Interview with Ed Nicholson
Walthamstow Racetrack, 9th of March 1999.


Nina: Right Ed, can you first of all tell me your name, obviously, and what you do at Ladbrokes.

Ed: My name's Ed Nicholson, I'm PR manager, public relations manager and spokesman for Ladbrokes.

Nina: OK, now you've become 'involved' or implicated (laughing) in this project ...

Ed: Implicated yes! I will go to prison ...

Nina: I think a lot of people don't really understand what a non-sporting bet is, can you explain what a non-sporting bet is.

Ed: Yes, most of the bets placed at Ladbrokes, or an off course betting shop, are placed on horse races - 70% of our bets are on horses, nine out of ten people who come into Ladbrokes will bet on a horse race, and that counts as about 70% of turnover, the next biggest is greyhound racing (which counts for about 20%) and then there's different bets on sports, which include football at about 4% and all the other sports which account for about 1% and the rest is basically numbers betting ... AND non-sports which accounts for a very very small percentage, they're just done for a bit of fun and they're what we call novelty bets really. Things like who will be the Christmas number one, who will be the next president of The United States who will be the next Liberal Democrat leader, will it snow at Christmas on the roof of the London weather centre, will the United Nations confirm the existence of intelligent alien life. These bets are just done for fun and really we're expecting people to spend 5.00 maybe 10.00 at the most on them, and it's done for publicity and to get Ladbrokes brand across. We do lay big bets though and some people do win money on them - by backing themselves to do such things as have a number one record, recently ...

Nina: So, people can back themselves?

Ed: Well they can do, but we actually put a stop to it because people kept winning! We realised that the market is so small now for a number one, I think it's about 30,000 records sold will get you into the top ten now, if they're sold at the right time ... it meant that we had to look at it and reassess it. It came to a head when I group called 'Another Level', who we'd never heard of at the time, wrote in and said that they wanted to back themselves to have a top 10 hit, a top 5 hit, and a number one. We laid a bet, not so much money I must say - it was only done for fun as well and to give them some entertainment, but they managed to get all three, they had a number one, they're a big band now and we paid out a few thousand pounds! So since then we've looked at it and we decided that perhaps we won't bet on that because there are more people out there that know about pop records than we do!

Nina: Right, so that brings me round to Fine Art then!

Ed: Yes.

Nina: Do you know of any other examples of betting which have involved Fine Art.

Ed: Well I don't know about Fine Art, but if we club the arts together, we bet on things that are high profile - things that might get Ladbrokes name into places where it might not have been in the past. Obviously we're in The Racing Post, we're on television through Channel 4 racing and through Sky productions, but it's a good way of getting Ladbrokes brand name across to people who might not have experienced that name before and Arts prizes such as the Booker prize and the Turner prize, to some extent, depending on what year it is, if it's competitive and if we know a lot about the contestants, we will price those events up - but we price it up in the way we would any other event. We do a lot of research, knowing about form, knowing about the background, what kind of people are going to back, who's going to make the decision, what the form on the contestants is, and that generally takes a lot of time. It is all fun, they are all novelty bets and we don't expect to be laying bets of 100.00, 200.00 or a thousand pounds. Having said that we are taking bets on the next director general of the BBC and someone has had a rather large bet of 500.00 on that outcome, but in arts, the Turner Prize, the Booker Prize, I think the biggest bet was about 200.00, and this is something we're looking at now.

Nina: Most people I think probably don't understand what pricing up means ... so can you talk through ... well, we've basically agreed to collaborate on this piece - Ladbrokes are going to offer odds on the Ulay Award, SO, can you talk through the stages from here to somebody placing a bet.

