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Far from heavenly, the F1 marketing role sounds like the brief from hell

September 7, 2010

I was intrigued to hear that the search is on for a Formula One marketing director. Given F1’s global reach, and the colossal sums of money from sponsorship, TV rights and attendance fees supporting the brand, it sounds the CMO job from heaven. Why ever had no one thought of creating it before? For very good reason, as it happens.

First things first, however. The proposal has come out of the inaugural meeting of something called the F100 alliance, which is a new organisation designed to represent the commercial sponsors of the sport. F1 is composed of so many self-interested “guilds” that it’s a surprise the sponsors haven’t cottoned on to this idea earlier. There is, for example, one for determining the governing rules (FIA); another for the Grand Prix manufacturers; yet another for the drivers; one for the mechanics; and even one called the Overtaking Working Group. By contrast, the 175 sponsors who contributed £458m in 2010 (according to industry monitor Formula Money) – more than the £352m provided by the team owners and the £156m by the car manufacturers – have until now been unprovided for.

The immediate back-drop to the creation of the F100 alliance is the recession, and a change in the relative importance of the contributing revenue streams – which has sharpened the sponsors’ appetite for power. The idea, not unreasonably, is to make their money work harder for them by creating a ginger group. The kind of thing which they might wish to influence would be the timing of grand prix, their geographical location and the multiplication of opportunities to entertain – all of course in the cause of maximising sponsorship return. Finding a marketing director to front and shape their interests, where commonality can be found, is a natural extension of this platform.

But who would be the ideal candidate, and how much power would he or she actually have? Although discussions – about the brief, let alone the candidate – are at any early stage, the name of David Wheldon has already emerged from the pack. I have no idea whether Wheldon really is interested, but he certainly has persuasive credentials as the former global brand chief of a major F1 sponsor, Vodafone. And there’s something else he has that any F1 marketing director will need by the bucket load: emollient charm and a considerable reserve of patience.

F100 and its marketing director will be able to beg, but they won’t be able to bully. The Mediaeval jumble of competing guilds that makes up F1 disguises an important reality about its underlying constitution. It is an autocracy where only one man’s opinion – certainly on the matter of grand prix venues – actually counts. That of ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone has very graciously condescended to read the minutes of F100’s inaugural meeting, rather in the way that a monarch might glance at his subjects’ charters. He is committed to doing precisely nothing. Indeed, not very privately, he has described the whole idea of F100 as “silly.”

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