, it’s not all about just spending money, it’s about doing so wisely and effectively, and what we’ve tried to demonstrate in the review of our activities for the previous year is that we are achieving this and will continue to focus on doing so in the future.

What have been your personal highlights of this period?

One of the most significant things to happen over the last 12-18 months was to secure Kate Lampard as an independent chair of trustees in June 2016; this has enabled us to demonstrate independence more credibly.

At the same time, we moved to change the name to GambleAware. Those that have worked with us throughout the years will know that we have changed our name a number of times, but it is my hope that this will be the last time we do so. As part of our future strategy we want to find our voice as an independent charity, focused on delivering our charitable objectives to reduce gambling-related harm. In finding our voice we want to ensure that every time we are talked about and mentioned GambleAware is increasingly recognisable as a trusted resource for the public to find help and advice.

Changing the name was very important (we changed in 2016) but we also moved to rebalance the constitution of the charity. Out of 9 current trustees, all are now entirely independent of the gambling industry. The makeup of trustees had been evenly balanced but going forward it is increasingly important for us to be demonstrably independent, particularly from the gambling industry.

How important is the latest pledge from the National Casino forum to commit 1% of their gross gambling yield to GambleAware?

It’s definitely an important step; however I believe that it’s important for the whole industry to raise its game. We work closely with the Gambling Commission and National Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, but I think it has been challenging to get across to the industry as a whole that our role is to deliver a large part of the National Responsible Gambling Strategy.

The industry needs to ensure that we have what we regard as the minimum funding necessary to carry this work out, and of course we welcome the pledge from the National Casino Forum; I think it’s an important benchmark for others to match.

It’s not about just raising the game in terms of funding, the industry needs to raise its game in terms of behaviour and its cultural attitude towards minimising harm for its customers. This is something I think was shown in a report that we published last autumn, where we referred to criticisms in relation to staff training, for example, as a loud wakeup call for the industry.

What is also significant in terms of what has happened over the last year is the deepening of our relationship with the Strategy Board and the Gambling Commission. This has been borne out by the comments and support given to us at the Gambling Commission Raising Standards conference last November.

How has the relationship between your three organisations changed over the years?

It’s undoubtedly strengthened. Since August 2012, the three bodies have been working to a specific agreement which makes clear our roles in this process, and our role is to raise funds and deliver a wide range of actions identified in that strategy. I think the way we are working with the Strategy Board and the Commission has changed, particularly in the last 12 months, where we have worked a lot more collaboratively and more effectively.

There’s been a lot of negative press this year around gambling-related harm, do you think that this might spur them into action?

I should hope for the sake of the industry that it does. The recent statistics published by the Gambling Commission show that only 34% of the population agree that gambling is fair and can be trusted, compared to a figure of 49% in 2008; this should be of great concern to operators.

I would echo the comments of our chair, Kate Lampard, who remarked at our conference last December that the industry is facing an existential threat in reputational terms, and I think that’s right given that the extent to which the public are expressing concerns about the industry.

The various media reports and public commentaries, particularly around sport, serve to illustrate that there is genuine public concern. The industry should be careful to acknowledge that concern and work hard to address it. If it fails to do so, then in a regulated environment it will inevitably suffer consequences.

What I should make perfectly clear in addressing this question is that GambleAware is not in any way anti-gambling, and it would be wrong to think that it is. What trustees want is to ensure gambling is safe and fair for all concerned.

How did you view the UKGC’s handling of the triennial review?

GambleAware responded to the government review in December 2016 and published our submission at the time. In particular, we reminded the government that harm arises in relation to all gambling products and that it should be careful not to focus too narrowly on one particular product or on one particular venue.

One of the things that we did concern ourselves with was to remind the government of the extent to which gambling now takes place online, so naturally GambleAware is pleased to see specific attention being paid to this in the current consultation documents. We are also very pleased to be asked to lead a national public awareness campaign, which will be a very important initiative.

Can you give us a little more detail on this?

The initiative is a two-year public awareness campaign to be delivered across various media. It will be funded principally by online gambling businesses with additional support from broadcasters in terms of committing to providing airtime, with a campaign value of between £5-7m in each of the two years.

GambleAware has been asked to lead this initiative by appointing a board, an independent chair and a campaign director, and our expectation is that we will be able to hit the ground running in the early part of 2018. I’m mindful that there is a World Cup final that summer and it’s a reasonable aspiration to have the campaign up and running by that time.

