Outgoing RGA chief executive Clive Hawkswood admits the industry's reputation is “at rock bottom” but says social responsibility measures could improve public perception.
The impending departure of Remote Gambling Association (RGA) chief executive Clive Hawkswood marks a major change for the industry body. After all, Hawkswood is all it has known.
He was previously secretary general of the Association of Remote Gambling Operators (ARGO) for a year, before it merged with the Interactive Gaming, Gambling and Betting Association (IGGBA) in 2005 to form the RGA.
Despite the current turmoil in the industry, “it still feels like the right time”, to step down, says Hawkswood. First announced in September, he will vacate the hot seat at the end of January.
The magnitude of the change facing the RGA is reflected in the fact that it isn’t even attempting to replace him directly. Wes Himes, previously the RGA’s EU advisor and an experienced public policy professional, will join in February 2019 as interim CEO, but the ultimate goal is to restructure the association to have the permanent successor working under a chairman.
It’s a brave new world for the RGA, but then again, it’s a brave new industry. Hawkswood recalls the early days of ARGO and the RGA, when operators were exploring WAP browsers and betting via televisions in a UK-centric industry. It’s unrecognisable from today’s international, billion-dollar, tech-savvy sector.
Leaving on a low ebb
However, Hawkswood’s departure coincides with what is arguably the most fraught period the igaming industry has faced in its short life. A series of fines and penalties levied on operators for social responsibility failings, coupled with an increasingly negative public perception, leaves the igaming industry at a low ebb.
“In terms of public and political perception, we are at rock bottom,” Hawkswood says. “The wiser heads in the industry are aware that this can’t be solved overnight, but that a lot of work will be needed to lift it off the bottom.
“To be honest we’ve not always done ourselves many favours,” he continues. “The Gambling Commission is issuing larger and larger fines, which are being picked up by the mainstream press, so I’m not surprised that more and more people think it’s a damaged industry.”
The RGA has long advocated for more social responsibility controls, and was a driving force behind the recent whistle to whistle ban on betting ads being shown around live sport. Hawkswood adds that work is being done behind the scenes across almost all operators to refine and improve social responsibility and player protection controls.
Despite this, he admits that a company that does 99% of things right will still be pilloried over the 1% it gets wrong – something he feels some in the sector are only just coming to realise.
“Perhaps there’s been a degree of short-term thinking, as some people in the industry are surprised that it’s not a rational debate,” he says. “But it never has been with gambling. Pretty much everyone [in the industry] is coming to realise that whether that’s fair or not, that’s the world we’re in.”
Rather than railing against perceived unfairness, Hawkswood argues that gambling will always have certain connotations for some. Others will simply never accept it as a legitimate form of entertainment. Even those who do broadly support the industry can be swayed.
“Getting into a rational debate is difficult,” he says. “Politicians don’t care what you’re doing, what tax you’re paying, they won’t care about that if they have a problem gambler put in front of them. Whatever we do won’t carry the same weight as someone suffering the worst of gambling.
“Everyone who works in the industry should make sure to interact with problem gamblers at least once,” he adds.
However, Hawkswood is not saying the industry will always be working at a disadvantage. Far from it. Rather, he says it’s a case of making sure that all involved do their utmost to uphold the highest possible standards of consumer protection. By doing so, the industry’s critics will not have a stick to beat it with.
'Pendulum will swing back'
Even at a time when the sector’s reputation is in the doldrums, he believes it can be restored. “The pendulum has swung away from us, but it will swing back,” he says.
To swing public opinion back in favour, he says substantive changes are necessary. Under his guidance these are already underway, with the so-called whistle to whistle ban on betting adverts to be introduced ahead of the 2019-20 football season. This, he says, will reduce the “crush” of betting ads around live football in particular, which he concedes does leave people with a feeling of being “bombarded”.
However, the announcement has quickly been followed by calls from politicians, and even the chief executive of UK broadcaster Sky, for action against online advertising.
While Hawkswood declines to address the specific accusations levelled by Sky, he says: “It was always going to be a hard pill to swallow for the broadcasters, as they will be hit, almost as much as the industry will.
“One of their biggest gripes was why we were only addressing television, and not all forms of advertising, but we’ll have to see what the impact of [the whistle to whistle ban] will be. If every operator shifts its spend online, then we’ll need to take action there.”
This, he hastens to add, is not about closing off every viable marketing channel for operators. It’s a case of taking action before action is taken on its behalf.
“The sheer number of parliamentary questions about gambling is off the scale, and if this continues it’ll reach a point where the government finds it easier to ban gambling,” he says. “It’s a case of where you draw the line.
“The evidence of the negative impact of advertising is pretty weak. We’ve tried to have rational discussions but we’re facing a lot of anti-industry sentiment, so we have to look at it from that angle,” he explains. “By taking action we are demonstrating that we need to get ahead of the game.”
He points to the fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT) debate, which has prompted criticism of gaming executives for failing to act, ultimately leading to maximum stakes being slashed to £2, and putting thousands of jobs at risk. With the TV ad ban, he says, the industry is not going to risk finding itself in the same position.
Hawkswood argues that such measures are necessary, with public perception so low. “For all sorts of reasons, the industry should be proud of itself,” he says. “Yet people are almost embarrassed to talk about the sector and what a success it’s been. We need to aim to get to a place where we can be recognised as a success story.”
But he admits this point is a long way off: “You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and there have been too many failings for the sector to say whatever latest incident is just a one-off,” Hawkswood continues. “At the time when the spotlight was really coming on us there have been some major failings. When we’re trying to convince politicians and the Gambling Commission that we’re a responsible industry they can cite a long list of incidents that suggests we are not.”
This means that further changes are afoot. While the TV ad ban is undoubtedly the headline move, it is just one of many, with initiatives looking at affordability and the use of analytics being worked on behind the scenes. When these initiatives come together, he says, the sector will be in a substantially better position.
But even then, more work is needed. Hawkswood picks out a need for “fresh blood” as especially pressing.
“We have outgrown our talent pool,” he says of the sector. “And we did quite a while back. We need people from outside the industry coming in, but irrespective of their backgrounds or qualities, that’s going to be a steep learning curve.
“Unless you’ve been exposed to what working for a gambling company is like, it’ll take a lot of getting used to,” he continues. “It’s a hard culture to acclimatise to, as it’s not quite like anything else; people can make comparisons with the alcohol or financial services sectors, but none are quite the same.”
It’s something of a bittersweet departure. Since 2004, the industry has grown from a largely unregulated sector struggling to get away from betting shops to a tech-savvy field that has consistently innovated in its marketing. But while growth in terms of revenue may still be on the up, public perception has plummeted. His replacement has a tricky job on their hands.