When in Bahrain…

Motor Racing – FIA World Endurance Championship – WEC- Round 7 – Sakhir, Bahrain

I’ve just returned from an interesting visit to Bahrain. As I mentioned in an earlier edition, my primary reason for my being there was to run a two-day sponsorship acquisition training programme for members of the Bahrain Olympic Committee. The course formed a part of the World Academy of Sport’s prestigious Post Graduate Certificate in Sports Management programme. I ran a similar course in Bahrain for the Academy last year.

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It was an added bonus when I realised that my course was scheduled for the Monday and Tuesday following the weekend of the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix. Knowing how difficult it is to secure a Pass to an F1 event at short notice, I was surprised and delighted when my e-mail request to Bernie Ecclestone paid dividends and I duly received my VIP Paddock Pass. I first met him in 1975 at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, along with Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash. He was then the owner of the Brabham team. In the few dealings that I’ve had with him since then, I’ve always found him extremely helpful and courteous. He’s always replied promptly to any communications that I’ve sent him. I can’t say that for a lot of other people that I’ve had dealings with! It was good to meet both Herbie and Charlie at the Grand Prix. They are also two “old school” individuals who find the time to speak to people at all levels and don’t act as though they are too important to need good manners.

If you’ve read my previous Money, Egos and Speed articles, you’ll know that I managed to build a 40 year career on my ability to secure sponsorship. This included 11 years as a professional race driver. Not bad for an average, run of the mill racer! Now, at a time when I might politely be called an older figure within motorsport, the demand for my sponsorship acquisition training / consultancy services is greater than ever. It’s been a big surprise, however, that the demand is no longer just from the world of motorsport, but across a variety of sports.

Whilst I was at the race in Bahrain, looking at the F1 cars, two things stood out like a sore thumb. Yes, I have to admit that I don’t think the current cars are the most stunning looking representatives of their category that I’ve ever come across. But that’s a personal opinion. What struck me as being more worrying was the level of sponsorship across many of the teams, or should I say lack of it? The Martini deal is certainly the exception and it was great to see the Williams cars resplendent in their new, but famous, livery. But where were all the other new sponsors? Conspicuous by their absence!

The problem is that so many people are operating in a huge bubble and can’t see the bigger picture.

I looked at the cars and saw branding indicating deals with companies owned by the team owner. I saw small official supplier deals, but where have all the title sponsorship deals gone? Maybe F1 teams are becoming totally reliant on paying drivers; too reliant in my view. Or is there another reason why the deals aren’t being done?

I think there is. The world has changed in the past few years but I don’t think that the world of motorsport has come to terms with this. It’s not just in F1; it’s at all levels of motorsport. I look at other sports and the way that they’re approaching sponsorship acquisition. I hate to say it, but at times it makes motorsport’s efforts look like a dinosaur.

I was at the head office of a global bank a few weeks back. They told me that there are two criteria that they apply to any sponsorship proposal that comes across their desk. One is global reach. F1 proposals certainly fit that criterion. It’s the other criterion that is proving to be the problem.

I’m not going to spell out exactly what that is, after all, that’s what I get paid as a consultant to do! However, what I will say is that you don’t have to work in Monty Python’s “Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious” to fathom out what I’m talking about. My contact at the bank went on to say that they receive several sponsorship proposals from F1 and other high-level motorsport teams and organisations. Her opinion of these documents was not very complimentary. Another comment was that they seem to completely miss the point.

I’m always telling delegates on my courses that motorsport has got so much to offer as a dynamic, innovative platform upon which companies can build business-development strategies; strategies that meet the real, not the assumed, needs of companies today. Many of the proposals that I see are just so out of touch with the real world that they make me wonder if the people who sent them ever read newspapers or watch business and news programmes on TV.

I’m constantly being asked why I’ve been so successful in securing so many sponsorship deals throughout my career; the implication being that I’m not the most highly skilled person they’ve ever come across in respect of marketing qualifications. I find it very easy to answer the question.

It’s simple! I was born with two fairly large ears. I use them both to my advantage and listen to what business people tell me about their real needs, concerns and issues. It’s not rocket science! How can I have the first idea what goes on in a company that I’ve never worked in? How can I offer to provide “marketing solutions” to a business if I haven’t had the chance to hear about the real issues that face it? Far too many people are sending out motorsport proposals to companies, based on what they assume are their requirements, just as they have been doing for the past twenty years!

Even when they do ask questions, they already seem to have the answers in their head. They don’t actually listen to what is being told to them. They might hear the words but they don’t read between the lines!

I said that the world has changed. We all know that. The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the need for a company to increase its sales, profits and market share. What has changed is the way companies go about it and the concerns about the perception of their staff, customers, shareholders and the media.

The opportunities that are out there if motorsport gets it right are huge. The problem is that so many people are operating in a huge bubble and can’t see the bigger picture.

Before finishing this feature, I must touch on one point that came out strongly during my time at the race in Bahrain this year. It’s a complaint that was put to me by delegates on my training course who watched the GP and also by many of the paying spectators I listened to, as I watched the race from various points around the circuit. The complaint concerns helmets and the latest trend for drivers to continually keep changing their colour scheme and design. It is really is so difficult to sort out one from another at times and that surely is the last thing a driver wants. Don’t they realise the importance of consistency of branding?

I think back to some of the F1 helmet designs that one never forgets. We can all remember the individualistic helmets of Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Francois Cevert, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Jody Scheckter. Tom Pryce’s helmet was another that was easily identifiable, as was Carlos Pace’s. Try describing some of the over ornate, confusing designs that are the norm today and you’ll really battle.

Come on drivers, the more difficult you make it for the public to recognise you, the less respect you are going to get. Think of it from their point of view!

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