In 1999, Steve Madincea made a magnificent blooper. He told Martin Sorrell, the undisputed High Lord of advertising, to f**k off. What made the accident all the more impressive is that the ad legend had just phoned Steve to buy his company. And what’s even better, is that the sale went through. 

Steve explains: “Martin called me out the blue because, as I soon discovered, he wanted to buy my Sports Marketing & Activation agency. But I’d never spoken to him before, so when an unknown caller introduced himself as Martin Sorrell, my initial response was: ‘F**k you, Cliff!’ You see, we had this joker called Cliff in the office who would impersonate people, so I thought he was up to his old tricks. But after hearing silence – lots of it – on the other end of the phone, I looked up over my office cubicle and saw Cliff chatting to a colleague.”

The cold-calling advertising grandee was not going to let an accidental expletive knock him off course. He tactfully ignored the error, and his company, WPP, bought Steve’s company, PRISM. It was a big moment for Steve, who had set up his below-the-line ad agency in 1993 and turned it into a £100m turnover business. 

Steve explains how he became an entrepreneur: “I had the idea for PRISM while working as commercial director for the Benetton-Ford Formula 1 team between 1990 and 1993. I saw the need for an independent, agile sports marketing company, so I launched an agency. I was fortunate to have worked for and with many great entrepreneurs and I was itching to try my hand at the craft. One of my many inspirations was Luciano Benetton, whom I had met in Treviso. Benetton was a trailblazing global marketeer and he used controversial ads – such as the image of a priest and a nun kissing – to great effect.”

After three years in F1, Steve went his own way: “I told my bosses that I was starting my own agency. Fortunately, they said: ‘Good luck – we’ll put some business your way’. Ford also gave me some office space – a spare storage room. My first employee and I cleared it out in a weekend, set up two desks, and we were off.” 

By the time Martin Sorrell called six years later, PRISM’s team had grown to 55, which goes to show how incredibly successful Steve’s first entrepreneurial adventure had been. However, there was more to come. 

But first, there was more to learn. Steve didn’t leave PRISM when WPP came a-knocking. He stayed on and positioned himself near to the man he’d accidentally sworn at. The founder says: “One of the deals I cut in the sale was to report directly to Martin Sorrell. Lots of agency guys will tell you that’s the last thing you should do! But I wanted to learn from him.”

And learn he did. Six months after buying PRISM, Steve’s new boss purchased Young & Rubicam for $5.5bn. The apprentice – if you can use that word for someone who’s built a multimillion-pound agency – looked on, absorbing lessons from the master. Steve recalls: “To buy Young & Rubicam, Martin used financial instruments I’d never even heard of. But I slowly learned. He was a hard taskmaster and had a mind like a steel trap. If you bumped into him in Mayfair, he’d look at you and say: ‘Why was your depreciation down 2.6% in August?’ When he tried something like that, I’d reply with: ‘Look, I don’t know Martin, but I can check it out and come back to you. What I do know is we increased our profit once again this month and here’s why. He kind of respected that, I think.”

Steve identified his next big move because of what he had learned at WPP. Looking at his employer’s rich data banks, he spotted another gap in the market: “The vast data sets told me sports fans around the world loved social media but wanted even more engagement. Social media was not enough. Fans wanted even more interactivity from their teams.”

That led to conversations with a wide variety of tech companies, whom Steve realised had little idea about how to appeal to sports fans: “I suddenly saw this white space between the sports teams that didn’t understand tech, and the tech companies that didn’t understand sport. I thought if I don’t fill that space, I’ll kick myself.”

He resigned from WPP and co-founded Fantastec in Q4 of 2017. His vision for his new company was to allow sports teams to engage intimately with fans around the world and, ultimately, to monetise more of them. 

Steve says: “Our starting point was that sports teams everywhere had been in a ten-year race to build their fan bases on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on. Each was trying to reach 100m followers, 200m followers, etc. But every so often someone in the commercial department would ask: ‘So, how much money are we actually making from our 100m audience?’ And the marketing team would look down at their shoes. So, there was this big need to start monetising what were commonly called ‘digital’ fans.”

Fantastec came up with five initial concepts to increase fan engagement improve connectivity and also build extra revenue for the teams. After creating five separate prototypes, Steve asked for feedback from sports federations and large football clubs. The co-founder says: “We based our start-up philosophy on one espoused by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. He calls it ‘Blitzscaling’, has written a great book on the subject and conducted Stanford Business School courses around it. The basic idea is you value speed over efficiency. So, imagine jumping off a cliff and trying to build an aeroplane on the way down before you crash! That’s how you must think and act with Blitzscaling mindset.”

Happily, Steve and his business partner Simon Woollard built their plane super-fast. After taking team and consumer feedback on board, they launched Fantastec SWAP in 2019 – a blockchain-based digital collectibles app. The app allows fans to ‘collect’ and curate memorable sporting moments such as goals, celebrations, and players’ digital signatures on their phones. In 2019, SWAP ranked number one on the UK App Store for free sports app downloads, ahead of both the Manchester United app and the SkyBet app. “It’s been hugely popular,” says Steve. “But perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that it’s a tremendous retention engine for teams. Most apps would love to have a 90-day retention rate of 15-20%. We’re currently hitting 40% plus with ambitions to drive this even higher.”

So, fans are loving it and so are sports clubs. Indeed, Fantastec’s partners now include Arsenal Men’s and Women’s teams), Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. Steve and his 16-strong team London based team have a sturdy foundation on which to add new features, increased fan engagement and even more revenue for teams. 

Things have gone well. But nothing was guaranteed when this entrepreneur left WPP and turned his back on a substantive salary and job security. What drove him to jump into the unknown for the second time? Steve says: “It’s true that at WPP I had a big office, a secretary and a parking spot. But that was not me and who I am. I like to build things. It is good for my soul and I love learning new things. I have always had a genuine thirst for knowledge.”

He continues: “I also love the start-up world – in particular, I love it that everyone helps each other. We work closely with the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey and it’s such a vibrant place. Here’s a cool example: a guy came up to me recently and showed me some tech he had developed. We couldn’t use it, but I recognised it could have automotive applications. So, I introduced this young inventor to a very senior friend at McLaren and he won some substantial business. And for me that’s what an incubator should be all about – everybody helping everybody. For me, that’s a big part of entrepreneurship. I can teach and learn at the same time. At Fantastec, my enjoyment level is off the scale!” 

And where enjoyment levels are high, commercial success usually follows. The figures and narrative already look promising for Fantastec, and Steve and the team have big ambitions. “I’d like the sports world to recognise us as the number one engagement platform for the 99% of fans who never go to a game,” says the co-founder. “I also think we can roll out to all other sports – without exception.” 

Just how far this exciting entrepreneurial adventure will go remains to be seen, but two things are for certain: Steve Madincea will continue to learn from other people – just as he did from Martin Sorrell, and he will carry on helping fellow entrepreneurs. Those are his golden rules of business and they have served him well. 

There is, however, one other golden rule to remember: when contacting Steve, never call him out the blue. Because his friend Cliff is still around!