The necessity of building and maintaining a strong network is a familiar construct among numerous industries, and is certainly one that is not lost in the gaming community.

However, among the multitude of strategies and expert tutorials in how best to achieve such a goal, is the question of: how much do you know you network? With this in mind, CasinoBeats is aiming to take a look under the hood, if you will, and has tasked the 100 Club in helping out.

Next up is Helen Walton, COO at Glück Games, who elaborates in detail of perceived necessary changes that should occur across the industry, reflecting on annual snapshots as a marker of success, and waking up to the challenges of hostile media coverage.

CasinoBeats: Could you begin by talking us through any past experiences that have been gained outside of the gambling industry? Could your career have taken any different paths?

Helen Walton: I started my career in FMCG and retail working for Unilever, Boots, Frucor and consulting for numerous brands. Along the way I’ve worked for publishers, celebrities and IT services… so it’s definitely been an eclectic career – perhaps the one certainty for me, was that I was always happiest running my own business rather than working in big companies. Finding two business partners with similar ambitions and resources, and complementary skills was the most enormous stroke of luck for me.

Together we planned to build products and create a different type of company – that was the fundamental starting point for us, rather than any long held desire to work in real money gaming! 

If I hadn’t joined forces with Pau and Dan, I think I would be running a creative branding and design agency, perhaps with another long-term collaborator who now heads up G’s art and design department, the talented Chris Wood. 

“…the gambling industry must ensure its views are not insular”

In general, I believe that industry experience is often over-valued, when instead we should be looking at more general skills and experiences – how we connect with customers, how we build better products and optimise relationships with suppliers and wider audiences.

Of course in any industry, relationships and networks are important – but these can be built! The gambling industry seems to struggle more with that concept than most others I have worked in – believing in ‘superstar’ sales or account managers and overpaying as a result.

Even the industry’s heavy reliance on a few tradeshows for much of its B2B sales is a huge sign of this, and suggests it’s not always looking externally for content, tools, lessons, training – and staff. 

This last, I believe is essential – the gambling industry must ensure its views are not insular but instead connect more widely with the societies of which we are part. By welcoming a more diverse group, I think the gambling industry would also help to transform its product innovation, learning from other industries which have faced challenges and drawing on a broader talent-base.

CB: What was it that eventually led you into this industry?

HW: We wanted to build multiplayer games with real money prizes where people paid to enter – and no matter how you slice it, if that’s your commercial model, then the product is gambling.

Paul was the only one of us with any real connection to gambling, so it has been a steep learning curve in many ways and – just like every start-up – we’ve had our fair share of pivots and near disasters.

I sometimes wonder if I could measure our progress in the industry using each ICE as a marker”

It sometimes seems almost miraculous to me that we have survived to become a company of 80+ people serving over 200 different scratch, instant and casino products to operators around the world.

I’m delighted to say, however, that we are now working on exactly the kind of stand-out, game-changing innovation we entered the industry to do! Multiplayer slots… our worst enemy wouldn’t describe us as lacking ambition 😉

CB: How would you assess your progress through the industry to date? Are there any interesting anecdotes that would interest our readers, or any stand out experiences that may not have been possible without the current, or a past, role?

HW: I sometimes wonder if I could measure our progress in the industry using each ICE as a marker. The first one, I remember the three of us simply wandering around it, dazed and confused (I’d never even heard of the show, I think it was almost a coincidence that we turned up at all).

“Well,” I remember Paul saying as we gazed at a camel inexplicably standing in the middle of the atrium, “there’s definitely money here if only we knew how to access it.” The second ICE, we actually had an-almost product and we were showcasing our concept at PitchIce. We won, and met our first two customers off the back of it.

By the following year we had live games serving real customers and we were sharing a stand with a few other start-ups. We organised boys in high heels and skimpy outfits that read “Play differently” to take the mickey out of the industry’s affection for scantily-clad female models and received a mixed response of laughter and annoyance.

