Dianne Thompson – The ethical lottery leader

28 January 2016

Dianne Thompson
Photo: Man Met Uni Cheshire YouTube

When Dianne Thompson arrived at Camelot, the company that runs the UK National Lottery, it was something of a baptism of fire. She was appointed as commercial operation director just as a big controversy broke about ‘fat cat bosses’ at the company focused on its five founding directors. Then there was a libel case with Richard Branson to deal with. But that was all just a practice run.

Camelot was bidding to be granted its second licence to run the National Lottery for a further seven years. The first period had been pretty successful although, as is inevitable with such operations, there had been some dropping off towards the end of the period. Still, generally people expected the company to be successful in the face of a competing bid from Branson.

But then came a real shock. They were told that the bids from both parties had been considered not good enough, and that just one of those parties was going to be invited to spend the next month improving their bid. That party was Richard Branson’s. De facto, Camelot was being shut out, and shut down. 800 people stood to lose their jobs.

Under her, Camelot led the field of national lotteries worldwide in terms of responsible gaming.

It was in the immediate wake of that particular decision that Thompson had the role of chief executive passed to her. It seemed as though everything was lost. There was no feasible way back. But she was furious at what had happened, and clear that it was indefensible for only one party to be allowed to improve their bid. So she, with the backing of the board, took it to a judicial review.

She had been advised that such a review was highly unlikely to succeed. 9 out of 10 attempts fail, and no operator had every challenged a regulator. But that didn’t stop her from making the attempt, and in the event Camelot won the review, got given the opportunity to improve its bid and managed a complete reversal in fortunes by eventually emerging triumphant as the successful bidder.

Dianne Thompson went on to lead Camelot for 14 years. She gained immediate credit for her early success in getting the licence renewed, she removed the ‘fat cat’ stigma by working for a salary that was a significant amount reduced from that of her predecessors, and she gained overall recognition for being an effective leader in a distinctively tricky company.

Because, even if the purveyors of lotteries would prefer to dissociate themselves from the word, they are involved in gambling. And the thing about gambling is that some people can get into serious trouble with it. People get addicted to gambling. It can destroy lives.

Dianne Thompson with the Olympics
A high spot - Camelot's major contribution to the 2012 Olympics

Thompson was clear that the national lottery could not be allowed to become a major contributor to the nation’s stock of problem gamblers. The company began looking at how they could be successful in selling lottery tickets without feeding that problem.

At the same time, I was working for Business in the Community, running a leadership team for companies committed to social responsibility in their marketplace. Dianne joined that leadership team, and I always found my dealings with her at that time to underline the point that she was a well-grounded and smart operator who was committed to making a difference.

Under her, Camelot developed an approach to its marketing that led the field of national lotteries worldwide in terms of responsible gaming. They identified the key concepts that most fed compulsive gambling behaviours, and they made sure that all Lottery promotions were run through a filter to weed out those that might fall into this trap.

They worked with the independent GamCare, who dealt with problem gambling. They took their advice on how to tackle the problem, and GamCare monitored the sources of problem gambling help requests and were able to confirm that because of the company’s approach, the National Lottery was contributing a tiny percentage of those people.

It was a compelling example of a company in a controversial industry (where society has a problem if you’re too ruthlessly successful at promoting your product) that had successfully found the sweet spot – significant commercial success (which in this case meant lots of money for good causes) matched with minimised societal harm.

Dianne Thompson retired from Camelot in 2014 and, along with a couple of non-executive director roles, bought a restaurant in the Isle of Wight to get into another business entirely at an age when many others are happily retiring. Having witnessed her energy and drive at first hand, I would expect nothing less.