Michael Thompson had not worked at Ole Miss but his knowledge of the school and its athletics programs and its people was from a life-long association. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2001 with a business degree and an emphasis in marketing. He had no idea at the time he would return someday to work here.
Thompson grew up in Memphis, with deep Mississippi roots. After graduating from Memphis University School in 1997, Thompson went to SMU for a semester, "but it just wasn't for me," he said. He transferred to Ole Miss in January, 1998, and "loved every single second of it," he added. After Ole Miss, he moved to Atlanta.
"I wanted to go into advertising," he said. One of his roommates then told him of a sports marketing group in Atlanta that was looking for an intern.
"I got that one and fell in love with it," Thompson said of the sports marketing position. "I was like, where has this been all my life? It was awesome."
It was a company called The GEM Group (GEM stands for Global Experiential Marketing).
"It was really about sports sponsorship," Thompson said. "Probably 95 percent of the clients the agency represented were companies, like Coke, Domino's Pizza, UPS, Cadillac, General Motors, The Weather Channel. They had a really nice client roster and they were in a major growth mode.
"I was an intern for a couple of months, and I guess they were happy with what I was doing. They made me an offer to stay (fulltime). Two weeks later I was on the road with The Weather Channel client, just the client and me, and I was managing a five-market tour – Atlanta, New York, Boston, Dallas, and Miami.
"The fact that they grew so fast, I just got so much experience in so little time."
And his new career path had not only begun but was taking off.
"After (The Weather Channel tour), I worked on a Domino's Pizza, official pizza of NASCAR, deal with a big team from the agency," he said. "I worked with Coke as part of that, too."
Thompson was at GEM for almost two years and would have stayed longer. But an opportunity back home changed his direction and ultimately led him to Ole Miss again.
"I was home for the holidays and ended up playing golf with my dad and one of his agency's big clients. It was the CMO of First Tennessee we were playing golf with. He asked my dad something about NASCAR and a sponsorship, and dad was like ‘Michael knows this stuff.'
"So we started talking about this proposal he had gotten, and I was consulting with him on it. We were just on the golf course. I jotted down some thoughts for him on what they should do. I sent it and just forgot about it."
Two months later he was preparing to go to Daytona for the 500. He got a call from his father who said he wanted Michael to come back to Memphis and start a sports marketing group dealing with sponsorships and consulting and other areas of sports.
"The family agency in Memphis was doing what most marketing companies were doing, which was more traditional advertising and PR," Thompson said of Thompson and Company, which his dad started in 1977. "They were doing direct mail at the time, and that has changed a lot. Nobody in Memphis was doing sponsorship consulting for companies and helping them maximize what they spend on sponsorship dollars in sports marketing.
"I was on the phone and I was like ‘that sounds awesome, but how are you going to pay for it?' And he responded, ‘You've already got a client, actually.' Whatever I had sent that day (two months before) helped them out and made an impact. So I got back and talked to my supervisors at GEM, and I had really developed a great relationship with them. I came back to Memphis and started BottleRocket, a sports marketing consulting group, which was within the larger firm."
His work with NASCAR, NBA teams, NHL teams and other entertainment properties continued in Memphis and afforded him many opportunities and lessons he still draws on today.
"I have been to more than 100 NASCAR races. I've only been to one race just to watch, and the rest of them were to work," he said. "We were doing a lot of corporate hospitality, a lot of customer entertainment of our client's customers. Sometimes we'd entertain 1,500 in a weekend. We did pit tours. I even knew how much each tire cost. I've forgotten most of that now."
But what he remembers most from then is what he will be doing for Ole Miss fans now.
"Whether in a big suite or outside the grandstands, we were really trying to deliver an unforgettable experience for our client's customers," Thompson said. "That taught me a lot about how people remember certain things that happen, some of these event experiences and how important your marketing is and how you have to bring that into your overall marketing plan."
Then after four years in the sports marketing division with the family business, Thompson was promoted in the overall agency in Memphis as a strategist for all six of the company's divisions. He also served as president for the agency until August.
"I had no intentions whatsoever of leaving," he said. "We (wife Leslie Ann) have a one-year-old daughter. I was in a family business and loving it. I intended to be there forever, without a doubt."
