Jazz Shaper: Tom Thirlwall

Posted on 27 November 2021

Tom Thirlwall co-founded football media business COPA90 in 2012, after 15 years in the advertising and media industry.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, I’m Elliot Moss and today is our final Jazz Shapers of the 2021 season and we’ve got a very special Encore Edition for you.  That means, along with some particularly fine music, we welcome back a past Business Shaper, none other than Tom Thirwall, Co-Founder and CEO of COPA90, the digital first football media business.  Tom, by the way for those of you who didn’t know, joined us in 2017, a mere four years have passed and very little has happened as you probably agree.  After winning a YouTube tender in 2012 with their aim to produce fan first passion led digital football content that as Tom says, “tell the stories outside of the 90 minutes that make the 90 minutes matter more”, COPA90 was born.  But its true potential became clear at the 2014 Brazil World Cup as Tom says, “the traditional media outlets were in glass boxes and we were on deckchairs in the street parties soaking up and projecting this fan culture.  We looked at each other said ‘this is more than just a YouTube channel’.”  COPA90 now reaches more than 70 million fans around the world monthly, across multiple platforms with premium content series, documentaries and entertainment shows as well and offers as he says, “a full service marketing solution providing fan intelligence for brands” and it’s really good to have you back.

Tom Thirwall

Thank you very much, it is very nice to be back.  As you say nothing much has happened since 2017, err

Elliot Moss

No.  I can’t think of anything.  Tell me about you though and the business, rude health in 2021, post or hopefully pretty much post the effects of this pandemic?

Tom Thirwall

Yeah.

Elliot Moss

Or are you still in recovery?

Tom Thirwall

We, we, we are in good health thankfully.  I think it would be fair to say that from you know, March through to July last year we were in survival mode like a lot of companies but with elite sport football cancelled during that period and you know, everyone confined to their homes and I don’t need to go over kind of what happened to us and the world but you know, it was, it was a particularly precarious position that we found ourselves in particularly because of the uncertainty you know, no one knew you know, when life was going to kind of return to something that resembles normality and here we are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen months later and it hasn’t in large parts of the world so we are thankful, we took a lot of measures during that time to make sure that when football returned we were in the best possible shape to sort of capitalise on that.  I think the other thing that we did during that time was, it was the first time since the founding of COPA90 that we actually had, as I described, the aeroplane was in the hanger, we weren’t flying at you know, 300 miles an hour and making adjustments and trying to deliver tournaments and getting ready for seasons ahead, we, we were genuinely on the ground like so many people and we made a promise to ourselves that when football returned, when we were sort of able to get back on our feet that, that we would re-found the business in some ways and so we made a lot of changes to make sure that that happened and jettisoned things that weren’t working or we didn’t enjoy doing and that I would say is the main reason that we are in such good health as we lie today.  We took a lot of difficult decisions and then kind of moved the business into a kind of new gear, August/September last year and then we’ve benefitted from that and we become a better business.

Elliot Moss

When you set the business up back in 2012 and that was actually the year that Jazz Shapers was founded as well, not quite as momentous.

Tom Thirwall

No coincidence.

Elliot Moss

No coincidence, Tom, great things happened in 2012 including the Olympics and all sorts.  If you cast your mind back and I want to talk about what you jettisoned and how you, as you said, re-founded it in a way, you kind of thought ‘hold on a minute what’s the go forward’.  Back in 2012 what were the one or two things that tipped you over the edge into creating COPA90 – for those people that don’t know what it is, just in your own words describe as you describe it to people what it’s about.

Tom Thirwall

We’re a fan first football business and what that means is that we concentrate far more on the stories outside of the 90 minutes, we concentrate on the culture of the game and I suppose the, the kind of single thing that was there when we founded it, that is still there today which is football is a great unifier, I mean sport is generally a brilliant unifier but football in particular you know, it’s watched, enjoyed, loved, supported in more countries than any other sport.  With that comes its problems and its issues and what we are focussed on is how you use football to… for where football can be for, for good and where football can unite and that has remained in place since October 2012 when we put our first film out to you know, the film that we put out at the weekend about Scottish football and the impact that Scottish football has had on the rest of the world, for example, football has not travelled to… wouldn’t have travelled to the four corners of the world if it wasn’t for Scotland and Scottish people taking it to countries like Brazil and South America and its stuff like that that shows the similarities between us, that shows how you know, we are united by this game and in trying to turn that into how we can then make the game better and…

Elliot Moss

And of course, I am just going to cut across you for moment because we are going to get some more music but of course make that a commercial proposition as well.

