McLaren fan and racing driver Zak Brown has just become its executive director. He tells us why the F1 fightback is set to step up a gear
You can get a sense of how ancient and immobile the leaders of world motorsport have become from watching the buzz that has run through the entire racing community following the rapid rise of Zak Brown, McLaren Technology Group’s newly appointed executive director and sponsorship specialist.
Brown, an LA-born stripling of 45, is widely viewed as the kind of new blood Formula 1 needs. He loves racing, has already been successful as a driver and team owner and has made so much money from founding (and subsequently selling) the world’s biggest race-orientated marketing business that (a) he need never work again and (b) he has been able to amass a carefully curated collection of 45 superb road and race cars, including a dozen race-winning F1 and Indy single-seaters.
So great has been the recent competition for the services of UK-based Brown that McLaren announced his appointment at the end of last year – uncomfortably close to the bombshell departure of CEO Ron Dennis for a period of gardening leave widely tipped to be short.
The appointment was thought to have been timed to humiliate the departing boss (who has fallen out spectacularly with his co-owners) but insiders insist the group’s only motivation was to fix its highly valued new man in place rather than have him accept a widely trailed, competing offer from Formula One Management and Liberty Media, soon to be F1’s new owners.
When we meet in Brown’s new office, a few yards across the corridor from the suite that is technically still Dennis’s lair, the new man’s relaxed demeanour shows no lack of confidence. He promptly agrees with my opening suggestion that he’s very much the man of the moment but throws in an immediate helping of well-judged humility. (“We’ll see how long that lasts. Hopefully, for a while…”) He is also keen to place promptly on record that he isn’t Dennis’s direct replacement. Brown more directly replaces longserving McLaren marketing chief Ekrem Sami, who departed recently after nearly 30 years. McLaren will probably go public about its search for a CEO after Dennis’s contract expires at the end of the month. In the meantime, McLaren Technology Group will be led jointly by Brown and operations boss Jonathan Neale. McLaren Automotive operates independently nearby.
Not that Brown displays much concern over management minutiae. He’s a lifelong McLaren fan, he says, who started doing business with Dennis 15 years ago and will always admire the founder’s achievements if not necessarily his management techniques. (“He has his style. I have mine.”) Brown wants nothing more, he insists, than to see the Woking team win races and championships.
The nub of the new job, Brown explains, is to provide commercial leadership for McLaren’s F1 racing effort and, in particular, to find and sign a major sponsor for a team that hasn’t had one since its £60 million deal with Vodafone petered out at the end of 2013. It’s getting urgent, too.
“The deal needs to be done in 2018,” he says. “We can’t go much longer than that. This season is already finished because, realistically, it takes a year working with a big corporation to get the right deal. We’re already working hard but, to the naked eye, there may be relatively little progress through 2017. But next year should be a game changer for us.”
Does this imply race success is just around the corner? Brown won’t go that far, but I get a feeling of underlying confidence. Perhaps that’s what it takes to do a job like Brown’s but I get the clear impression he knows stuff we don’t. “We’re definitely going to improve,” he says. “It’d be dangerous to put a number on it, but our trajectory in 2016 was encouraging. We were sixth in the constructors’ championship, a big improvement on the disastrous ninth of 2015, and we improved as the season went on. With a few more races, we could have challenged Williams for fifth.”
Yet, I wonder, when you’re talking nine-figure, multi-year deals with multinationals, what makes sixth-placed McLaren more attractive than those further up the leader board? Brown has no doubts. “McLaren is a brand unlike any other,” he declares. “It has a sense of timelessness and heritage richer than anyone else’s, except maybe the red guys [Ferrari]. We have great resources, and we help our partners develop their own businesses – with technology, marketing, branding know-how. It’s not just stickers on race cars.”
Besides, he continues, F1 itself still offers great-value exposure. “You get global notoriety, delivered very efficiently. Some say it’s expensive, but if you break down what it offers across the world, F1 isn’t expensive at all. Want to prove that? Try buying TV advertising in 200 countries. F1’s global reach is amazing.”