You recently expressed dismay at the fact that Sky Bet will be sponsoring the English Premier League, do you think the FA has done enough to ensure this partner promotes its services responsibly? Sport is the most obvious example of an activity where there is intersection between gambling and children. Gambling is an adult activity and there is justifiable concern that the current relationship between sport and gambling is normalising gambling for children such that there may be significant negative consequences in the future. This remains a very pressing concern for GambleAware. At our recent conference, we had a session on the national lottery in which we raised a question about the fact that 16-17 year olds are able to purchase lottery products online, and that some of these products are equivalent to other gambling products that are subject to the minimum age restriction of 18.

Do you believe that those who profit from sports betting other than the operators themselves should make a bigger contribution to GambleAware?

Our five-year strategy makes clear that we think that any business that derives a profit from gambling has a responsibility to assist causes which prevent gambling-related harm. This includes those involved in sport and the media; there are plenty of national newspapers that benefit or derive profits from scratchcards and bingo operation through their media outlets. In answering this question, I also want to draw attention to another interested party which we are concerned to focus on, and that is businesses that make a profit from their development of video games. There is an increasing number of people asking questions about the emergence of gambling in video gaming, and I’m talking particularly about ‘lootboxes’ and ‘skins betting’ which have been hot topics in the last few months.

All of those businesses that derive some sort of profit from gambling should contribute funds, but it’s not always just about giving money. For example, we have challenged Camelot to do more in relation to the 40,000 retail outlets that sell National Lottery tickets: There are currently no safe gambling messages anywhere at the point of sale, and they are devoid of any direction to or to the National Gambling Helpline. In the case of the National Lottery, there are more problem gamblers buying a lottery ticket or scratch-card than any other gambling product, so I think they have a particular responsibility in helping to promote safe gambling.

Likewise with sporting bodies, given that they are deriving profit from their relationship with gambling, I think they have a responsibility to balance their messaging about gambling with safer gambling messaging.

How does the work of the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling support the work of GambleAware?

The area that we have worked most closely with the IGRG over the last year has been in relation to their work around messaging and staff training. Of course this involvement has brought about a report that is critical, but I think to be fair the IGRG and its members have taken that criticism and are determined to respond to that criticism.

Another area where we have worked together is in relation to the IGRG’s recent Responsible Gambling Week. I am a little critical, in the sense that a focus on one week raises a legitimate question as to why not be espousing these messages 52 weeks of the year. Also, we are concerned to move away from ‘responsible’ gambling to ‘safer’ gambling, it’s a move that the Gambling Commission have taken and I think it’s a sensible and appropriate one.

GambleAware has dropped the ‘gambling responsibly’ tag. Many people quite rightly express concerns about the use of the word ‘responsible’ on the basis it promotes the idea that it’s all down to the individual player. Whilst the individual must of course take their share of personal responsibility, we think actually it’s about everybody’s behaviour, including the industry, the regulator and the government, and we all ought to be committed to ensuring gambling is safe and fair.
IN-DEPTH 16 August 2019
Roundtable: David vs Goliath – Can startups really disrupt the industry?

(AL) Alexander Levchenko – CEO, Evoplay Entertainment

Alexander Levchenko is CEO of innovative game development studio Evoplay Entertainment. He has overseen the rapid expansion of the company since it was founded in early 2017 with the vision of revolutionising the player experience.

(RL) Ruben Loeches – CMO, R Franco

Rubén Loeches is CMO at R. Franco Group, Spain’s most established multinational gaming supplier and solutions provider. With over 10 years working in the gambling, betting and online gaming industries, he is skilled in operations management and marketing strategy.

(JB) Julian Buhagiar – Co-Founder, RB Capital:

Julian Buhagiar is an investor, CEO & board director to multiple ventures in gaming, fintech & media markets. He has lead investments, M & As and exits to date in excess of $370m.

(DM) Dominic Mansour – CEO, Bragg Gaming Group:

Dominic Mansour has an extensive background of nearly 20 years in the gaming and lottery industry. He has a deep understanding of the lottery secto,r having been CEO at the UK-based Health Lottery, as well as building from scratch, which he sold to NetPlay TV plc.

What does it take for a startup to make waves in gaming?

DM: On the one hand, it’s a bit like brand marketing; you build an identity, a reputation and a strategy. When you know what you stand for, you then do your best to get heard. That doesn’t necessarily require a TV commercial but ensuring whatever you do stands out from the crowd. Then you have to get out there and talk to people about it. 