Tom Thirwall

That’s right.

Elliot Moss

Which we are going to hear all about very shortly. 

The commercial side of this Tom, so what you’ve done over the years as I look at it is you’ve created incredible content which is real, which has soul to it, which as you said had some kind of, it’s positive as positive… gives positive vibes off and is a good thing but of course you are running a business at the end of the day you are doing that.  Tell me how you help brands get into this space because I imagine, is the model generally predicated on either selling information to brands or allowing them to advertise on the platform or a bit of both.

Tom Thirwall

Yeah less, less to do with advertising on the platform, we are not really a publishing model.

Elliot Moss

Okay.

Tom Thirwall

What we do with brands is the reason why NEA or a Pepsi or a Budweiser come to us is because we are steeped in knowledge and understanding and insight of football fans because we talk to them, engage them, tell stories to and with them every day of the year and have done since the launch of the business and because of that, these brands come to us because we understand the culture of the game and if they are brands like the ones I have listed that are big sponsors in football, are you know, selling products to football fans, wanting to reach football fans there is no more credible or authentic way of doing that I believe than through COPA90 and through the stories that we tell.  It is not a cut and paste solution for one brand for the other.  We look very hard at what a brand is looking to achieve in the game and then we deliver insightful data driven but culture driven ideas and solutions to them which invariably involves you know, filmed content because we are known for our storytelling through film and that is why they come to us and why we have such a proud record with some of the biggest brands in the world at delivering that but its emphatically not a publisher model which is a you know, a big point of difference.

Elliot Moss

Yeah, and in terms of just you and coming to this and COPA90 wasn’t your first business that you set up, you’ve done others.  Your background is in kind of marketing and advertising and media as well.  The team that you have created because the business has got much bigger now, how many people now work for you across… there’s three… is it three different locations?  Is that right?

Tom Thirwall

No we are in a single location in London now.

Elliot Moss

Okay.

Tom Thirwall

I think that um, you know life coming into the pandemic across the pandemic meant it made no sense to have offices in New York and LA err, we were running everything from London so, so we’ve, we’ve really sort of, sort of compacted the business um, around kind of London and what we do there.  We rely far more now on our creator network and our partner network around the world rather than having physical presence in cities and countries, it’s…

Elliot Moss

There’s thousands of them.

Tom Thirwall

Yeah we’ve got three and a half thousand err, at least and that’s you know, I mentioned it earlier in terms of the things that we sought to change coming out of the kind of main lockdown last summer which was, we had this incredible creative network around the world and we weren’t able to fly therefore our production model shifted from 90% of our content being made in-house to now 95% of our content being brought to us and curated and funded by our creator network around the world.

Elliot Moss

You, you, your sort of like a block chain for creativity, it’s a distributed ledger of creatives err, Tom, a ride around the world.  And I want to talk about crypto currency as well because I think you’ve got ahead of crypto haven’t you?

Tom Thirwall

That’s right.

Elliot Moss

Which we are going to talk about as well.  There’s lots to talk about with Tom, he’ll be back in a couple of minutes but right now, we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Martha Averley and Matt Robinson talk about Equity, Diversity and Inclusion with regards to recruitment and how employers can recruit in a fait but diverse way.

All our former Business Shapers await you on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker why not ask it to play Jazz Shapers and it should oblige with a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today’s guest, he’s my last in the current series in 2021, it’s Tom Thirwall.  He was last with me in 2017.  He is the Co-Founder and CEO of COPA90, the digital first football media business um, and we’ve been talking about all sorts of things.  You mentioned the pandemic and what it meant in terms of jettisoning bits of the business that you know, weren’t working as well.  How did you personally feel challenged as the leader of this business?  I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this and you talked about ambiguity and not really knowing when it’s going to come back.

Tom Thirwall

Yeah.

Elliot Moss

You talked about yet having to make tough decisions, you talked about you know, the plane being in the hangar for the first time.  Where did that leave you emotionally?

