It came down to the final corners of the final lap in the final Grand Prix of the Formula One season. In a few heart-stopping seconds, Lewis Hamilton realised his dream and became the sport’s youngest world champion.
The dramatic climax, in front of a deeply partisan, Massa-supporting crowd at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday, catapulted the 23-year-old from Stevenage to the super-league of sport’s highest earners, joining the likes of David Beckham, Roger Federer and current top-earner Tiger Woods. And some say that, perhaps, he has the potential to outstrip even their bumper pay packets.
Experts, including celebrity PR specialist Max Clifford, estimate Hamilton’s earnings could reach $1bn, something mooted by industry observers as early as last October, exclusively in Marketing Week (MW October 25, 2007).
As a value enhancer for a brand, Hamilton is currently unrivalled, industry observers say. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising director general and author of Celebrity Sells, Hamish Pringle, says: “He is young, good-looking and he seems squeaky clean.” He adds: “He is also not white – a very powerful thing for a lot of sponsors.”
Pringle points out that Hamilton’s pop star girlfriend, Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Sherzinger, only adds to his saleability, and draws a parallel with Beckham. “The thing about ‘Brand Beckham’ was that it brought together sport, fashion, music and family.”
Perceived as somewhat aloof, Hamilton’s persona may not be attractive to all, but nothing succeeds like success and his phenomenal start to a career that could last many more years has driven interest and enthusiasm in Formula One to a higher level and to new audiences. ITV says 13.1 million viewers watched Hamilton finish in Brazil and 8.8 million – 42% of the total TV audience – watched the entire event, which lasted more than three hours.
Though most of his commercial rights are tied up with the McLaren team sponsors, such as Vodafone, Johnnie Walker, Hugo Boss and Santander, Hamilton is permitted to make some personal sponsorship deals as part of his £75m five-year deal with the team.
Already he has a deal with sportswear company Reebok, with book deals expected and perhaps, like Michael Schumacher, branded dolls, toys and games.
Word of warning
Yet companies must beware of jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon in the hope that his brand equity will rub off on theirs.
Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkittsays: “I’d advise them to steer well clear of him. At this level, sports stars becomeso popular it’s ridiculous.It’s very difficult for any brand to have anything but a tiny share of them. That doesn’t feel like very good value and can almost belittle a brand.”
Tightly-managed by his father Anthony Hamilton – unusual for F1, Hamilton is not the most popular driver in the paddock, according to an insider at one F1 team.
But former F1 driver Martin Brundle says of the ill-feeling: “They don’t like him because he arrived in F1 and got all the best equipment straight away. They don’t like him because he can come across a bit arrogant. But most of all, they don’t like him because he’s just too fast for them.”
McLaren Mercedes chairman and chief executive Ron Dennis, who has nurtured the rise of Hamilton for a decade, revelled in his young driver’s glory in Brazil. “Lewis has done everything he has been asked to do and more,” he said.
If Hamilton’s employer is basking in his success this week, proved right in its backing of the young driver, the BBC is at the opposite end of the scale – its brand equity seemingly eroded by one of its most bankable stars.
The corporation has been called to account by the BBC Trust, its governing body, following the catastrophic media fall-out over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s phone prank on Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show. They left lewd messages to elderly Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs.
Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown criticised the broadcaster, and public feeling ran as high as the Jade Goody Big Brother “racism” furore that almost crippled Channel 4 early last year.
Brand has since resigned from the BBC, as has Radio2 controller Lesley Douglas, although Ross – the UK’s highest-paid TV personality – remains, albeit with a 12-week suspension without pay.
The BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee found that editorial control and compliance procedures were “inadequate” and demanded they be “strengthened immediately”.
The affair has also thrust former BBC marketing chief Tim Davie into the limelight, just weeks after his promotion to director of BBC Audio and Music. There has been widespread criticism of its management for being slow to react, and it has sparked fresh complaints about Ross’s £18m, three-year deal.
The going rate
An investigation into the salaries of BBC stars, which concluded in June, found they were not paid any more than the going rate. But whether this is still the case is arguable, given plunging advertising revenue in the commercial sector, which has called salaries and status into question once more.
Pringle says: “For a combination of reasons, Ross has become an albatross around the neck of the BBC, and this incident has been a lightening rod for the resentment that has built up against the broadcaster.” Many feel the BBC is a predatory competitor, which cherry-picks talent discovered and developed in the commercial sector, with Ross being the ultimate example of this.
Others explain the extraordinary public backlash as articulating a powerlessness felt as a result of the banking crisis and economic uncertainty, with the BBC embodying another institution people give money to fund, yet have no apparent control over how it is spent.
For many, Hamilton’s triumph gives cause for national pride and celebration, in stark contrast to the frustration and anger felt towards Ross and the BBC.
As one industry observer puts it: “We’re talking here about the gutsy and the gutless.”