He used to run for the United States’ athletic team, he reintroduced Nike to South Africa, and was the agent for two of the continent’s biggest athletes: Oscar Pistorius and Caster Semenya. It’s an impressive résumé but Ray Wicksell is more excited about his latest venture – selling bus handles.
“What I was taught by Nike is to look at unique things. Things that are different to anything else and easy to sell,” says Wicksell.
He realized he could strike gold with the bus handles while in China. Brands across the world’s most populous country use these safety handles to market themselves. Wicksell couldn’t believe there weren’t any in his adopted country, South Africa, so he brought them here. He’s also introduced them to buses in Mauritius.
“Other South Africans probably saw it in China, but they never thought about bringing it here. It’s not easy… When I go to Mauritius, I’ve got to find the buses. I’ve got to do the deal first with the transportation department and then I’ve got to find the sponsors,” he says.
Finding sponsors is the easy part, he says. His business, Ray Wicksell Consultancy, specializes in marketing and training. His skill in building brands was forged at Nike.
“I learned that people are bigger than the brand. How you treat people. [Nike Co-Founder] Phil Knight wanted people to love you. He said ‘go out there and get people to love you. If they love you, they’ll buy from you.’ You have to spend time with them.”
Nike used global superstars, like Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods, to promote their brand. They would spend their weekends in malls signing autographs and posing for photos. Wicksell claims some of the athletes in South Africa aren’t willing to do this.
“South African athletes aren’t very professional. I’m talking all sports. They want money but they don’t want to work and that’s why we don’t have sporting heroes,” he says.
“They haven’t been groomed into the professionalism of sport. I think it’s the agents’ fault. A lot of the agents are lawyers, which is a problem for me. We separate ourselves. We had Nike lawyers and we had guys like myself, and we worked together. We’re the ones that build them into a brand, the lawyers do the contracts. Now, the lawyers are trying to build the brand and do the lawyer job. They’re doing the lawyer job great but they can’t build them into a brand… They go to brands like Nike and get the money but then they don’t utilize them, and Nike doesn’t utilize them, so nobody wins. Like Victor Matfield; nobody knew he was with Puma. I said to him ‘Victor, no one knows you’re with Puma’. He said ‘I know; they don’t even use me for an ad’.”
Wayde van Niekerk is South Africa’s biggest global sporting icon at the moment. The Olympic gold medallist and world champion athlete is seen by many as Usain Bolt’s successor yet Wicksell claims he is underutilized.
“Not everyone watches the Olympics but if they see a billboard with Wayde on it, they’ll go ‘oh wasn’t that the guy who won gold at the Olympics?’ …But ask people who sponsors Van Niekerk, they’ll start thumb sucking; some will say Nike, some will say Puma, some will say Adidas. People don’t know.”
“Adidas gives him $3 million and you don’t know who his sponsor is. How bad is that?”
Wicksell was the agent for some of South Africa’s biggest sport stars, including Pistorius and Semenya. He says being an agent is similar to being a nanny.
“I’ll do a deal for R20,000 a month and then I’ll get 10% – but I’ll have to babysit all the time. I’ve got to make sure he comes to the promotion; I’ve got to make sure he does this. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
For now, Wicksell is happy to focus on his consultancy and getting brands on the road, in buses, across Africa.