Ed: In any event, whether it be a sports event or an event like this where somebody is voting to decide a winner - there has got to be a winner - and there is a probability chance of something happening. All betting is, when we talk about pricing it up or giving odds, all it is basically is telling or informing people what we think the probability is of 'A' to win or 'B' is to win or 'C' is to win. So for example, a 10:1 shot is equivalent to a 9% chance of winning, a 2:1 shot is equivalent to a 33% chance of winning, and the idea is that we price up or make odds for all the contestants, whether it be the world cup, the Grand National or the Oil of Ulay Award - we decide on what odds they are going to be and if everybody places a theoretical pound on each contestant, or each runner, or player who's going to score the first goal ... then if everybody did the same amount of money then we would make a profit - a theoretical margin, and it's normally about 2% a runner. So for example if there were five 'runners' which there are in the Oil of Ulay Award, then we would bet to what is 100%, which is if everyone puts a pound on each of the five contestants, whatever contestant won they would get 5.00 back ... SO we wouldn't win and the better wouldn't win because it's 100%. Now, when we have a theoretical margin we have over 100%, so we'll bet to 2% a runner ... so on the Oil of Ulay we're betting to about 110%, so theoretically if someone had a pound on all the contenders they would loose 10% of their money - they'd loose 10 pence out of every pound. However, that doesn't always work, theoretical margin is wonderful (and this is where some people think that bookmakers make a lot of money) but if everybody backs one contestant... if everybody backs you Nina and you win - then what ever happens we would loose money, because everyone has backed you. With the Grand National, if everybody backed the favourite, as many people did last year with a horse called Earth Summitt that won, if that horse wins then it doesn't matter we will have to pay out everything we've taken. So, although it is a theoretical margin it's not always the actual margin.

Nina: So once you've set the odds, between us we've come up with customized betting slips which are specifically for this piece, so if somebody wants to place a bet, what do they actually have to do?

Ed: Well, if they have their betting slips, which are not going to be available in all Ladbrokes shops, just the ones near the art gallery, and also through MAKE magazine, if they've got that ... or even if they haven't got a slip, they can go into any Ladbrokes shop and ask the staff for more details on how to place a bet.

Nina: Right.

Ed: What will happen then is that we have a screen behind the counter, the customers have screens as well but the managers will have more pages open to them, which will have details of a great number of events - one of which is the Oil of Ulay competition. Now, because it's not a great turnover event, we won't have that page out in the shop rotating on the larger screens, because we can't justify that happening. However, I can have the prices available to anyone who wants to come in, ask for a price, the manager looks for the price, presses a page number, it will come up on a screen, like a computer screen, and they will have the prices. Now, every bet that's placed will have an effect on those odds, as you mentioned earlier, on what will happen to the odds, well market forces are initiated based on supply and demand ...

Nina: ... but people will get the odds on offer at that time?

Ed: Yes, when they go into the shop. So, say for example someone goes into a shop in May, they want to back you, and we've opened the betting with you at 5:1, they'd come in and get back 1.00 at 5:1, or 10.00 at 5:1, and that will be their price, whatever happens. However, if a lot of people all over the country were backing you for their pounds and it added up to 500.00 - 500 different people, I would then be in a situation at head office in Harrow thinking, hang on we've got a large liability on Nina, we've not got a liability on anyone else - if Nina wins we're going to loose money. So what we'll do is shorten your price, in terms of probability, percentage and odds (they're all the same) which will make it less interesting for someone to back you. So, from 5:1 we might make you 2:1. What we also might do is extend the odds on the other four contestants, or contenders - that way we make their odds more exciting and so someone might think "that is a very big price - I wouldn't have backed it at 2:1 but now that it's 5:1 I think I'll have a pound on that". Eventually we hope to ... not 'entice' that's the wrong word ... but to 'market' the prices on the other contenders so that more money is spread across the board, and we make that theoretical margin.

Nina: How do you feel about being involved in this piece of work then?

