It’s a Monday afternoon and the city of London is as busy as ever.
In Shoreditch, though, just outside the heart of the capital’s financial sector, there is an air of change about the place; especially if you head into Two-Up Digital’s office.
It’s far from your bog-standard company headquarters. The suits and briefcases of just a few streets away are nowhere to be seen and you are instead greeted by bright colours and artwork all over the walls. A darts board sits in the middle of the work space, demonstrating a visibly relaxed yet professional way of operating. It all builds the sense that things are a little different here.
Robbie Morris is CEO of Two-Up, a marketing agency that is doubling up as a supplier, and as he sits down to talk all things online gaming, his vision is clear.
“We’re trying to become a disruptive influence,” he says.
“I want to move away from this stagnant approach that seems to exist that we can’t get away from in the online gaming industry, even though we talk about it a lot.
“You go to ICE and everyone’s talking about it – but we never actually move away from it.
“For instance, we delivered Cash Out in 10 weeks, which took OpenBet the best part of 18 months. We’re in a place where we can move quickly, we know what we’re doing and we can change the landscape a little bit.
“That’s where I want to make the noise: making people realise we can deliver and support big brands. I’d happily put our platform up against those competitors that are around us and say we’re as good and we could be better pretty quickly.”
From the offset, it’s obvious Two-Up’s approach is unconventional. That might stem from the fact Morris’s entry into the industry itself was rather unconventional.
Having always held an ambition to work in sport, Morris turned away from his fairly promising level of snooker (he boasts a highest break of 112) and focused on sports writing. Completing a journalism degree, he worked for a golf magazine for 18 months – a time he describes as probably his best in terms of experience.
That was followed by a move to Grand Parade in London, where Morris really learned his trade. Projects carried out included writing content for Ladbrokes and development for the same company that sought to reduce its reliance on OpenBet. He ended up focusing on account and project management, before being taken under the CEO’s wing to study all aspects of running an agency.
Entering the industry was “an accident but a natural accident – a really good accident.”
After William Hill acquired Grand Parade, Morris founded Two-Up. The company is 18 months old and its services are two-pronged. The firm acts in its first essence as an agency assisting operators with items on their road maps, whether these are product-based, marketing-related or technological. On this side of the business, Morris was able to carry over some of his existing relationships from Grand Parade, including Ladbrokes Coral and William Hill, as well as the expertise that naturally followed.
But the CEO’s dealings with Star Sports and Sporting Index soon led Two-Up into the supply of sportsbooks to operators.
It is on this subject that Morris feels most passionate, offering his assessment of a “stagnant” online gaming industry. In the past, he has been critical of a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. That hasn’t changed.
“I do feel it’s a very stagnant industry,” he explains. “The first sportsbook went online in 1999 and, barring branding changes, if you looked at it then and look at it now, you’re not going to see a huge amount of difference.
“One of the things the agency relationship taught me was that all of these operators have problems with their sportsbook suppliers. Now, I’m not saying sportsbook suppliers are bad, but everybody has different things they need to do.
“One of the reasons Grand Parade was successful and hopefully why Two-Up will be successful is that we can come in and build bespoke things for these operators on top of these platforms, which is what everybody wanted.
“So the decision to run a sportsbook wasn’t made lightly. Ultimately, we decided to run with the sportsbook because we felt we offer something different in what is a saturated marketplace.”
The homogeny Morris speaks of extends not only to the look and feel of online sportsbooks but, he believes, the marketing and focus of the industry as a whole.
Indeed, the Two-Up chief takes issue with the sector’s obsession with price and bonusing, stripping the industry of the very essence of betting: having fun.
“Generally, I think the industry’s attacking marketing in the wrong way, especially on the sportsbook side of things,” he begins.
“There’s a big focus on bonusing for customers, it’s all about price was, price is. There’s a very price-led mentality on the marketing side of things, especially in the UK, which is amazing because, in the US, operators are not going to be able to lead with price. People are going to have to do something completely different.
“What we’ve done in the UK is go so far down the route of thinking that price is the most important thing to the consumer that we’ve lost the fun of betting. It’s an impulsive thing; it’s impulsive to bet, so marketing campaigns should be driven around the fact that you can have fun on these sites.
“If you go back to the product, at the moment it looks pretty stagnant and boring. There’s got to be a way, if you’re appealing to the 18-30 year-old generation who are now growing up with disposable media, of moving back towards quick, exciting content.”
