Zak Brown, McLaren and the future of Formula One

Zak Brown speaks to SportsPro about why he sees McLaren as the ideal place for him.

After months of speculation following his resignation from CSM, Zak Brown’s future was finally settled this week when he was unveiled as the new executive director of the McLaren Group.

The announcement of Brown’s appointment came a few days after it was confirmed that Ron Dennis, the team’s longstanding chairman and chief executive, had been placed on gardening leave until the expiration of his contract in January, and while Brown denies there was any explicit connection between the two events, he will nevertheless be expected to assume many of Dennis’ former duties, including stewardship of the group’s commercial ventures.

In that regard, Brown is clearly the right man for the job, with extensive experience in Formula One’s commercial landscape – including at McLaren, for whom the company he founded, Just Marketing International (JMI), had previously helped secure several sponsorship deals. Brown had also been linked with a move to Formula One Management, where he is believed to have turned down a senior role before accepting the job with McLaren.

The day after Brown’s new position was announced, he spoke with SportsPro to discuss why he sees McLaren as the ideal place for him, and his thoughts on the future of both the team and the sport.

How long have you been speaking with McLaren, and did it take much convincing for you to decide it this was the right role for you?

It dates back years, really, the start of the conversation with Ron Dennis. I’ve done a lot of work with them in the last decade and formed a close relationship with the whole team and specifically with Ron, so he’s always left the door open and made the offer to me to come and join for the last couple of years, but then it got really serious in about April of this year.
When I was first approached I was married to my existing company, so it was a bit early for me. Ultimately, I was under contract and later in the year came upon a window for me to decide whether I wanted to keep doing what I’ve been doing for a long time for another five years, or did I want a career change. I resigned in September and then Ron really pursued it hard up until closure just recently.

How involved was Ron in the negotiations?

He was very involved. He led it. Me coming in didn’t have anything to do with his leaving. He remains a big shareholder, so he’ll have plenty of opportunity to have his input and is someone who obviously has vast experience that I would be silly not to lean on, and I’ve got a great relationship with him.
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Ron. And I hope we haven’t seen the last of Ron! I look forward to continuing to work with him.

What are your immediate priorities?

I’ll be looking at everything, because I need to understand everything. I’ve got a pretty good sense of the company from having been around it for as long as I have but I’ve always been on the outside looking in and now I’ll be in the inside. So the first priority is to review and understand everything. The goal is pretty simple: get back to winning world championships. It will take a little bit of time but we need to be in a rush.
The team is making good progress. We need to have more commercial partners than we have, we all know we’ve been without a title sponsor for too long so that’s going to change, and then of course our racing team is a brand unlike any other. We need to continue to innovate, as McLaren has always done, and continue to focus on the fans because that’s what’s most important to us and our partners. Those three stools are what makes up McLaren. Tackling all of those is pretty important.

What are the qualities you will look for in a title sponsor?

If you look at our brand, the McLaren brand, it stands for a variety of things: excellence, leadership, technology, luxury, wealth. I think any brand that has those same characteristics is going to be what will be best suited for us. It could be a financial company, it could be a technology company, a consumer products company. But it has to be one that shares those same brand values.

With the Liberty takeover of Formula One and other changes afoot in the industry, what do you see as the long-term challenges in the sport for McLaren?

I think it’s less about McLaren than where Formula One’s going. It’s about, what will Formula One look like in ten or 15 years, and how does that engage with the fans? That’s the first issue. Behind that is then how does McLaren operate in that environment? And what I’d like to do, which is what McLaren has always done, is take a leadership position in driving the sport forward in what it looks like and how it acts.

I’d like to think Formula One will be a sport of massive fan engagement in a technical and user-friendly manner. I don’t know where we’re going to be with gaming, gamification, virtual reality and that type of fan engagement and how they consume the sport. However that looks, I’d like McLaren to be the leader in helping develop that.

How do you see Formula One evolving alongside Formula E, with increasing worries around carbon emissions and green technology in the sport?

We have a lot of partners that work with McLaren for benefits well beyond the exposure on the race car. Our applied technology group has done a lot of work with GSK, which is a partner of the race team and a partner of McLaren and I think, given where we’re strong – ie technology – it’s a real advantage in the way partnerships are evolving. Sponsorships are one thing, you sponsor something, but partnerships really get integrated in and benefit from the business knowledge. I think we’ve got a real competitive advantage, when appropriate and when it makes sense for a company, to have our partnership go beyond a sticker on the race car.

I’m not responsible ultimately for the applied technologies, that’s run by Ian Rhodes. They’re certainly looking to build that business, it’s doing very well, but what specific pockets they’re looking into, I’d be speaking out of school.

Rumours a few months ago suggested that you’d spoken to Formula One Management about a position there. Was that the case and what came out of those talks?

I’ve had multiple conversations, beyond just two parties – I’ve spoken with Liberty at great length since they entered the sport and I have a history with them. I think ultimately it’s more about why did I choose McLaren as opposed to why I didn’t choose others.

The McLaren opportunity just ticked all of the boxes for me: the opportunity, the challenge, the situation. Ultimately, I was more comfortable that this was the best opportunity for me. I know the Liberty guys well and I think they’re going to be very good for the sport.

Formula One is entering a new era with figures like Ron and Bernie Ecclestone arguably coming toward the end of their reign over the sport. Do you feel like there is a new era, and what can you do to provide continuity?

There should be as seamless a transition as possible. Ron is still chairman and chief executive and a shareholder, so it should be a natural evolution we’re on. He was bringing me in so he clearly is a big supporter of mine and believes in what I’m doing. It’s going to be a team effort, I’m sure it’ll have some of my fingerprints on it over time, but it is just carrying the relay torch forward.

What are your expectations and targets for 2017, and what can you do in the limited time you have to put your fingerprints on the team?

I’ve not had a full technical briefing yet, so I don’t technically know so at the moment. All I can say is that, from the outside looking in, I can see that the team has been making great and regular progress since they got started with Honda. I just want to see more progress, as much as possible, and get as high up the grid as possible. But I don’t really know sitting here today where on the grid that would be.