On July 1, 2022, online gaming firm 888 Holdings completed the acquisition of William Hill International and entered the retail sports betting market with a network of betting shops, particularly in the UK. Announcing the acquisition, then CEO Itai Pazner said the deal would achieve revenue and cost benefits of £150 million by 2025.
Technology is central to achieving the £150 million target. Group Chief Product and Technology Officer (CPTO) Anna Barsby was appointed in November 2022. She took time to share with diginomica how a focus on digital skills and a platform approach will integrate 888 Holdings and William Hill International and score the goal.
The 2022 deal is a convergence of retail and digital gaming, something that has been on the cards for some time. William Hill International can trace its sports betting history back to 1934, while 888 Holdings was founded in 1997 and has been one of the trailblazers of the digitization of gaming in the Internet era. Today 888 Holdings employs over 11,000 people, has customers in over 100 countries, and has over five million players across brands such as Mr Green, 888 Casino, SI Sportsbook, William Hill, 888 Poker and 888 Sport.
Following the acquisition, 888 Holdings committed itself to William Hill’s retail business, and that is key to the convergence that CPTO Barsby and her team are charged with delivering. Gaming, as with retail, media and financial services, has to be a multi-channel approach, providing the customer with a service anytime, anywhere and, of course, on any device. A multi-channel strategy places technology at the heart of the business and its convergence, Barsby says:
Technology is the product, and we are at the center of everything in the business.
The good news for Barsby and her team is that both businesses have a strong technology core. 888 Holdings is a self-built digital pioneer, and William Hill responded to the digital disruption from the likes of 888 with a strong online offering. However, competition in the sector has some tough odds, Barsby says:
We have to be really creative about how we engage with the customer, especially whilst we are changing the structures in the background. Technology has to be the differentiator that will drive the business to success, or it could hold the business back.
That means that technology across the now single organization is a complete people, process and technology transformation, which she describes as:
What we are trying to do is create something completely new and keep the best of both organizations. This includes moving from two technology stacks to one for the entire business.
That is why the department has adopted the moniker Product and Technology, a recognition that technology is the product but also the foundations that operate the business, whether online or in-store. It is a sizable department, too, with 1500 staff operating in Israel, the UK, Bucharest, Krakow and Manilla, with other business functions also based in Gibraltar and Malta.
Betting on the platform
Those savings will only be achieved if the technology is both the platform for convergence, but also the pitch from which 888, William Hill, Mr Green, and SI Sportsbook brands compete with now and well into the future. Barsby says this means the new platform will be the way for the business to leapfrog its rivals, many of whom have modern technology stacks in place. She adds:
We have growth options in our physical stores and online.
And for the digital talent she is recruiting and developing, the challenge is more than just a technology platform that works in a store and online. Gaming is regulated at a national and local level in many jurisdictions. Barsby says her technologists will be:
Developing a common platform and meeting localism needs, because you cannot be locally unaware in markets like the USA.
As a form of entertainment, the business is not only competing with other gaming operators but also social media giants, streaming services and computer games. These technology rivals are exactly why the CTPO says technology is the business. Good usability and customer experience will be what enable 888 Holdings to compete for the consumer's attention and spending.
Gaming, like retail, was predicted to move completely online as the digital disruptors entered the game in the early to mid-2000s; however, just as with financial services, the physical retail sector has continued to adapt and remain viable. Barsby has led the technology function of major UK retailers Halfords, a motoring and outdoors chain and supermarket Morrisons. Asked about the similarities, she says gaming is a mirror image of the need to offer an omnichannel service to the customer. She adds of another similarity:
It is hard to keep the trust of the customer, so that is a constant focus.
Gambling regulators levy hefty fines, and any action is keenly followed by the press, adding another dimension to the technology challenge. She says of her role:
Changing the operating model is similar to Morrisons, but with the nuance of the regulations.
Digital gaming firms pushed the boundaries of online technology in the early years of this century. Their transactional speed surpassed that of financial services. The demand for high levels of security and digital infrastructure accelerated a plethora of technologies, as well as the careers of business technology leaders, many of whom have gone on to help "traditional" sectors transform, such as Thomas Kiessling at Siemens Smart Infrastructure and Rorie Devine at financial services provider MoneyFarm.
As online and retail gaming converge, there is the potential for a new wave of technology innovation built on the developments from the sector. Financial services and media benefited from those early technology developments in gaming. In retail, the convergence is already evident with the titan of pure-play retail Amazon now operating physical stores. As is well documented, the checkout desk-free Amazon stores have triggered experimentation right across the retail sector.
My dealings with those digital gaming firms in the early 2000s revealed organizations where technology was at the heart of the business. Bringing together two businesses and two technology units and creating a unified technology platform is high-stakes stuff, but then that is the challenging game that technology enjoys to play.