The next year we were slightly more grown-up again – still on a shared stand and this time with the Gamevy Grannies – two elderly ladies in basques and tutus with branded zimmer frames – and still taking the mick out of an industry that was about to be publicly shamed for its culture of “booth babes”.

This year’s enforced break was, if I’m honest, entirely welcome”

The next year, we were asked to exhibit on two stands by customers who wanted to showcase our products and partnership. It meant splitting the team between the South and North halls – it may have been a compliment, but it was exhausting and finally convinced me that we needed our own stand.

In 2019, we finally had our own space where I designed and dressed three themed rooms (to the consternation of our long-suffering stand supplier, Expose Designs). There was a real joy in allowing myself to stop being a sales and commercial manager for a bit, and return to creative days as I got busy with a glue gun putting up thousands of snakes and fake leaves in the Snake room and creating an enormous ball pit for the lotto room with huge bouncy yoga balls amongst tens of thousands of smaller balls.

There were few sights more entertaining than the entire senior management team of a very large lottery bouncing up and down, throwing balls at each other and discussing RFP structures. In 2020, with ICE no doubt a super spreader event in its own right, we hosted an hourly quiz to celebrate our launch of Who Wants to be a Millionaire lottery – (yes, we’d actually become grown up enough to start licensing brands).

This year’s enforced break was, if I’m honest, entirely welcome since I was already deep in plans for 2022 and a really thrilling launch… 

Reflecting on that journey, and those annual snapshots that mark our progress, does help me realise just how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved in that time. If we’d known how long it would take and how much work it would be, I don’t know that we’d have had the courage to begin… but then the same could be said of any endeavour in life, from having children to building a house.

Certainly none of it would have been possible without the team I work with – most especially my two business partners – but also the other talented and brave people who had the courage to join us early on and the commitment to stay and help us develop. 

It seems to me that the industry has really woken up to the challenge of hostile media coverage”

CB: What would you say have been the major changes during your time working in the industry? Both for the better and worse.

HW: It seems to me that the industry has really woken up to the challenge of hostile media coverage and is beginning to take a more proactive stance – not only in getting its house in order so as to be much better placed to respond to many entirely just criticisms, but also in order to rebut the unjust or exaggerated ones.

That means an increased professionalisation of several functions, from compliance to marketing that I think is really visible not only in public statements by CEOs but also in the conversations that happen behind closed doors.

I’ve seen a shift away from a blokey, hard-drinking culture where expressing vulnerability or sincerity invited mockery; although there’s further to go, the difference is noticeable. 

Commercially there is a real margin squeeze – only exacerbated by unprecedented M&A activity. Suppliers are beginning to respond to that with their own race to scale. To me, it is really reminiscent of working in retail and FMCG in the early 2000s where supermarkets were struggling to find their positioning beyond the promotion-hunting, deal hungry customer base they had created and a commoditisation of their product and experience that left them struggling to make profit.

Finding a way to segment the customer base, creating unique experiences and carving out differentiated, but not polarised position and finding ways to partner with suppliers rather than reducing the relationship to a zero-sum game – those were the challenges for supermarkets and big FMCG suppliers then.

It will be interesting to see if the gambling market takes similar steps in a mature market like the UK. Interesting, and given how much skin in the game I have, potentially painful!

For years I have been lamenting that state lotteries and casinos (for all they insist on their differences) are both stuck in the innovator’s dilemma – so focused on a slowly shrinking group of exceptionally valuable customers – that they are blind to the potential risk of their base becoming too narrow and at risk from far more disruptive innovation. 

Yet it seems to me that many are aware of this now and are beginning a more rigorous and creative programme of innovation. 

CB: If you could ask the 100 Club any questions, or task them with tackling any issue, what would that be?

HW: A personal question for my own development – how would you go about the high risk strategy of a big bang launch for maximum impact?

A more general industry question – how do we broaden participation so that real money play is seen as part of everyday life, interwoven with society and social culture as a whole.

If you would like to tell your story, or be considered for the CasinoBeats 100 Club, please email us at [email protected]