American businessman and racer Zak Brown heads up Just Marketing International (JMI), the largest motorsport sponsorship agency in the world. Regarded as a possible successor to Bernie Ecclestone at the head of Formula 1, he is an influential figure and key deal-broker in the multi-million-dollar arena of Grand Prix sponsorship.
It all started when then-20-year-old Brown came to the UK as a hopeful single-seater racer in 1990. He quickly discovered an aptitude for sponsorship hunting and deal-closing in support of his own career. Before long, he had parked his F1 ambitions and made sponsorship his full-time occupation. But enthusiasm for racing still burned: in 2010, he returned to the track with the United Autosports team, which he co-founded with veteran British racer and team boss Richard Dean. The outfit has previously run Audi R8s in GT3 Europe and British GT, but this year has changed tack with a Blancpain Endurance Series campaign in the all-new McLaren MP4-12C, alongside a single R8 in the UK and at the Spa 24 Hours.
“I’m loving the McLaren,” Brown enthuses. “There’s still a lot of gremlins to work through, but I think that’s expected with a new car. Most importantly, it’s quick. We’re a little down on pace because of the Balance of Performance regulations, but the car’s got it,” he asserts. If you just look at the straight-line speed here in Monza, Porsches and Ferraris are seven of the top 10 in the practice sessions, so it’s not as much the car’s capability as it is the rules. The Balance of Performance people have taken a conservative approach, letting it creep up rather than letting it loose and then pulling it back, so it’s a little frustrating.” He has no regrets about switching from familiar Audi to unproven McLaren, however. “Because the McLaren has a carbon-fibre chassis, it feels more like a single-seater, so it’s more enjoyable from the driver’s seat. It has more technology, which is proving to be a double-edged sword, as there’s more potential gremlins, but ultimately I’m happy with the decision we made.”
At the highest levels, sponsorship is about a lot more than a business owner signing a cheque in return for a sticker on a car. Brown’s expertise is securing and developing successful commercial relationships in the world of motorsport, and he says context is key to making it work. “Ultimately, it’s about knowing what you have to offer and then targeting that,” he explains. “For example, I’ve lost count of how many people say to me ‘what about Coca Cola?’ But you have to think outside the box a bit: Who wants to do business with McLaren road cars? What luxury brands could sit alongside McLaren? The massive companies like to spend massive money in F1. People ask, ‘what’s $200,000 to Coca Cola?’ The answer is that it doesn’t get their attention, so there’s no point in asking for it. They’d rather spend $20 million. Big companies do big things, so you have to find the right-sized business for your situation. And of course, you have to be competitive. That doesn’t mean you have to win every weekend, but you need to be in mix.”
The controversy surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix has the potential to put F1 sponsors in a negative light, but Brown says the sports’ corporate backers aren’t about to rush in to any radical action. “They’re really letting the sport take the lead – they’re passengers to an extent. Abu Dhabi has become the race of choice for sponsors in the Middle East, so I’ve never been to Bahrain. I think everyone’s concerned, but at the same time it’s up to the FIA and Bernie to decide if they’re going to go. The sponsors are watching closely, they’re monitoring the situation, but I assume they’ll all fall into line. I don’t expect any pullouts, cancelled deals or anything like that over Bahrain.”
Although the majority of Brown’s sponsorship business commitments are in F1, he’s also keeping one eye on the new-for-2012 World Endurance Championship (WEC), sportscar racing’s first proper world championship for 20 years. “I don’t think it rivals F1, or ever will, but it’s another opportunity for us,” he explains. “It’s a big fish-small pond situation. If a potential sponsor has $5million to spend, that can get them one thing in sportscars or another in F1. Sportscar racing is more manufacturer-driven. It’s more suited to brands wanting to be aligned with the manufacturers, rather than the big consumer giants that want millions of eyeballs on their name. It’s like NASCAR and IndyCar in the States – two different opportunities. WEC gives us another global championship to sell, and I think it’ll be very successful in the long term.”
According to Brown, sportscar racing’s leadership in the areas of hybrid drivetrains and alternative fuels are key to its commercial appeal in today’s world. “It’s probably the best environment for companies that want to be affiliated with the green side of the sport,” he adds. “I think that’s something Le Mans and WEC should continue to do to differentiate themselves from other series.”
Finally, having raced the Spa 24 Hours in 2010 and 2011, does Brown have any ambition to take on the greatest 24-hour race of them all? “Absolutely,” he says without hesitation. “I will do Le Mans. Not this year, but hopefully-definitely in 2013. It’s something I have to do before I croak!”
Interview: Stephen Errity
Images: Dan Bathie/United Autosports