Go Big or Go Home at Gatorade

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn Issue 16 - March/April 2015, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

The company’s Head of Global Markets brings his best game to work every single day

Great businesspeople are often similar to great athletes. How? Just ask John Shea.

“Working at Gatorade, we have the great fortune to work with elite athletes,” he said. “How impressive they are: their level of dedication, their attention to detail, the amount of work that goes into being who they are. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt—you look at the amount of work they put in when no one else is watching; that is the piece that is most impressive.”

When you look at the accomplishments of Gatorade’s Head of Global Markets, he, too, is by all rights elite. Shea is responsible for the brand’s global business efforts, including strategic vision, brand management, consumer engagement and sports partnerships, as it looks to increase its footprint abroad.

What advice does he give to young professionals to help them get where he is today? “Go big!” he said. It’s pretty solid advice from a guy who did just that and landed in the big leagues.

Go Big or Go Home

Shea’s advice to “go big” comes from experience. While obtaining his Marketing degree from Boston College, he interned with an advertising agency. Upon graduation, he landed a job with a marketing consulting firm, where he was able to gain insight into numerous industries, including consumer products, financial services and health care.

“It was a great opportunity to learn quickly right out of the gate, get broad exposure and work on a number of projects with a bunch of smart people,” Shea said.

He went big with his next move as well, into a mergers and acquisitions role at Liberty Mutual. There he was part of a team that built a $2-billion insurance business through eight acquisitions in less than two years.

Shea then earned an MBA from Michigan Business School and interned at PepsiCo in New York. After graduate school, he took on a full-time role at PepsiCo, working on the Mountain Dew brand.

“It was great working on a cool millennial-focused brand that was doing big-time pop culture-focused marketing,” he said, referring to his work with the X Games, And1 basketball tour and NASCAR racing, for example. “It was my first chance to get into big-time brand marketing. I had a chance to lead new product launches, develop advertising campaigns, create retail programs and manage sports partnerships.”

After two years working on the Mountain Dew brand, he advanced to a job managing Pepsi’s national partnerships with the NFL and MLB, developing and executing programs focused on building brand equity and activating retail leveraging these properties.

“It was a great chance to build on all of my experiences prior to that,” Shea said. “I was handling all the strategy development, negotiations and marketing activations with the NFL and MLB and delivering marketing platforms, including the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show and MLB All-Star balloting at Walmart.”

Hitting a Grand Slam

While it is a bit difficult to go bigger than these responsibilities, Shea managed just that in 2008 when he headed to Chicago for the opportunity to lead Gatorade’s sports partnerships with the NFL, NASCAR and college properties. Shortly after joining Gatorade, the company went through a great deal of change.

“We had reached a point where we weren’t growing anymore. I was thrust into a role leading new product innovation,” Shea said. “Up until that point, innovation had really just been about new flavors.”

So again, Shea swung for the fences and “retrenched and leveraged” his sports marketing experiences and insights, and he hit a grand slam in helping launch the G Series. The launch transformed Gatorade from a sports drink company to sports fuel company, with a full portfolio of products to fuel athletic performance.

“Instead of just sports drinks, the conversation changed to properly fueling athletes,” Shea said. “For athletes, properly fueling requires more than just hydration. There is the way they prepare themselves for activity, how they stay hydrated during activity and how they recover after. Coming out with products that meet those needs is what is really fueling our growth and our future.”

In the Huddle

Building and managing a winning team is another big success for Shea and Gatorade. After the launch of the G Series, Shea transitioned back into a sports marketing role as Senior Director of Sports Marketing overseeing the brand’s global sports portfolio, including all league, team and athlete partnerships. In this position, Shea oversaw all aspects of partnerships with professional leagues, including the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, 60-plus college properties and more than 50 individual athlete relationships, including with Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, Derek Jeter and Usain Bolt.

In doing this, Shea also managed the growth and development of 15 staff members. To excel at what they do, the team needs to understand everything about their sport and athletes, as well as the important connection with the athletic trainers, strength trainers and nutritionists who support those athletes. Another key to doing their job well is understanding what products specifically help fuel the athletes in their respective sport.

“The people on my team understand the brand vision—where we are going, how we are getting there and how sports are a critical component of that,” Shea said. “Because at Gatorade, sports are really at the center of everything we do as a brand. From new product innovation to communications, it all comes from the core understanding of the athlete.

As the quarterback of his team, Shea focused on ensuring his group shared that common vision. “The most important element of developing a vision is to make sure that there is input from the team so that they are part of the process; the vision is also their vision. It is a collaborative process, so when we communicate that vision, everybody understands it. In our day-to-day conversations, we are all using the same message and articulating the vision.”

Also essential to Shea’s leadership philosophy are inclusion and collaboration. As a leader, it is important “to respect different approaches and perspectives of the people in the group. They feel that their voice is heard and that their opinion matters.”

Essential to inclusion and collaboration are the everyday conversations Shea has with his teammates. “There are certain times of the year, from a process standpoint, where we are communicating our strategic and annual operating plans, aligning budgets and that kind of thing. That is the big picture, but truly absorbing the strategy and executing against it requires being present and using the day-to-day interactions as teaching and learning opportunities with the team.”

Learning From the Best

Being an outstanding leader can come more organically when you are learning from the best. One of Shea’s favorite quotes comes from another elite, the late John Wooden: “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Just do the best you can.”

Shea agrees. “If you spend time focused on the positive, moving forward, focused on achieving your goals, it is amazing what can be accomplished,” he said.

He encourages his team members to help each other eliminate excuses and complaints—“clear out the drama”—and instead, problem-solve and discuss how to work together to get things done.

Shea also attributes his success as a leader to what he learned from John Galloway, leader of the sports group during his time at Pepsi. “He taught me about leading with passion, communicating with all levels of the organization, creating a family atmosphere and constantly pushing the limits of what we are doing,” Shea said. “I learned a lot from him.”

And from Sarah Robb O’Hagan and Andrea Fairchild, who were at Nike before becoming President and Vice President, respectively, at Gatorade, he learned to be a good manager of people, create a vision and get his team involved, always keeping the elite athlete as the strategic focus.

Shea’s latest post is serving as Head of Global Markets for Gatorade. As the brand continues to grow outside of the U.S., Shea uses the knowledge he’s acquired over the past six years working on Gatorade to shape how the sports fuel brand comes to life in global markets.

The Payoff

Shea isn’t just a big game quarterback, he goes big every day. He has learned from the best, and it has paid off.

“Peyton Manning has the same level of dedication and focus on the random Tuesday in March as on Super Bowl Sunday. This is true of many elite athletes,” Shea said. “That attention to detail, that work ethic, that loving the process is what allows the greats to shine on the big stage. Beyond athletics to everyday life, it is finding something you are passionate about and putting in the work to help you get there.”

Clearly, Shea and his team are following that example. “We have a fantastic team of motivated, smart people who are passionate about their jobs and our mission,” he said. “That makes work fun and rewarding.” ♦


Mapping One’s Sports Marketing Career

How does one forge a marketing career in the sports industry? Shea says that former athletes have a bit of an advantage because they “understand that sensibility.” But more importantly, he stresses “the need for understanding the business end of sports and having the marketing knowledge to maximize our investments. [The] key message here is that many have a passion for sports, but we are on the business side and I’m looking for people who have a passion for the business side of sports.”

Shea also advises gaining experience in brand marketing outside of sports. “Most of the people in my group have a blended background,” he noted. Essential, though, to getting where Shea is today is to “have an idea where you want to go and plan how you are going to get there.”

Latest posts by Jill Yarberry-Laybourn (see all)

Comments, thoughts, feedback?