While most of the golf leaders who gathered in Augusta last week bemoaned the rain and the mid-event drop in temperature, from over 80 degrees to barely 50, Mary DePaoli had a different take. She arrived in Georgia from meetings in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where the temperature was minus-18. For DePaoli, anything with a plus sign said spring. A schedule that included meetings in Augusta and then a trip to Hilton Head for her own tournament, the RBC Heritage? Are you kidding?
Mary DePaoli is used to bringing a slightly different perspective to things, certainly to golf. As executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Royal Bank of Canada, hosting this week’s Heritage Open, but also a mother of two daughters, a Canadian, a former wealth manager who grew up often being the only woman in the room or on the corporate-outing tee sheet, a woman who oversees a global marketing group of 420 including sponsorships not only in men’s golf but women’s golf, hockey and competitive computer gaming, for starters, she’s used to being one of a kind.
Or in this case, one of a pair.
Because, of all the singularities that make the RBC Heritage memorable – the old red-and-white lighthouse overlooking the finishing hole, the cheerfully claustrophobic Pete Dye course, a vacation-like mood following the year’s first major, and those, um, unforgettable winners’ jackets – DePaoli and her partner, RBC’s vice president, brand marketing Shannon Cole, represent one other notable peculiarity: an all-female marketing/sponsorship team.
How rare is such a team in 2023?
By our count, just one in three of the some 30 sponsors on the PGA Tour have marketing directors who are female. Companies with both a director of marketing and a global sponsorship executive that are female are a fraction of that.
The more important question is, does it matter? DePaoli and Cole think it does.
“In most of what we do,” said DePaoli, whose marketing department is 78 percent female, “the common denominator is data, and how you mine it. All of that is factual. However, when you have decision-makers with different life experiences looking at the same markets in a new way or looking at new markets, interpreting and analyzing the data in new ways, that’s where you see the value add. That’s when it makes a difference.”
“You begin to see it as your superpower, versus something that marginalizes you, the perspective that you bring.” – Shannon Cole
For Cole, who ran the Boston Marathon and played for the Canadian national women’s soccer team before entering sports marketing in the NHL, being female in a predominantly man’s world is also familiar territory.
“You begin to see it as your superpower, versus something that marginalizes you, the perspective that you bring,” Cole said. “And on tour, folks we interact with, our peers in the game, there are quite a few females. We’re a minority, but you certainly don’t feel like an outcast.”
DePaoli and Cole nevertheless bring a progressive bent that’s rare in traditional banking or traditional golf. RBC is outspoken in its support of the LGBTQ+ community. It has committed to Net Zero in climate change. It supports young people through its Future Launch career program, which provides education and scholarships, and through the Mental Well Being Project that has sunk 54 million into mental-health programs. Good will, but good business, too, the data-driven DePaoli contends. “When they grow up and begin to make careers, we want them to think RBC,” she said.
In golf, that focus on youth translates to RBC’s Community Junior Golf Program, launched in 2022, that combines First Tee and Youth on Course elements.
“That is where I have a ton of heart,” Cole said. “Getting clubs in the hands of those who never had the access and opportunity. It’s a tool they’ll have.”
DePaoli added, “We really see an opportunity to help open up the sport, to make it more accessible.” The choice of player ambassadors such as Sahith Theegala underscores the point. On the subject of inclusion, DePaoli thinks golf is “ripe for disruption.”
The bank also sponsors the RBC PGA Scramble, a nationwide grassroots competition in Canada that announced in March a change that assures at least two of the finalist teams are all-female.
Brian Oliver, PGA Tour executive vice president corporate partnerships, praises RBC’s “proud backing of grassroots initiatives that encourage diversity and inclusivity, ideals paramount to the sustainability and growth of our sport.”
In 2021, DePaoli was named one of Canada’s top 30 women in sports by the Toronto Star. More importantly, from 2009 – when she joined RBC – until now, she and her team have made it the most valued brand in Canada, according to financial press there. It was DePaoli who in 2018 negotiated a new date for the Canadian Open, which RBC had sponsored since 2008, shifting from the week after the Open Championship, when most top players opted to rest, to June, when they’d be more likely to play. DePaoli also helped negotiate the “designated event” status for the Heritage. This year at Oakdale Golf and Country Club in Toronto, fans will enjoy a performance by Alanis Morissette, part of the RBCxMusic Concert Series, a partnership Cole created with Live Nation.
RBC has sponsored the Heritage since 2012, and it remains one of the most popular player and player-family destinations on tour, a status DePaoli and Cole work in consultation with players to maintain. Indeed, it is the two professional events that are the heart of RBC’s golf investment, bringing important business benefits to the bank.
“Reaching the top wealth managers, C-suite executives and high net-income individuals is difficult, there tends to be a lot of waste in efforts to reach these people,” DePaoli said. “Through golf, we have capacity to reach that audience.”
“Honestly I think there is a huge opportunity for all sponsors to do more to help transition to net zero.” – Mary DePaoli
The team’s efforts have not come without occasional hiccups and even some controversy. RBC lost ambassador Dustin Johnson to LIV Golf, and when it stood staunchly with the PGA Tour on the issue, caught grief from, of all people, Phil Mickelson who claimed RBC did banking business with Saudi companies. “The hypocrisy is astounding,” Mickelson tweeted. DePaoli shrugs off these moments. “We’re living in very different times than the ones we grew up in,” she said. “A story can change in one tweet. But in the end, I think, (LIV) caused the PGA Tour to come out stronger. It advanced its business model.”
Sustainability is the topic DePaoli likes to talk most about and one you may hear more from RBC about. The RBC Heritage was the first PGA Tour event certified by the GEO Foundation, an international not-for-profit dedicated to sustainability in and through golf. At the Heritage and the Canadian Open, tournament goals include “carbon net zero” and “zero waste” events. Before COVID, they added water refilling stations to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and partnered with electric companies to reduce fossil-fuel consumption.
“I’m glad you asked about that,” DePaoli said. “Honestly I think there is a huge opportunity for all sponsors to do more to help transition to net zero.”
Don’t bet against Team Canada making that happen.
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