Iulia Niculae-Cuciurean (FRF) – The story of the woman managing the brand of a male-dominated industry

Newsroom 30/03/2018 | 11:10

With more than seven years’ worth of experience in advertising and communication, in agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi, Cohn and Jansen JWT and fundraiser for “Let’s Do It Romania”, Iulia Niculae – Cuciurean became marketing manager for the Romanian Football Federation in 2016. 

She recently graduated from the prestigious Football Management Course of the University of Lausanne and is also the president of IAA Young Professionals the Romanian Chapter. The marketing manager talked exclusively with Business Review about her career path and the latest accomplishments, but also about the women’s power in the Romanian Football Federation and how the new perspective can change the game.

By Romanita Oprea

What determined you to choose this professional path? Have you always known you want to work in the communication industry?

When I was 13 years old, I had the first insights that I would like to work in this industry. At that time, my school colleagues elected me to represent them in the Children Council for a 2 years mandate. This was a project initiated by Master Forum and such children councils were established all around Romania and Europe. There, I discovered my passions for volunteering, political science and communication. And these passions followed me through my career. When I was 20, I decided to study Political Science at the University and, in parallel, I was working in advertising and volunteering for NGOs such as Advice Students or IAA YP.

After I graduated the master in European Studies, I chose to focus on political science. Thus, I quit my job in the agency and I obtained an internship at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, in the public diplomacy division. Public diplomacy was the perfect combination between political science and marcomm practices. Unfortunately, at that moment, public diplomacy was a relatively new subject in Romania and often it was reduced to institutional communication, so I decided to dedicate myself to marcomm and returned to the private sector.

What do you consider that have been the most important steps and decisions you took in your career so far and why?

An important decision for my career was to associate myself and invest my time and energy in people, projects or companies I believed in. Because I believe in the DOER culture, I joined in 2010 the initiators of Let’s Do It, Romania! That was a time when people told us we were crazy to believe we could manage to bring Romanians out of their houses for a National Cleanup Day. Since then, 1.400.000 Romanians participated at the cleanup day, which makes this the largest volunteers’ movement in the country.

Because I believe in continuous education, I am part of the IAA Young Professionals for 10 years now, doing various projects for students and people who work in marcomm, contributing to the growth of this industry. Our efforts were recognized internationally, the Romanian YP chapter was awarded in 2016 as the most active and creative in the world.

Because I believe that sport can bring a real change in people’s lives, health and in their communities, I joined the Romanian Football Federation (FRF). I am glad I managed to put my fingerprint on this domain and had a national impact by launching the identities for the National Team, Romanian Cup, 2nd and 3rd Leagues, develop scouting programs and a strategy for women’s football and also organizing the 2016 EURO campaign that included the 1st Fan Walk in the history of the National Team supporters.

Believing and being aligned with your values gives you a different drive and involvement that makes you move things further. From this, performance and unexpected results will appear.

Another important decision for my career was to have multiple specializations, obtained through courses, but mostly through practice. Besides my political science studies and my marketing, sales, PR and communication expertise cumulated in the 11 years of working in agencies and for clients, volunteering for different NGO’s made me develop human management skills as motivating volunteers to be engaged is often more difficult that managing the employees. To all these I have added the trainer expertise, I am certificated by Romanian Training Institute (IRT) and I have held more than 50 trainings for different organizations and companies on various subjects like sports marketing, sales, time and project management, eco-friendly behavior and even prepared some team buildings programs.

All these gave me flexibility, the capability to adapt to various situations and an enlarged perspective on many types of businesses.

Looking back is there anything you would do differently?

I would leave sooner from places where the environment and the people did not coincide with my expectations. We often try to convince ourselves to stay longer in a place because we fear to exit the zone that we know. I think it is important not to lose time in roles that do not fulfill you. Of course, this vision came with the years. Also, with the cumulated experience comes the power of changing the environment you are in.

You recently graduated The Football Management Course of the University of Lausanne and you are marketing manager of the Romanian Football Federation. What are the challenges of this position?

Being the marketing manager of the Romanian Football Federation is not an easy job, as football is domain full of emotions. In sports marketing people contribute to the “product itself” and the fact that we are dealing with unexpected results make people more or less receptive to marketing messages. If your team is losing and you are really upset, you wouldn`t probably remember that nice activation from the beginning of the game, for instance.

Also, when most of the people talk about football they refer to male football. Still, as a marketing manager, you deal with a more complex universe with many competitions, sports products, different audiences and lots of stakeholders for different segments like: male football, women’s football, futsal, grassroots, scouting programs and so on. Although, we talk about football, there is no formula that is applies for each segment and not even for each match, for the marketing campaigns to have impact you need to know and sometimes even design the specificity of each of the “products” you are working with.

An excellent example of what personalized strategy can do is the campaign for Women’s National Team qualification match at EURO 2017, when our girls played against Portugal. If, for instance, a male National Team game fills in stadiums up to 30,000 spectators, a woman National Team match brings around 1,200 people at the stadium. We managed through this campaign to bring 7,110 people at the stadium, which is a record for women’s matches and put Romania in terms of stadium audience on the 12th place in Europe from a total of 174 matches played during woman’s EURO qualification campaign. This was possible because we addressed a totally different audience and applied specific tactics.

Tell us more about this nine months’ course and the main learnings you received.

The 9 months Football Management course was organized by UEFA and Swiss Graduate School in Public Administration from Lausanne University and it combines e-learning modules with face-to-face seminars.

Among the subjects were: strategic and performance management of a football association, operational management, football marketing and sponsorship, communication, the media and public relations, event and volunteer management. During this period, we delivered 2 assignment papers and had a final oral exam.