Morris’s mention of the US is right on cue. With the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act earlier this year (which legalised the regulation of sports betting for states), American sports betting has become the hot topic of online gaming.
Whatever suppliers and operators are strategising over in traditional markets, their thinking will undoubtedly be influenced by the opportunities presented across 50 different US states, all offering unique markets of their own.
As part of his Two-Up duties, Morris regularly flies to the US – so much so that it limits his time on the ground in London – and the CEO believes betting firms will trial a number of different approaches on American soil.
He says: “I think America is a different market. If you go into Las Vegas and look at the sportsbooks there, they’re incredibly difficult to decipher. However, the consumer just wants to place a bet.
“If you look at the noise that (daily fantasy sports sites) DraftKings and FanDuel have made, it has been about big prizes, simplicity and I think that’s the approach that has to be taken in America.
“I think you’ll see people taking different approaches and trying new things. I don’t think they’re afraid to, which is going to be quite exciting.”
We return, once more, to Morris’s favourite phrase.
“Again, it’s going back to ‘one size fits all,’ which I’ll probably mention a few times!
“I think you’ll see people trying a few different things and ultimately coming up with a way of merging it all.”
A number of suppliers and operators have already secured US deals in a bid to capitalise on a historic period in sports betting. PaddyPower Betfair has acquired FanDuel, while GVC Holdings, Kindred Group and William Hill are among the other operators to have entered the market. On the supply side, IGT, Scientific Games and SBTech are some of those powering sports betting in famous US casinos.
But are there opportunities for Two-Up and similarly fresh firms trying to compete with the giants of the industry?
“I think there are huge opportunities for us,” Morris states. “From a platform perspective, we’re a fresh platform and we don’t come with some of the baggage that our competitors do.
“The key thing for us is our flexibility with our operators. We ensure that by listening and making sure we can move quicker than some of our competitors can.
“Internationally, MGM’s interesting, given its deal with GVC and Ladbrokes Coral. We’ve already had an initial conversation with Ladbrokes Coral about helping it supply tech to MGM.
“I spent quite a bit of time out in New Jersey at Grand Parade working with Resorts Casino and Golden Nugget. Working with those guys would be interesting because they’re at the forefront of helping brands aspire to whatever they want to be in America.
“From an agency perspective, most of the conversations I’ve had in America have been around marketing. So it’s exciting times for us on both sides.”
While he acknowledges the constraints of time and resources, happily admitting current processes are imperfect, Morris isn’t short of future ambitions. Away from the US, the Two-Up CEO names Sky Bet and Bet365 as operators he would love to work with and is aware of the emerging potential in Africa.
The CEO wants to make a bigger mark on sport itself, however.
“I’d love to be able to work with the governing bodies in sports – the LTA, RFU, Premier League, whoever it may be – on helping them understand the best place betting and gaming has in those industries,” Morris explains.
“That involves tackling the problems they face, in terms of potential issues around match fixing but also how they talk to their customers about betting and utilise clubs to work with the betting companies.”
By this point, what Two-Up aims to achieve is well set out. There are ideas in place and clear evidence of them being acted upon. How, though, will Two-Up become that “disruptive influence” Morris desires?
Alex Donohue, long-time PR Manager & Head of News at Ladbrokes, currently works closely with the digital agency and is able to offer a little insight as to why it may stand out.
“I spent seven years at Ladbrokes basically being told things couldn’t be done,” Donohue says.
“A lot of people made a living telling people they can’t do things. When I’m in here, I pick up the attitude of ‘yes we can do things and we’ll make it happen.’
“From Ladbrokes and the year I spent at OddsBible, I would say some of the big operators really benefit from the injection of pace at a start-up. A lot of the big, lumbering groups have this ‘I can’t do things’ mentality.”
That contribution inspires a rallying closing statement from Morris, emphasising the firm’s “can-do” attitude and what he perceives as a lack of it elsewhere in the industry.
He adds: “I’ve spent a lot of time sitting here having lots of idea meetings with tier-one UK operators and getting to the point where they’ll say ‘it’s a brilliant idea but we just can’t do it.’
“My philosophy is keep everything as simple as possible. If you can break everything down, everything’s achievable. We’ve built an interface that rivals any of the tier-one operators for Request-A-Bet and Coral has said it’d rather use ours than its own. Even simple things like scoreboards that couldn’t be done before, we can facilitate pretty quickly.
“We don’t have any limitations, we don’t have the politics. That’s the exciting bit, whether it’s agency or platform: just being able to go out and do it the way we want to do it.”