Ed: Well, it's a little bit frightening, because if we get it wrong (and we could get it wrong) because we're the biggest bookmakers in the world and we've got 1,900 shops and we lay prices and get it wrong then we are going to lose money! So, my trading department who are obviously responsible for millions of pounds each day are looking at me with one eye carefully shut and one eye carefully open ... but we ... I think the amount of money we are probably talking about - a pound or maybe five pounds - we're not talking about a great deal of money and hopefully it'll be good publicity for the company, it 'll be good publicity for all the artists involved, and also, one of my main objectives for this piece is to get betting talked about in a different environment. Hopefully, people may go into a betting shop who hadn't been in before and see how it's changed, see that we've spent 61 million pounds over the last five years refurbishing ... you know, see that since the government relaxed their legislation in 1993, it's allowed us to open our windows, to allow people to see into our shops and to allow people to understand that it's not smokey, it's not full of cloth capped men with whippets, it's about entertainment, it's about leisure, it's about being able to spend 50p or 1.00 on an event that maybe you had never thought of betting on - such as the Oil of Ulay Award or a greyhound race, or the FA cup or whatever sport you're interested in, you can have a bet at a Ladbrokes shop ... and hopefully they'll come back again, and have a bet on something else and it will become part of their leisure activity in years to come.

Nina: So, what do you personally, not as "Mr. Ladbrokes" feel about being involved in the piece then?

Ed: I think it's really exciting, I mean for me, anything that's new is exciting because you learn more about things and it's more interesting. So from that point of view, personally I'm thrilled to be involved. I'm also very excited because it obviously is a very big award and it means it will get a great deal of publicity, which can only be good for Ladbrokes, and can only be good for the brand.

Nina: You talked a bit about the kind of changes that are being implemented in betting shops, can you talk a bit about the lottery, or maybe the relationship between the lottery and bookmakers ... obviously a lot of artists are maybe more concerned with the lottery because of arts funding connections ...

Ed: Well, when the lottery began, in the short term it was a very difficult time for the bookmaking industry - a great number of shops were shut, and a great number of jobs were lost, as a direct result of the lottery opening. If you think there were 8,500 ... there were probably about 9,000 shops, off course betting shops, on the high street, up and down the length and breadth of Great Britain, when the lottery began - there are now about 8,000 and the reason why a lot of these shops went out - maybe not the bigger ones but the smaller firms - is that most people were going into their news agents and spending 2.00 on a packet of cigarettes, and then going and spending 2.00 on a days racing or maybe even a pound, but then what people would tend to do is go into the newsagents buying a packet of cigarettes and then buy a couple of scratch cards or have a go at the lottery and not go to a shop. Now, if you multiply that by each person every single day of the week across the whole country you can see that there's a great deal of turnover lost. We are a high-turnover, low-margin business - so if a lot of turnover is lost that is going to affect the margin, and that is what happened, a lot of smaller shops or chains did go out of business.
It did affect the big shops as well, Ladbrokes for instance, our head office staff, we lost a third of our head office staff within a year of the national lottery beginning. Now, in the long term it was a good thing for betting, because it allowed us to look at our navel, look at ourselves, and say "now hang on, there's someone here who's competing against us, and they're doing well - we're not offering the customers what they want, so what shall we do...". Well, we looked at it, and we wanted to take bets on the national lottery, but the government, from the national lotteries act, I think it's 1994, the national lotteries act prevents bookmakers from accepting bets on the national lottery, which we would like to do. Incidentally the Irish lottery, they take bets on the Irish lottery in Ireland and it hasn't affected turnover figures for the Irish lottery itself, it has in fact complimented the Irish lottery ... because what people do is bet one lucky number in a betting shop, which you can do, and they then have the Irish lottery draw, so, if you do get one number up then you still win.
We've wanted to incorporate that in the national lottery over here but ... well in the longer term, as I was saying, it's been good, because the government saw that the national lottery had many pluses many advantages over betting shops and they are both ... well for example, betting shops, betting ... we cannot advertise on television, we can't advertise our shops we can't do anything - whereas the national lottery has a BBC programme devoted to it, and can advertise where ever it wants. Now, of course we thought that was not a level playing field and so of course we lobbied and we couldn't even at that stage open our shops fronts up, because you know we weren't allowed to advertise ... since the government brought the legislation in to allow the national lottery to start, we are now able to open our shop windows, we are now able to have bigger TV screens, we're now able to have fruit machines in our betting shops which we weren't allowed to before. If you think about it that's a bit strange because you have to be 18 or over to go into a betting shop so it's probably better regulated in a betting shop than it is a local chip shop ... but we would still like to be able to bet on the national lottery.
The national lottery has, though, made people accept a bet, or a gamble ... I think the latest figures are that 75% of the adult population have a regular bet now, and that includes the national lottery, and people will come into a betting shop and not feel intimidated, and not feel worried ... it's become much more socially acceptable because it's seen as the done thing. More and more people over 18, well over 16 with the lottery, over 18 otherwise are having a bet. So, in the long term it's helped, it's allowed us to look at our own business, offer customers something that we hope, well that we know, that they want because we offer number betting which is only three years old and it's been a tremendous success - now we take more money on numbers betting than we do on any other sport ,apart from football, added together ... and people enjoy playing it.