AL: Being better than the competition is no longer enough; if you’re small, new and want to make a difference – you have to turn the industry on its head. Those looking to make waves need to come up with a new concept or a ground-breaking solution. Take Elon Musk, he didn’t found Tesla to improve the existing electric cars on the market, he founded it to create the industry’s first mass-market electric sports car. It’s the same for online gaming; if you want to make waves as a startup, you have to bring something revolutionary to the table.

JB: Unique IP is key, particularly in emerging (non-EU) markets. As does the ability to release products on time, with minimal downtime and/or turnaround time when issues inevitably occur. A good salesforce capable of rapidly striking partnerships with the right players is vital, as is not getting bogged down too early on in legal, operational and admin red tape.

How easy it for startups to bring their ideas to life? How do they attract capital?

AL: It depends on the people and ideas behind the startup. Of course – the wave of ‘unicorns’ is not what it used to be. Some time ago the hype was a lot greater in terms of investing in startups, but that’s changed now. Investors now want more detail – and even more importantly, to evaluate whether the startup has the capacity (as well as the vision) to solve the problem it set out to address. That’s not to say investors are no longer interested in startups – they certainly are – but now more than ever, it’s important for startups to understand their audience as well as dreaming big.

JB: To get to market quickly, you need a great but small, team. If slots or sportsbook, the mathematical engine and UX/UI are crucial. Having a lean, agile dev team that can rapidly turn wire framing and mathematical logic into product is essential. Paying more for the right team is sometimes necessary, especially when good resources are scarce (here’s looking at you, Malta and Gibraltar).

Building capital is a different beast altogether. You won’t be able to secure any funding until you have a working proof of concept and, even then, capital is likely to be drip fed. Be prepared to get a family and friends round early on to deliver a ‘kick-ass’ demo, then start looking at early-stage VCs that specialise in growth-stage assets.

How do you react when you see startups coming in with their plan for disruption?

RL: We welcome the innovation and fresh thinking startups bring. This is particularly the case in Latin America, with a market still in its infancy. One area we’d especially like to see startups making waves is in the slot development sector. Latin America is a young market that needs local innovation suited to its unique conditions – especially in regard to mobile gaming.

Operators eyeing the market have Europe‐focused core products, which creates a struggle to work to the requirements of players and regulators. To succeed there, it has become more important than ever to work with those with a knowhow of the local area to adapt products and games to besuitable from the off; we welcome the chance for local talent to develop and grow.

Do you think it’s easier for established companies to innovate and establish new ideas? 

AL: From a financial perspective, yes. It is without a doubt easier for incumbent companies to establish a pipeline of innovation via their R & D departments, as well as having the tools to hand for data gathering and analysis.

But it stops there. Startups hold court in every other way. Not only are they flexible, they can easily switch from one idea to another, change strategy instantly as the market demands and easily move team members around. Established companies know this – and this is why we’re seeing an emerging trend for established companies to acquire small, innovative online gaming start-ups. They have the right resources and unique ideas, as well as the ability to bring a fresh approach to businesses’ thinking.

RL: For me, it’s always going to be established companies. Only with the resources, industry experience and know‐how can a company apply technology and services that truly make a difference. Of course there are exceptions. But when it comes to providing a platform that can be approved by regulators across multiple markets – as well as suiting an operators’ multiple jurisdictions – it is simply impossible for a couple of young bright minds with a few million behind them to get this done.

DM: I actually think it’s harder for established companies. It’s key to differentiate between having a good idea and executing one. That’s where the big corporates struggle most. They’re full of amazing people with all sorts of great ideas but getting them through systems and processes is nearly impossible.

Is it essential to patent-protect innovative products?

AL: It’s a very interesting subject. If we take IT for example – patents can actually become a block to the evolutionary process within the industry. Of course, getting a patent future proofs yourself from the competition copying your concept but, having said that, if you’re looking to protect yourself from someone more creative, smarter and agile, you’ve probably lost the battle already!

In our industry everything is moving faster and research takes less time than the development itself. No matter how good you are at copy pasting, you can’t copy Google or Netflix. The most important thing is not the tech itself but rather its ‘use-case’ – or in other words, does it solve what it’s meant to solve? Competition is healthy and the key to innovation. If you spend your whole time looking behind you, you’ll never be able move forwards.

JB: Tricky question, and one that depends on what and where you launch this IP. It can be difficult to patent mathematical engines and logic, mostly because they’re re-treading prior art. Branding, artwork and UX is more important and can easily be copied, but the territories you launch will determine how protectable your IP will be once patented. US/EU/Japan is easy but expensive to protect in. But China/South East Asia is a nightmare to cover adequately. Specialised patent lawyers with experience in software, and ideally gaming, can help you better.