Posted on: 4/13/2023

Total Guardiola: Translating a Football Philosophy into a Commercial Culture


This week coach Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City comprehensively dismantled Germany’s Bayern Munich 3-0 in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, a result which confirmed the team as one of the favourites to lift this year’s trophy and cemented the club’s status as a European football superpower. It is not hyperbole to say that Pep Guardiola has transformed the nature of football in the English Premier League and across Europe. Since joining Manchester City, he has introduced a brand of fluent, skillful, and high energy football that has won both trophies and admirers aplenty across the world.

Of course, this has not happened by accident. Guardiola has developed over many years a “philosophy” of football which he refined and honed over time spent at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. That philosophy can only be translated on the pitch by finding and attracting footballers who have the technique, athleticism, and desire to be able to turn the theory into practice. And then by many hours of behind-the-scenes hard work, drills, and practice so that the formations, processes, actions, and reactions become second nature to the team.

Given the success of Guardiola’s approach on the pitch it begs the question of whether it might be translated into an equally formidable strategy and culture off the pitch? For example, how might the Manchester City commercial team operate if it embraced the “Guardiola Way”, which is rooted in the following four “Pillars”:

1)        Attacking Football

2)        Effective Ball Possession

3)        High Defensive Line

4)        Pressure to Recover

How might the pillars of that philosophy be turned into actionable business strategies, and in turn, begin to develop a common language and culture that stretches across the entire organisation? Taking each one in turn:


1) Attacking Football = Relentless Pursuit of our Chosen Targets

Don’t adopt a scattergun approach, chasing after any potential client that may have a sponsorship or communications budget. Rather, develop a deep understanding of the City Football Group (CFG) and Manchester City business strategy, brand vision, and organisational values. Armed with that knowledge then go through a rigorous analytical approach to identify those companies that have the potential to be true long-term Partners for CFG. Partners whose business strategies and consumers are complementary. Partners with whom experiences, services, and products could be co-created that will generate sustainable and measurable value and IP for both parties. And Partners who authentically share CFG values.

Once targets are selected, then commit to doing whatever it takes to bring them on board. To borrow terminology from basketball, adopt a “full court press”, identifying all key stakeholders and decision makers within the company. Then “man mark” them, being creative about how any relevant connection might be used to begin to build a relationship. Assets in this regard might include executives at CFG companies, Man City, external partners such as Silver Lake, Endeavor, Sapphire Sport, and the CFG supplier base. Find a way in to nurture the relationship. Build shared understanding. And create ideas, experiences, and value together.


2) Effective Ball Possession = Treasured Client Relationships

There can be a natural tendency in the sales arena to focus on new clients, which can be to the detriment of existing partner relationships. This is often a mistake. With existing partners, the process has already begun to build the shared understanding and trust which is fundamental to the creation of new ideas – which in turn leads to new revenue streams.

It is, of course, critical to have a strong pipeline of potential new clients and active conversations with them. However, this shouldn’t be at the expense of making sure that existing partners feel valued and important. Spend at least as much time speaking with them and creating new ideas as with any new business prospect.

This also makes good business sense – if you never lose a client, then any new business is always incremental. Whereas lost client revenues always leave a hole to fill to get back to the previous position. Just like a lost ball in midfield!


3) High Defensive Line = Culture of Innovation

A high defensive line is designed to keep the pressure on the opposition, to quickly regain the ball and, with it, the attacking initiative. It is not without risk – it can leave gaps in defense for the opposition to exploit. However, the alternative is to sit back and wait for the opponents to make their move and then react to it.

In today’s business environment, such a reactive strategy would be doomed to failure. Technology and culture are moving too quickly. The commercial equivalent of the “high press” is to have a constant stream of innovative thinking and new ideas – to overwhelm the opposition, not with scale of resources, but with agility, creativity, and speed of execution.


4) Pressure to Recover = Resilience in Adversity

At some point, any organisation will encounter challenging times. The football team may lose a string of matches. The commercial group may lose key clients. These events are inevitable. How the team reacts is critical.

A mediocre commercial team will resort to the blame game – “it’s the market, the client, colleague X messed up, our competitors have got more resources…….”. Essentially the problems are all “out there”.

The high-performance team will take ownership of the situation and their responsibility in creating it, and then commit to changing it. One mantra I find invaluable in this context is, There is no such thing as failure, only feedback”. This immediately gets us out of the defensive mindset of trying to justify why we have “failed” and into a much more creative, generative frame of mind.

From this mindset, we can recognize that we are in a situation we cannot reverse, and we can ask the productive questions: What can we learn from this situation? What do we need to do differently next time? Are there certain skills or capabilities that we lack in the group? How can we invest in them? Are there savings we can make elsewhere to fund this? Who else is world class in this area? What can we learn from them? Who can we partner with?

This approach does not imply that poor performance is simply accepted. Responsibility and accountability are always a factor in ongoing performance measurement, and this pillar sets out the type of mental approach that will deliver swift recovery from setbacks rather than allowing negativity to fester.

The above is not the “right” answer, since no such answer exists. The power of this approach would lie in bringing the commercial team together in conversation with different parts of the larger organisation to explore and develop shared understanding and values. In doing so, the commercial team then creates a common philosophy that they own and can then begin the process of developing the values, capabilities, skills, systems, and metrics that can turn that philosophy into winning performance in the market.


Jonathan Davies

Partner, Media and Entertainment