We at Paddock magazine are happy to have a chance to speak to Simon Pavitt, founder and head of Wingman, a consultancy company for founders, leaders, and mavericks. Prior to starting his own consultancy, Simon was Marketing Director of a Formula 1 team, Manor Racing. Before that, he led a dynamic global strategy team and internal culture at one of the leading sports and entertainment agencies, growing the award-winning agency from seven to over 130 employees in six years. From 2014 to 2016 alone, the team was involved in the creation and negotiation of deals worth of over $2bn across a variety of platforms.
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Simon, what urged you to start Wingman?
It was partly a Phoenix from the Flames moment… I was the Marketing Director at Manor Racing, I was on six months’ notice and when Sauber scored two points in Brazil to take 10th in the 2016 Championship, that dent in prize money meant our owner couldn’t carry on with the team. That nice long notice period was basically null and void. We still, however, throughout the administration, thought we were going to be bought by one of two credible consortiums. In the end, an agreement couldn’t be reached, and so it was time to quickly find a new role. I started talking to contacts in and around Formula 1, many that were partners to the team about helping them out. The work quickly came in, and so Wingman was formed. It was something I had always said I would one day do; that became the day. Formula 1 enables you to build good relationships with senior business leaders and owners as you have a common passion to discuss/unite. Entertaining over race weekends in great cities meant you get to know people away from their office. The business ended up naturally being built around something I am excited by (and hopefully considered effective at) – helping others accelerate their businesses.
What’s most important for you today in your work?
The path I am hopefully on is to be a success by making others a success. I love to apply elements of Formula 1 into other businesses, for instance, setting hard deadlines – there was nothing like 100m people tuning in at 1 pm on a Sunday to see you race your competitors to focus the entire team on getting the best car possible there! It’s trying to create that urgency and purpose in other businesses and people…
Teamwork – I run workshops to help people and teams reach high performance. People are always fascinated by the workings of a Formula 1 team even if they’re not petrolheads. I try to choose projects that require upstart problem solving so that a) I can make a real impact on the commercial strategy/marketing b) that I’m passionate about and see the potential to challenge the status quo c) that I get to work with leading-edge products and help high performers. Often then connecting the dots between opportunities, people, ideas, and resources lead to collaborations that wouldn’t have happened if Wingman wasn’t involved. It often ends back somewhere close to the Formula 1 paddock.
If I had a pound for every time I had a creative agency come up with the same idea that wasn’t feasible or had been done already in Formula 1, I’d be retired by now.
How would you compare the work now to when you were part of a Formula 1 team?
I miss the camaraderie of a 220+ person company working towards a common goal especially as the underdog up against it in Formula 1: budget constraints, squeezing the most out of a limited resource, the Concorde agreement payments, etc. It was a buzz (and emotional rollercoaster) having a large vested interest in watching the back of the race as much as the front. At Manor, it was all about telling the upstart challenger story to attract like-minded brands, which we had started to do… The likes of Airbnb, Shazam, N26 Bank, what3words, Deliveroo, Microsoft, Dell EMC, and so forth. Many of those businesses have gone onto becoming business unicorns. The leadership fundamentals/skills still apply, for me now though, it’s more about working directly with a CEO or founder rather than in a large team: productising, prospecting, brand building, partnerships, managing people, negotiating, understanding your audience/followers, capitalising on future trends, etc. are all transferable from my experience in and around Formula 1. I don’t, however, miss the relentless long-haul travel, especially with a young family…
How would rate Formula 1’s current marketing strategies as a professional?
I liked the rebrand, the way they have tried to dial up the visceral elements of the sport alongside the technology and engineering prowess. It’s quite amazing how under-invested the sport was towards the end under Bernie and CVC. Relaxing the grip on teams creating their own content from inside the paddock was also needed although I feel it’s just meant more of the same “behind the scenes” activations. The new owners have tried quite a lot of different things like the post-race live show on Twitter, F1 Experiences, and F1 Live in Trafalgar Square, London. I’ve been excited about the new W Series as that will create different narratives and therefore potentially attract new brands to the sport. Those in Formula 1 have found the new owners refreshingly open to ideas and opinions, which is good. I think it is moving in the right direction. There is still a huge amount to fix though.
What would you change about the sport if you had the chance, business-wise?
Most importantly, teams need to know they have enough to be able to go racing. Whether that’s budget caps in the right areas or more equitable share of prize money (or both ideally). If it costs a minimum of £75m a year to race and be (at least partly) competitive, make sure each team receives £75m so that they are assured of their futures. Then it’s down to the teams to maximise commercial opportunities through sponsorships, licensing, road cars, applied technology, joint ventures, etc. One of the challenges, if you are at the back of the grid, is that potential partners aren’t sure if you will be around in the future. Teams would also be able to commit to futures for staff, suppliers, and would act differently if they knew they had a guaranteed runway in the sport. Taking potentially more risks in their marketing, looking at new ventures, etc. The NFL are probably the best at building financial security mixed with a progressive system through drafts and other things that allow underdogs to rise up and disrupt. It would also be good to encourage more fun, playful, emotional James Hunt, Lord Hesketh-style characters in Formula 1! Less corporate and polish, more charisma, feuds, glamour, and spontaneity. Encourage conditions that fuel the human elements and drama…
What would it take for more Formula 1 clients to start working with independent consultants like yourself? What are the pros of such business relationships?
Word of mouth and referral was/is key for me and that’s why Formula 1 has been good to me as it’s a large network of people you get to know inside and around the paddock. It’s about providing agile, frank, and honest, lean, committed support – often companies don’t want to employ a large agency team or a full-time internal marketeer for strategy or specific problem-solving. Because I’m not always inside the paddock, it’s good to have one foot outside to bring new thinking in. Many people become a bit institutionalised/stuck in their ways in the Formula 1 echo chamber. The same activation ideas, same recommendations. etc. I offer independent challenger thinking. I have no hidden agenda or company politics. There is also no procrastinating, I get projects done. Having worked for a team, agency, rights holder, investors, and drivers, I can come from multiple angles. If I had a pound for every time I had a creative agency come up with the same idea that wasn’t feasible or had been done already in Formula 1, I’d be retired by now.