Andy Duncan, chief executive of lottery operator Camelot, is playing a complicated numbers game. Bigger jackpots, but longer odds. Does he know what he is doing with Britain’s golden goose?
News last week that Camelot was increasing the pool of numbers from 49 to 59, tripling the odds of picking up the jackpot in the main draw, was met with groans from sections of the press. And it’s not so long ago that ticket prices were doubled to £2.
“It’s a balancing act as always in the world of lottery,” says Duncan. “We think it will be a more exciting combination of prizes and a more interesting way of spreading the money.” His changes mean more millionaire winners, but more rollovers too, which lead to a spike in sales, so that “when you win the jackpot, it will be triple what it used to be. It will take it up to another level.”
Duncan – 52, boyish and excitable, desperately trying to spruce his dull beige office by putting artwork on the walls – has proved himself a marketing whiz in the past. He marked himself out as one to watch by dreaming up and selling everything from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to digital TV platform Freeview. At Camelot for the past four years, assuming control a year ago, he has set about re-inventing something that has earned a place in the national psyche.
It is easy to ask why he needs to. The UK lottery has done something that most other draws around the world have not. Twenty-one years after it was launched, it is still growing. Takings of £7.3bn last year were a record, and 8 per cent growth contrasts markedly with the flattish performance of most lotteries in Europe and North America. In the past five years, Camelot has piled an extra £2bn on to the top line, thanks to scratchcards and web sales. Duncan wants more.
“Lots and lots of people playing a little bit more is a good model for growth,” he says. “We don’t want 10 per cent of people playing 50 times more.” He himself played “semi-regularly” as part of a syndicate in his hockey club before the job forced him to give up.
Of course, by increasing sales Camelot, owned by Canadian investor the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, grows its profit – to £77m at the last count. But you suspect ministers don’t mind if it does. The £1.8bn it ploughs every year into good causes – 40 per cent into community projects and 20 per cent into each of heritage, sport, and arts and film – has becoming increasingly crucial.
For a body such as the British Film Institute or UK Sport, they “now get more from the lottery than they do from the Exchequer,” says Duncan. “I think realistically all of them are expecting the Exchequer funding to be further cut so it is even more important that the lottery grows.”
Does that make the lottery a tax on the poor to fund arts and culture favoured by the rich? Not exactly, if 70 per cent of the adult population still play on a monthly basis. Duncan is more exercised about the lottery getting credit for what it has paid for so far. “If you do an objective analysis of the first 20 years of the National Lottery lots of things have gone really well but I would say one thing that is really quite mixed is collectively how we have told the story about where the money has gone,” he says.
It helps that elite athletes such as Sir Chris Hoy thank lottery players as soon as they step down from the gold medal podium. Actors starring in films backed by its cash are less forthcoming. “You don’t get the equivalent moment on the Oscars’ red carpet or the Bafta carpet – that is definitely true.” Recognition might go up the more that Duncan communicates with the 7 million players who are registered online.
“It’s really powerful if you know it’s the playground across the road [that has received a lottery grant].” But he admits: “People are different: some want to know about good causes in their local area, some people couldn’t care less, it is all about the winning.”
Surely the more people who play online – digital sales are going up at 40 per cent – the more the lottery starts to look like any other internet gambling service? Duncan insists there is “clear blue water” between him and the web bookies, seeing as he has capped web play at £350 a week or 80 plays a day. “If a player’s behaviour changes, we will write to them. I see no evidence that anybody has got an addiction problem with the lottery.”
Born in Croydon, south London, Duncan has stuck close to his roots. He lives a few miles away, in the North Downs. His mother, two sisters and the church he attends are close by. “That centre of gravity has always been in the same area, geographically and emotionally, I suppose.”
The first 17 years of his career were spent at Unilever, where he drove sales of Super Noodles higher and attached Flora’s name to the London Marathon. At the BBC, Duncan overhauled marketing and helped to launch new channels including BBC3 and CBeebies as the founding chairman of Freeview. His digital talents came in handy leading Channel 4, but he misjudged a campaign to grab a slice of the BBC’s licence fee and a foray into radio was abandoned.
Given the mix of public purpose and commercial edge that runs through his career, the only oddity on his CV is the spell when he ran luxury car dealer HR Owen, “the only job where I drove a Bugatti Veyron for the day with the world-record holder and did laps of an Italian test track in a Ferrari”.
At Camelot, he has got a problem with copycats. Bookmakers have started selling scratch cards and the company failed to get Daily Express tycoon Richard Desmond’s Health Lottery closed down, claiming that it was exploiting a loophole that lets so-called society lotteries market themselves nationally. Desmond has vowed to bid for the national licence when it is tendered again in 2023. “I’ve met him a few times and we get on perfectly well,” says Duncan. “What he does do is pay 50p in the pound to himself on the lottery… most of that is spent on advertising in his titles.”