Achieving ‘reach’ isn’t just about TV, says Brown. Sure, he’d like the TV ratings to grow, but they’re not the only thing. “People watch F1 in so many ways now – via social media or online. McLaren has led the field in showing us what modern F1 looks like. I’d like us to be at the cutting edge for new media, too. We must do a much better job for the fans.”
When I ask how, exactly, this can be achieved, Brown utters four words rarely heard in interviews. “I don’t know yet,” he says, cheerfully. “But we’re full of ideas. And we need to ask the fans. We know they have a huge thirst for involvement, but it’s just not possible to march 100,000 people through the pit lane. We have to find new ways of providing unique content – and we will.”
So far, I’m persuaded by Brown’s straightforward American optimism, having been brought up on motorsport interviews full of caution and obfuscation. It strikes me how attractive this must be to prospective business targets. Brown clearly knows it, too. For a high-powered workaholic who needs only four or five hours’ sleep a night, he has a steady gaze, a ready smile, a liking for conversation and a nice line in humility. I remark on his easy availability for this interview, having expected our mid-December request to be answered with a date in half-past July. “Oh, no,” he says, slightly shocked. “You’ve got to get on with things.” Privately, I’m thinking McLaren insiders must be noticing a cultural shift…
Brown’s obsession with big-time motorsport goes back 40 years to a dinner with Mario Andretti after the 1987 Long Beach Indycar race. (“A school buddy’s family had a connection with the Andrettis.”) Andretti won the race and star-struck young Brown asked how he could do the same. Get into karting, Andretti advised, and Brown set off hotfoot to do it, selling several watches he’d won in a TV game show to finance the driving lessons. He won lots of US kart races and then moved to Europe in 1990 (“I was a big F1 fan”) where he went through the Jim Russell driving school and started winning at Formula Ford. In the early 1990s, he had considerable success in single-seaters on both sides of the Atlantic before moving to LMP2 sportscars, scoring impressive results at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta. But by his own admission, he was a good driver rather than a great one, good at raising money but never quite enough.
About then, Brown did his first sponsorship deal for someone else. “I’d had backing from TWA, the airline, and they wanted to continue in racing but not with me, which I understood. We kept talking. They said: ‘You know people in the pit lane. Can you place the sponsorship with someone else?’ It was easy. I knew competitors because I’d been one myself. I placed the TWA money with Nigel Mansell’s F3000 team – the start of a great business.”
Brown went back to old potential sponsors with a fresh proposition: he would use his inside knowledge of racing to find best-value targets for sponsorship funds. “They liked and trusted me,” says Brown. “They just didn’t want to sponsor me because I wasn’t famous enough or good enough and I was cool with that. But no one was advising them how to get best value from racing.”
The business grew rapidly. Over a decade, JMI (for Just Marketing International) rapidly became the biggest firm of its kind in the world. After receiving the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, Brown sold 70% of it in 2008 and 20% more in 2012 and he has now left completely. The proceeds have financed the car collection – which includes Andretti’s 1987 Long Beach winner – plus a racing team, United Autosports, for which Brown raced a McLaren successfully in 2013. In future, he predicts, the demands of getting McLaren’s F1 finances back on track mean he’ll concentrate on historic racing.
What’s the secret of charming money out of people, I ask. So many try and fail. “I’m not sure there’s a secret,” Brown replies. “Except that a lot of people don’t work as hard as they say – and concentrate mostly on their own concerns. You’ve got to do a lot of listening. What is it you need from racing, Mr Sponsor? To summarise, I’d say you have to work, listen, focus on your sponsor’s aims, do what you say and build long-term relationships. I don’t believe in temporary friendships.”
Brown is still breezy and unhurried as we reach the end of an hour’s talk. On the way back to normality, I ask how he’d have felt, back in LA in 1987, if he’d known he’d finish up here. “I’d have been shocked,” he says, “because this is a dream come true. Come to think of it, I’m still surprised right now.”