Nina: So, do you want to ask me anything about the piece?

Ed: Are you going to win (both laugh).

Nina: I don't think so!

Ed: (still laughing) Who would be your favourite?

Nina: Er ... difficult, difficult, because two of the other women are friends, so obviously I like their work, and then the other two women I do actually really like their work, and so it's kind of a hard choice ...

Ed: So you're really sitting on the fence! Two you like because they're friends, two you like because they make good work ... and then there's you! So, if you were setting the odds ... open ended question ... what would you be basing those odds on?

Nina: I think partly on how well known the artists are at the outset, so one of the artists is better known than the other four ...

Ed: ... but if it's celebrity panel that surely wouldn't matter?

Nina: No, but it might affect ... well, there will be somebody on that panel who represents the arts in general, and then there will be somebody with a digital perspective, so they look for how you've used digital technology, and I think that will probably affect people's perception of the work, but then ... and obviously I've interviewed all the women about what they are going to make and all that kind of stuff ... but equally you can never tell until you see a piece how it's going to come across.

Ed: SO, how are you expecting me to price it up if I haven't seen them then! Is there a definite favourite?

Nina: Well, I'd say Mariele Neudecker is the best known artist out of the five.

Ed: Is it going to be close?

Nina: I think it could go anyway ... anyone could win it out of the five of us. I would say, I wouldn't want to bet on it! (laughing) ... How does electronic media affect Ladbrokes then?

Ed: Well obviously technology and betting is progressing ...

Nina: (laughing) Interlinked ...

Ed: Probably quicker than in any other medium at the moment, but, there are a lot of things to discuss. We don't, at the present time, at Ladbrokes offer Internet betting, betting over the Internet, for many reasons - safety being one and also insuring that all Internet customers are over 18. People will want to make sure that a big company like Ladbrokes have explored every angle when taking details of delta and switch cards, when they are processing a bet. Also we need to talk about the Internet betting situation with the government regarding tax, and also with horse racing regarding the levy, so there are a lot of discussions we need to have before we can offer that facility. Although, we are working towards it, and we've had a web site since before Euro '96, giving details of bets which are on offer and you can phone up and have a bet over the phone on them, but it's an interesting time.

Nina: Can people ring in a bet for the Ulay Award?

Ed: Yeah, they can do it over the phone, but the minimum bet is 10.00, you can't bet with credit - so anyone out there with a credit card won't be able to get on, but you can bet with Debit, Switch, Solo any card like that ... but the minimum bet is 10.00 ... and the number is 0800 524 524!

Nina: (laughing) Right good, we'll put that on then!

Ed: ... but it might take a bit of time to place it, because it's not a well known bet and they will have to take you off the phone and just say excuse me and then come back to you.

Nina: Finally a lot of the artists want to know if they're allowed to place bets?

Ed: Artists are not allowed to place bets! They can't place bets on the event, this is entirely to do with ... well actually, we don't accept bets on sports ... sports stars or sports people can't place bets on their own team because of what their governing body says ... the FA have had a big inquiry and they've said that no football players are allowed to bet.

Nina: I can see the letter in Artists Newsletter now!

Ed: I think it would probably be unwise for artists to be betting on themselves, I think it's the best for everyone if they don't bet on themselves!

Nina: Friends and family?

Ed: Well, I can't prevent friends and relatives, and I think there'd be no problem with that, friends and relatives can place a bet - that's fine, as long as it's not 2,000.00 on a certainty! (both laugh)

Nina: That's great, thank you very much.