Tom Thirwall

Umm, I think from an emotional perspective it, it sort of left you feeling very vulnerable actually uh because you, I, I talk about myself in the first person, I felt that I should be in a position to give people certainty, security and I couldn’t do that, particularly April, May, June time of last year because no one knew where any of this was going or whether football would return or what was going to happen with the economy or jobs.  There was talk about being the next great depression and it really made you go back to first principals.  It was a survivalist mentality.  Whether that’s with family and looking after family and friends and you know, there was a real time where I think the world sort of turned in on itself and was looking very much at, at the basics of kind of life really and appreciating the basics of life you know, clapping healthcare workers and saying thank you to you know, essential workers whether they were picking up your bins or serving food or what have you, we, we really returned to a I think, a very basic perspective on life and so I suppose vulnerability was the overriding feeling during that time because you do feel very responsible for the people that you employ, the culture and the community of the business that we’ve built and all of that was being challenged so, so yeah it was a very difficult time from that perspective.

Elliot Moss

It sounds like you’ve obviously had time to reflect personally and also professionally.  Do you think you are a better leader of a business now than you were before this?

Tom Thirwall

I think that is definitely for others to judge. What I will say is that when we were considering you know, during that sort of planes in the hangar perspective, one of the things that I was absolutely certain of that I wanted the business to be a better business moving forward and for that to happen it needed to be more robust so we concentrated on again, first principles of building a really good solid profitable and sustainable business and then the other thing that I wanted to be, I wanted COPA90 to be a sort of better representation of what football can become so I wanted to build a more diverse business, I wanted to build a more inclusive business, I wanted to build a business that entrusted the future of what we were doing with young creators and different voices and diverse voices around the world and all of that combined to produce a new model for the business and this re-founding of the business that, that we did that led us to come out of August, September time once football had returned and you know, lockdown had loosened, I think we came back as a better version of COPA90.  Whether that means that I am a better version or a better leader, as I say, I will leave that for others to judge but we are certainly a better business.

Elliot Moss

You talked about vulnerability and it got me thinking about what you’ve also been trying to do or you are doing rather with regard to supporting men’s mental health.  You’ve got a relationship with MIND; tell me a bit about that, has that come through what you’ve been feeling or has it come through the larger zeitgeist of men are now talking more about mental health and I am not saying that you know, it’s any more important, definitely isn’t more important than women’s mental health but it’s a thing now that historically men have not talked about how they are feeling.  Where’s that initiative come from?

Tom Thirwall

I think it, as always, it comes from all directions so yes there is a without a doubt as you call it, a kind of zeitgeist, a sort of movement to get men talking more I think. Suicide is highest amongst sort of men in their kind of forties, I think teenage depression more broadly both boys and girls is one of the most sort of you know, depressing sort of features of this new social era so we, alongside a number of other initiatives I have to say in the mental health space, you know wanted to make a film with MIND.  I think mental health during lockdown was obviously concerns around that and talking about that ramped up massively during that period and so we wanted to kind of tell a story through the lens of football and I think there was in some ways like looking at empty football stadiums whilst teams were playing was, yes it was great to see football back but there was something quite soulless and depressing in a way that they were playing in front of empty stadiums and so we made that film with MIND because we thought that there was… that was the time to tell that story.  Historically we are also using our creators and our creator network, we told a story about how kind of teen depression was being addressed through the lens of football in the Arctic Circle for example and how an annual football tournament brings teenagers together in that part of the world that just didn’t exist until that tournament was organised and the benefits of that.  So I think we are always trying to find stories that have massive human interest, massive cultural interest but ultimately kind of football is the touch point and over the history of COPA90 whether that was organising a, a football tournament in the jungle refugee camp to try and help capture the story and the plight of refugees through the lens of football, to you know, the mental health films that I have… you were just asking me about, that is at its very heart what I believe COPA90 does best and why it makes us different from the normal media coverage of who’s the best footballer in the world and you know, who’s going to win at the weekend type narrative which is well served and there is nothing wrong with that, it’s just not the place that we chose to play.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for our final chat with my guest today, Tom Thirwall, for what will be the last few minutes of Jazz Shapers in 2021 and who better to spend it with than Tom.  We’ve also got some brilliant up on your feet music from Ann Peebles, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Tom Thirwall is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes in 2021, it’s not quite New Year’s Eve but it might be soon.  I love the fact that you have doubled down and focussed on values and on what matters to the human condition and how sport can do that and bring it forward.  What’s going to happen next Tom, where does this… where does your business go and how do you retain the soul of it because you know, the football industry around you has sort of gone on and off course a little bit with the it didn’t happen European Super League, with all sorts of stuff around money and with issues in the game and indeed in sport.  What’s going to be your purpose and your businesses purpose in the next few years?

