By: Claire Lingley
With over 25 years of global experience, Donna Wittmann is one of the leading technology executives within the industry. In this week’s edition of “Sponsorship Essentials,” she speaks towards how technology is transforming the ways in which the sports industry operates, and the challenges that come with that. We also touch on how she got to where she is today, an accomplishment we could pick up tips from!
Q: You have had extensive experience throughout the marketing world, working with companies Xerox, Dell, Cisco, Tennis Canada, etc., how did you get into this business?
A: Truthfully, in a bit of a round-about way. I spent most of my early career in the technology sector, in sales and marketing roles, and a lot of partnership and alliance roles as well. When I was at Cisco, I did a sponsorship deal with Tennis Canada and the Rogers Cup to bring technology in to enhance the fan experience within the Rogers Cup. While making that connection, I heard that they had a Chief Marketing Officer Role available at Tennis Canada. Having been a Division I tennis player and a passionate player and fan my whole life, I rang up the CEO and said, “I think that’s my dream job”. After a lengthy interview process, I convinced them that my passion for tennis and my skills that I had as a VP of sales and marketing within the technology sector could easily be transferred to sports, and marrying up the two would be a perfect combination. Luckily, they agreed!
Q: What tips do you have for someone trying to enter this business, specifically as a woman?
A: One of my tips would be that you don’t necessarily have to have gotten into sports right out of school, that skill sets from other industries can be transferrable into sports, so don’t necessarily rule yourself out because you didn’t start in the industry. I’m a big believer that you should follow your passion. So if you’re passionate about the industry that you’re working in, you’re going to be a lot more effective and it’s not going to seem like work to you. So that’s the ultimate thing you should be striving for in your life.
Q: What skills do you value most, and have made you the most valuable to a company?
A: I think that one of the things that has made me the most valuable is that I had the opportunity early on in my career to be in a lot of different functional areas. I had roles in sales, in marketing, in finance, in pricing, in partnerships, in different geographical areas and in different countries, I had roles in the US and Canada, Western Europe. I think that having a broad spectrum of what you have had experienced in your career just lets you look at any situation and be able to have experiences to bring to bear and be able to problem solve more effectively. In terms of advice, especially early in your career, the more breadth of experience you can get, the more different types of experiences you can get, the better off you will be later on in your career.
Q: Where do you see technology going, specifically in the marketing world, any inside scoops on the next way you see technology transforming the marketing world?
A: Digital transformation is happening in every industry, especially from a sports perspective, which is an area I’m passionate about. You can see it happening particularly in digital signage, you can make instant purchases from your phones, all types of things. I think every sport venue is asking the question, “How do I increase revenues via sponsorship? How do I enhance the fan experience?” And technology plays a huge role in answering that. Everybody wants to be more engaged from their phones. While I was at Aussie Open this year, for example, I put up a hashtag one minute with a picture we took of ourselves, and two minutes later it was up on the big board in Rod Laver Arena. It’s just amazing. That obviously enhanced our fan experience. All the people working in sports are trying to leverage technology to make an impact, and technology literally is playing a big role within every business today in terms of companies reinventing themselves to be more competitive, and in figuring out how to reach their customers more intimately. Ultimately, companies want and need to leverage technology for good within their industry.
Q: What sort of challenges do you see coming with that now that it’s a part of every single person’s life so much?
A: Obviously there are privacy concerns and security concerns, and companies are addressing them as they embrace the technology to give their customers a better experience and increase revenue, but those companies don’t necessarily have a choice. It is inevitable. It’s coming whether we like it or not, but there is so much more positive that can come from technology if we embrace it. I think one of the challenges is that people are intimidated by it. They think, “I’m not a technology person, so I don’t understand it” and so they shy away from it, versus, just understanding from a real practical and business sense what it can do for them. And that’s why I am in that business. I want to help people understand what technology is in their own terms for their own industry and what it means for them and what the positive benefits are. You don’t have to understand how it works to understand what it does.
Q: What is the accomplishment you are most proud of to date?
A: Throughout my life, there are three accomplishments that stand out. First, making the Penn State tennis team as a walk-on, second, becoming the youngest female Vice-President at Xerox, and third, making the leap to work in sports as the Chief Marketing Officer at Tennis Canada. All three accomplishments reinforced that I could overcome the odds by taking risks and going after something I really wanted.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A: I think the best piece of advice is to not take no for an answer when you are going for something that you really want. There are always people that are going to tell you no and stand in your way. It is the people that push beyond one or two "No’s" to get a "Yes" for what they want to do that are the ones that are successful.
If you could have dinner with 1 person, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would have dinner with Oprah Winfrey. I think what she has done throughout her life is just remarkable and exceptional, and she always seems to take an “I can do anything” approach to life. She has a super positive attitude and has a way of inspiring others to take that same approach.