Livestrong — a one-of-a-kind case study in branding, PR, advocacy and damage control — has lost its long-time CEO Doug Ulman.
Ulman’s 14 years at Livestrong included both a period of stunning growth fueled by Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories and the little yellow $1 bracelets that helped carry an aggressive message about beating cancer and a subsequent descent as rapid as any of Armstrong’s own Alpine passes.
Ulman will take his talents to Pelotonia, an organization in Columbus, Ohio with a very similar mission. Pelotonia is successful in its own right, having raised more than $60 million through bike rides. (The money helps fund research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.)
This is a good move for both Ulman and Livestrong, because Ulman literally gets to leave town (Austin) and put the best of what he knows to good use. The cancer community will never hold what happened in France against him, and there’s no one more experienced in managing the operations of non-profit driven by cycling.
Livestrong gets to move on too.
It’s true that the org could continue successfully with Ullman at its helm (at least in the short term), but his presence brings with it an emotional connection to Lance Armstrong that is no longer needed. For context, Ulman’s meteoric rise from student to CEO began with an email from Lance himself.
We hope the path becomes clearer with a new CEO, who will benefit from the capable assistance of Ellen Barry, hired in June as head of strategic communications. For more on Barry, read this blog’s excellent interview conducted by Shawn Paul Wood as well as all of his posts on Livestrong (full disclosure: Shawn’s mother and my father are both cancer survivors).
It’s important to note that Barry comes from a financial agency background that includes stints at Teneo, Financial Dynamics, Brunswick Group, and Joele Frank. Everything Livestrong does moving forward will be connected to stopping the bleeding and maintaining/increasing total donations.
A profile of Armstrong published in Esquire this July included a stunning piece of news: Ulman went on the record to say that if Lance wanted to come back into the fold and rededicate himself to the cancer community, then Livestrong would take him back. Shortly after the story ran, Livestrong’s Chairman Jeff Garvey said this was definitely not the case. Lance responded by doing what Lance does: he threatened to sue his own organization.
The piece is worth a read. While the two people I talked to who are close to professional bike racing hated the image-burnishing elements of the article (despite the bit about the work of art he owns made of cockroach wings), Armstrong is at his best when he’s communicating directly with people fighting cancer. His quick videos to cancer patients, filmed at his desk, provide a great lift. The point? The cancer community really doesn’t care that Lance cheated, because they’re too busy trying not to die. Therein lies his potential road to redemption.
The pathway, however, is another thing entirely. Lance did awful things to many people in the sport and to people close to him, but for the first time the public knows everything about the darkest, most spurious acts of a man who remains one of history’s most talented athletes. If there’s a way to reconnect the man and his foundation to get funds flowing again, it should be done.
Here’s a really warped gift Lance has given us that we don’t see very often: the revealing details of his misbehavior have given us all the power to believe that even our most-revered sporting heroes can cheat. This trend stretches all the way from top athletes down to the amateur and even high school level.
Such cheating was pervasive in my high school, and only recently did I allow myself to believe that some of the other low-level schleps I used to race had been doped to the gills — and to cast suspicion on all who have the motivation to cheat.
It took a guy who used his cancer advocacy as a shield for years to shine a light on something so difficult to grasp.