This was a very practical course, as the assignments consisted in analyzing the actual situation of the department, federation or club one was part in. 80 percent of our grade took into consideration the critical analysis and evaluation of the managerial aspects and the relevant recommendations that could be implemented for that department or institution. All the graduates received a superior studies certificate with 10 ECTS credits.

I am very proud that I am one of the few participants in the course that graduated it with a Merit Certificate.

How hard is it to be a woman in a men’s sport, in a country where football is so important, and men are usually pretty forward about their opinions? How did you decide to take on this position?

I meet the RFF team in 2015 when I tried to convince them to support the “Donate a Fan” campaign that I coordinated for Special Olympics NGO. Although I didn’t obtain the access to the National Team, RFF President accepted to give a support message for this cause.

Meanwhile, we convinced over 50 sport VIPs to join this cause (like Nadia Camaneci, Cristina Neagu, Gabriela Szabo and so on) and implemented a campaign that was awarded for its great results at Internetics festival.  FRF team was also awarded during that festival for “Fan’s Arena – Virtual Stadium” campaign. It was then when they proposed me to join the team as a Marketing Manager.

I decided to take this challenge after I understood that the marketing projects I will implement here could have an impact at the national level and could bring a real change in society and for small communities.

When I joined FRF, I was the only woman in the management and I must say that they really trusted me, as the first task that I had was to design and organize the campaign for EURO 2016. I came in the Federation just 3 months before EURO and this was the first time in the history of FRF when such a campaign was done. More than that, it was the first time when special activations were designed for the Romanian supporters that were participating at the matches in France. It was a great challenge for me and I invested lot of energy in it, but it payed off.  “We all are Romanian!” campaign had excellent results that were acknowledge at European level by UEFA during UEFA KISS Awards Festival.

Regarding men being pretty forward on their opinion, I must say that here it was not the case. FRF President implemented a top-down management change and he oriented to the business sector when recruiting some members of his team, following, let’s say, a technocratic approach. If you want to implement such a system, it means that you are really open to improvement ideas coming from the ones you hire.

What are its best perks?

Football is one of the top discussion topics in Romania, with a large and diverse target audience, by being the no 1 sport in the country. Developing brands with such an exposure is very rewarding and motivated me to do impactful campaigns. I have a great satisfaction in knowing that I put my fingerprint on this domain and that the brands and strategies that I designed are going to resist many years from now on.

More than that, being able to change people’s lives through some initiatives is not something that you can do in many companies. I remember the scouting campaign we did with Gillette in rural areas “Performance has a future” and the hope this program gave to the children that were part of it. The campaign ended with 11 children who went to FC Barcelona, trained in the football camp, visited the stadium and attended a match of their favorite team. I am sure that this experience marked their existence and motivated them to do the best they can so as to become professional players. Because of the success it had, this campaign will continue.

Last but not least, in my work I get in direct contact with pure emotions of the fans. I will never forget the immense energy and good vibe of the people that participated in the Fan Walk we organized in France before the match against Switzerland.  We marched for almost 4 kilometers towards Parc des Princes! stadium, singing together, dancing and getting fans from other countries to applaud us on our way. There were no violent incidents, only pure joy. And I saw pure joy not only during the first Fan Walk organized in the history of the National Team, but also during other campaigns, such as the selection of the first 11 supporters of the National Team, or the “We Play Strong Campaign” addressed to young girls.

Last year marked some important moments in your career: becoming the president of IAA Young Professionals and receiving the IAA Inspire Young Leader Award. What do they represent for you and how did you receive them?

I am honored to be invested with the trust of my colleagues who elected me as IAA YP President. This is the longest professional relationship I have, as I joined the association 10 years ago, when it was just developing. During this period, I had many roles: from fundraiser to the person in charge with the communication and strategic partnerships, I was PM for many projects and Vice-President for the last 3 years. As President, a new chapter was opened for me. Together with my board colleagues: Ivona Babarelu, Alexis Musca and George Toma we will push further the YP brand and we will continue to invest in the development of the marcomm industry in Romania.

Indeed, another important moment for my career was receiving the IAA Inspire Young Leader distinction. This prize is granted for excellence in contributing leadership in the IAA Young Professionals and also for creating dynamics in the marketing communication industry. I was delighted to have my professional accomplishments acknowledged at a global level.

Where you expecting the award or was it a total surprise?

The IAA Inspire Young Leader Award was a surprise for me, as many young professionals around the world are nominated for it. Just as reference, there are more than 1,000 Young Professional IAA members worldwide, with Chapters in 12 countries. The 2017 edition gave only 5 such awards.

Following this title, in February this year IAA Young Professionals started the “Inspiring young leaders” recruitment campaign. What are your goals and expectations for it? Tell us more about the campaign.

During the years, the Romanian chapter received 4 IAA Inspire Young Leader Awards: two of them were won in 2015 at the Inspire Gala from London and other two in 2017 at the “Creativity Can Change the World” Gala held in Bucharest. Also, in 2016, the Romanian Chapter was awarded as the most active and creative YP Chapter in the world. All these prizes confirm us that Romania has very talented young professionals and a huge potential of becoming a creative hub for the region. More than that, Young Professionals members have become the seniors of the marcomm industry, many of them occupy today top managerial positions in companies and agencies.

The recruitment campaign message comes from the DNA of IAA Young Professionals. We inspire young leaders through the education programs we run, the possibility to create and implement many types of projects and the international opportunities the IAA global network offers us.

We received 50 applications and these weeks we will held the interviews with the selected ones. We look for passionate students and young professionals with growth potential and the motivation to contribute to the development of the marcomm industry.


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