But Ole Miss was calling.
"It was one of those things that was so perfect sounding, it was almost like it was too good to be true," Thompson said.
"I wouldn't have left for this same job at another university. But when you combine sports, marketing and branding, and my alma mater, and throw in Oxford, it's a no brainer. Even my dad said so. When he took off ‘business-owner' hat and put his ‘dad' hat on, he knew."
Now his work at Ole Miss begins, and it actually already has.
"Here we are sitting on something that evokes an unbelievably wide range of emotions from people. What other brands out there can literally make people cry, make people laugh, make people irate, want to fight? We can cross every single emotion. And once you've tasted it, it's always in you.
"So when you look at the brand through that lens, you are forced to think of Ole Miss as something that is bigger than any sport, than any player, than any coach. And that's the brand we are building. "
Some of his first actions have been gathering information, talking to the fans, and listening.
"We have to think of our fans as our customers," he said. "We have products that we provide to our customers and they consume those products.
"The key to making great tactics work is first of all they have to provide some kind of positive measurable result. But the only time you can produce a positive measurable result is if you knew what you were trying to do in the first place. So what I'm going to try to bring to this role are things that are more measurable. We're not going to just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. No one can afford to do that anymore. When you do that, you have no idea what worked and what didn't. We'll be much more methodical and much more strategic. To do that, we've got to get the objectives and strategies nailed so we can see how we're going to be successful."
But he is confident of the results.
"This approach will work, because tactics will be founded on things that we know have a high probability to work," Thompson said. "Fans will also see more consistency as far as the message, as far as the mark, as far as how we are portraying the brand.
"We want to be tapping into their hearts and minds. I want to know what gets their blood pumping extra fast, because once we know that, we can create things that do that. Sports is one of those things people feel inherently passionate about. It's been fascinating to work on a brand or a category that's already built in to people and how loyal they are. You don't just one year from now become a fan of another school. The experience is just so deeply ingrained. It's at their core. In some ways, it's their identity.
"We simply have to deliver to our customers the best possible experience we can."
Thompson, through his experiences both growing up with and around Ole Miss and in the corporate world, understands the big picture.
"The beauty of all those fans is they all want the same thing. They want Ole Miss to be better. They all want positive things. They all love Ole Miss with an amazing amount of passion and identity.
"We're going to make smart decisions with our money. Everybody wants a good, efficient, well-oiled machine. When you can communicate and be open about what things work and why, we'll get there smarter, more efficiently, and with something that really lasts, that's long-term. We're going to do things that are strategic and that we know will generate growth. If something doesn't work, then we're not going to do it anymore."
So far in the short time he's been here, it's been mostly about football. But Thompson's vision expands beyond that to all sports.
"We're already making progress. While it's just one sport and one experience (so far), I think the Vaught-Hemingway fan experience survey (recently presented to fans) was a critical step in learning not only what our fans value but also giving people an organized and actionable way to give us feedback and tell us about their experiences."
Thompson wants Ole Miss to be a model for the future.
"There are a lot of opportunities to grow and improve. One thing I've tried to say around here is just because other schools do it, that's not good enough. We need to lead and be the best in some areas."
And to build on some things at Ole Miss that are already considered the best.
"When they leave the best tailgate experience in the world, we've got to capitalize on everything that happens there and make it just as good (inside the stadium)," Thompson said.
"The experience of the fan should not peak there (in the Grove). The list of all the assets and tools we have to make it greater - it's long. They're there. Our job is to use them in the best possible way.
"It's just a matter of thinking about what happens inside that stadium from pregame until the end of the game, how do we deliver to that fan the best possible experience, win or lose. This is marketing and communications. We can't actually play or coach. But all the things we can affect, we will affect.
"Our product is so experience-based. Sure, it comes in the form of a paper ticket or at some of our events no ticket at all. But our product is the experience, it's the chills, it's the hair on the back of your neck raising, it's your heart racing. And those experiences are unforgettable.
"We're selling memories. We're selling experiences. We're selling nostalgia. We're selling all kinds of things that are not tickets. And we want to make all those things better. This is exciting for us and we believe it will be for the fans."