THEN and NOW: Shona ODonnell

The gambling industry has come a long way in recent years and we take a moment to interview some of the iconic figures that have built successful careers in this space as experts in their field. 

This week as part of our THEN and NOW series, we spoke with Shona ODonnell, Head of Strategic Events at Better Collective. With over a decade of experience in the iGaming sector, much of that focused on the affiliate market, Shona has been responsible for the creation and development of some of the industry’s biggest events.

1) You’ve been to pretty much every event that’s ever been run in the iGaming affiliate industry. Tell us what you remember from the early days and how the industry and events have changed since then?

I have been to a lot of events. I remember when I joined iGaming Business it was just a few weeks out from LAC so I really was dropped in at the deep end. It was quite overwhelming and there were moments when I wondered what I’d signed up for. It was an industry that was completely new to me so I had to learn fast but I loved that.

Because of my role in the events I was lucky that I got to meet, well everyone really, old and new.  I’ve made some amazing friends in the affiliate space – on the whole it’s full of really brilliant people. I love the willingness to share ideas and best practice, although I would say that is changing as the industry matures. On the flip side as we see the formation of the Responsible Affiliates in iGaming (RAiG) trade body it might encourage more collaboration for the good of the industry.

Both the industry and the events have grown up in the last ten years, we’ve seen lots of consolidation particularly in the affiliate space with both affiliates and operators. We’ve also had some consolidation in the events space, with Clarion and iGB and I fully expect there will be more to come.

What is great is that there are still new entrants in both markets, SBC events and SiGMA didn’t exist ten years ago, and I think it’s important to have diversity in the market, it fosters innovation and stops complacency. No one wants to live in a world that’s completely homogeneous.

2) The affiliate industry has come a long way since then – what are some of the key changes you’ve noticed over your career in this space?

I think the main change has been that affiliate marketing has moved into the mainstream and has cleaned up its imagine. In the last couple of years in particular legislation changes have caused a big shake up in the industry and operators are now more focused on long-term value-based partnerships rather than quick wins. Affiliates are now rightly seen as legitimate businesses – when I started there was still a lot of questionable practices and companies in the industry.

There has been considerable consolidation which has in some cases changed the power balance again back in favour of affiliates. We might well see more of this as we see advertising bans come into place across Europe and operators look to find new customers outside of mainstream media. 

It’s definitely an industry that likes to have fun, but these days is more about business strategy, acquisition models, entry to new markets and M&A than parties.

3) What are some of the most memorable events you attended – and why did they stand out?

My first LAC, because it was my first, and I guess it’s the reason I’m here today. When I was running the events for iGaming Business, I loved meeting people that were experiencing their first event, that’s a magical thing. Nothing beats face to face, a physical handshake or a hug, seeing a new city with old friends, new friends, raising a glass together. Actually, I loved my first event – I stayed an extra night and I live in London!

The first iGaming Super Show in 2010, (now iGB Live!), because it was really pretty awful.  But I learnt A LOT from that show, and I held my hands up to all the things we got wrong, and I made sure we didn’t do them again. It also taught me the true value of our connection to the industry, we were a part of it, not looking in, and the industry stayed with us, forgave us our mistakes and kept supporting us. 

And so, I would have to say the iGaming Super Show 2017 was really memorable, because that was the year (seven years on that) it all worked. It just clicked. I remember on the afternoon of day one, looking around and thinking, I did this, we did this, finally we’ve nailed it.  

I have to say my first show in Vegas, because it’s Vegas and I (still) couldn’t believe that this was work.  That was back in 2012 when iGB were busy disrupting the events market. We ran it with Sue Schneider amongst others and it was a great opportunity to learn about the US market from one of the most respected people in the industry. Sue created some amazing events and I am grateful to her for laying a trail and her ongoing friendship.

Rasmus Sojmark and I also had a lot of fun running social events bringing the industry together. The industry was very different back then. Every event is memorable in one way or another because you are always learning, it’s never the same. Never!

4) Events are an important part of affiliate culture – what do you think makes a good one , and why should affiliates attend these?

There are lots of tangible elements that make a good event but it’s when they all come together that you get that intangible magic. That’s what everyone running events is striving for, that magic, the buzz in the air when you walk in.

For me LAC 2019, my last event for iGB Affiliate felt like this – the atmosphere was electric, it was good to go out on a high, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Some of the most important tangibles include having the right people in the room and creating an environment where it’s easy to network and do business. That means helping people to connect before, during and after the event.

I love helping people to make those connections. As an organiser you have to respect the value of people’s time and the cost to attend an event, take on every bit of feedback, and use it to constantly grow and develop your events.

As with all of life, communication is critical, make information easy to find and understand, present it in many ways, in many places. We all consume differently.

Make it fun, yes it should be educational but create some memorable moments that keep people talking long after they have gone home. This could be an amazing venue for a party, random acts of kindness or an unforgettable experience.

Affiliates should attend events because they will enhance their business opportunities significantly. Events give them an opportunity to learn new skills and hear from industry leaders, to meet face to face with business partners, to celebrate the industry and hopefully have some fun in a new city.

With so many events available it’s never been more important to make sure that you get what you need from your time out of the office.

5) What three things are you looking forward to about the affiliate industry and what positive change can you see emerging on the back of diversity and inclusion?

Since I joined the industry, I have seen a significant change in the number of women represented and that’s really encouraging, we definitely have a way to go on diversity across the sector.

For me personally I am really looking forward to being part of a well-respected business within the industry and seeing the industry from another view point. I am excited to join a culture where everyone is trusted, respected and valued for what they bring to the team. I’m interested to see what happens in the USA as we have just made a great acquisition (RotoGrinders Network) in that market and I am especially interested in South America, Brazil in particular. 

Video is seeing a phenomenal increase, with viewing now accounting for a third of all time spent on the internet. It’ll be interesting to see how affiliates and operators make the most of this as it represents a great opportunity especially for those who can produce great content.

I am excited to continue to play a part in championing an industry I’ve been proud to be a part of for many years.

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