Tom Thirwall

Our purpose is to continue if not double down on helping football find its soul err, in a line and what I mean by this is that I mentioned football’s ability to kind of unite and the universal language that is football but we’ve also seen the ugly side of football this year you know, an England football team that reached a final suddenly a group of people with you know, racism coursing through their veins then turned on the three black footballers for missing their penalties.  We saw greed on an epic organised and then very quickly vanished scale you know come into the game around the European Super League and fans voices were, were heard.  We also saw the storming of the Wembley barricades by a number of fans during the Euros so it’s, it’s wrong to think that football doesn’t have its problems and doesn’t reflect society kind of more broadly.  If we can do our bit to help football find its soul, whether that is trying to change Governmental kind of policy and there is a review of football that we have stuck our nose into that’s going on at the moment with the Tracey Crouch led review of the game.  There is women’s Euro’s next summer on home soil and working with partners to make sure that that doesn’t turn into a sort of festival of misogyny and women’s footballers seen as you know, this great new soulful iteration and, and extension of the game that people should sort of joyfully be a part of rather than the cynicism that very often surrounds conversations of, of women’s football have to say with a certain demographic with a certain group of people with a certain viewpoint.  So those are the things we are targeting you know, looking at where football can be better and where football influences wider society to kind of target those as areas that COPA90 wants to kind of live, grow and for the betterment of the game.

Elliot Moss

That must be right and thank you for coming in again, four years later.

Tom Thirwall

That’s my pleasure.

Elliot Moss

For sharing where you are at and it feels like um, even though stuff has happened, it feels like you have more than come out the other side, it feels like actually there’s much more focus and, and as you’ve rightly said, much more purpose to the business and that’s brilliant.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Tom Thirwall

So my song choice is David Bowie, Young Americans, David would be celebrating his seventy fifth birthday in January, I am a big fan, I think some of his words in his music are never more relevant than they are today so yeah, I wanted to bring that one in for the Jazz FM listeners to enjoy.

Elliot Moss

That was Young Americans from David Bowie, the song choice of my Jazz Shapers Encore special guest today, Tom Thirwall.  He talked about re-founding the business and going back to first principles when Covid struck.  He talked about embracing being vulnerable and how that’s what it was like as a leader and really importantly the go forward and where this all took him was to redefining and sharpening their purpose around helping football find its soul.  Brilliant stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, be well, relax, keep healthy and we will see you in the New Year.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Starting from just a YouTube channel, COPA90 launched with a simple promise: “tell the stories outside the 90 minutes that make the 90 minutes matter more.” It is now a multi-award winning media business and content brand with millions of fans around the world.

While TV coverage is obsessed with the game on the pitch, COPA90 turns the cameras on the fans. A football media business, COPA90 makes standout original content told by creators around the world, telling their stories and spreading the word about the unique culture that makes football such a universal sport. Working with the biggest brands in the game such as Nike, EA, Pepsi, Adidas and Budweiser, COPA90 has been recognised in The Sunday Times Tech Track and Fast Company Most Innovative companies lists in 2019 and 2020, and won awards from Webbys, Broadcast and the Sport Industry Awards, to a recent Cannes Lions win for their Messi 644 campaign with Budweiser. Tom lives near London with his wife Kirsty and three children.

Highlights

We made a promise to ourselves that when football returned and we were able to get back on our feet that we would re-found the business in some ways… [we] jettisoned things that weren’t working or we didn’t enjoy doing. 

We’re a fan-first football business and what that means is that we concentrate far more on the stories outside of the 90 minutes, we concentrate on the culture of the game. 

Football is a great unifier – it’s watched, enjoyed, loved, supported in more countries than any other sport. 

We are steeped in knowledge and understanding and insight of football fans because we talk to them, engage them, tell stories to and with them every day of the year and have done since the launch of the business. 

Brands come to us because we understand the culture of the game. We look very hard at what a brand is looking to achieve in the game and then we deliver insightful data-driven but also culture-driven ideas and solutions. 

I wanted the business to be a better business moving forward and for that to happen it needed to be more robust, so we concentrated on first principles of building a profitable and sustainable business. 

I wanted COPA90 to be a better representation of what football can become, so I wanted to build a more inclusive business that entrusted the future of what we were doing with young creators and diverse voices around the world. 

I think we are always trying to find stories that have massive human interest and cultural interest.  

Our purpose is to continue, if not double down on, helping football find its soul.  

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