Formula One commercial boss Sean Bratches admits he underestimated the scale of the job when he joined, saying he didn’t realise before he joined that F1 was essentially a “one-man operation” and the company was mainly made up of attorneys and accountants, with no marketing or commercial operation and little understanding of what the fans wanted.
Speaking at Advertising Week Europe yesterday (20 March), Bratches said he has faced a huge job to set up a commercial operation and move its revenues away from being mostly focused on TV rights and race-hosting fees to creating a better experience for fans and sponsors. Yet that opportunity is one of the primary reasons why Liberty Media bought F1 for £8bn just over a year ago.
“Liberty Media acquired F1 for three primary reasons. Firstly, this is a fantastic brand, a global brand, with a pretty good balance sheet. Secondly, in the world we live in with tech continuing to disintermediate the consumer experience the thesis is that live sports is going to be [one of] the last bastion of platforms, brands, genres that can aggregate large audiences at a given point in time.
“And thirdly they felt it was an under-managed business. The 21st century leadership opportunity to grow the business is pretty significant.”
Bratches was one of the first people to join the business after the Liberty Media deal. He previously spent 27 years working at ESPN, latterly as executive vice-president of sales and marketing.
He said his first job was working on the basics – understanding who F1 is as a brand and how it is perceived by the fans. And so even before the deal closed he detailed how he went on a “covert mission” to Wieden+Kennedy in London to undertake F1’s first global brand study.
That research involved speaking to fans across four continents. For example, F1 identified 10 avid fans on each continent and spoke to them for seven hours about their thoughts of the brand, as well as talking to casual fans and panels.
I try to roll a grenade in every room I walk into to get things going.
Sean Bratches, F1
From that, he explained, came a “trove of data” that has helped F1 better understand the fans and what the sport means to them that turned the sport on its head.
“[On the old] F1 website there was a pithy statement about what F1 is that ended with ‘Pursuit: speed’. What we found out is that what attracts people to F1 is not the speed, it’s the racing.
“They wanted that picked up on TV so we created a sporting and tech group headed by F1 legend Ross Brawn who is charged with working with the circuits where we race to create overtaking capabilities. And broadcast partners are really central to this from a strategic standpoint.”
Becoming a media and entertainment brand
F1 now sees its broadcast partners in a different light and is keen to work with them not just on revenue but on marketing and raising awareness of the brand. In future, Bratches said he expects 30% of races in a particular country to be free-to-air with the rest on pay TV to “create a marketing and revenue platform”.
F1 is also, for the first time, launching its own over-the-top service, F1 TV. That offers the sport the opportunity to “reimagine its product” with more cameras around the circuit, particularly where overtaking is happening, to put the focus on the racing.
And Bratches, who was speaking to Oystercatchers CEO Suki Thompson, is keen to make F1 “a little less predictive”. Since the 2015 season, only three teams have won a Grand Prix, while in the Premier League the bottom three teams have either beaten or drawn with the top six teams 29% of the time.
“As a Swansea fan you know you are probably not going to win the Premier League but if you go and play Manchester City or Arsenal you know you have a chance to win because it happens. That doesn’t happen today in F1. We want to make it a bit less predictive,” he explains.
There will also be more events for fans to get involved in beyond the races. There will be new fan zones and F1 is introducing fan festivals in four host cities – Berlin, Marseille, Miami and Shanghai – that will take place in the week of the Grand Prix but run from Wednesday right through to Sunday.
“We want to really engage fans through food courts, static car shows, Pirelli show tyres, sponsor activations, merchandise sales. And three of the four will have live show car runs with F1 cars ripping up and down the streets of the city.
“In the broadest sense we are trying to reposition F1 from a motorsport company to a media and entertainment brand.”
As a Swansea fan you know you are probably not going to win the Premier League but if you go and play Manchester City or Arsenal you know you have a chance to win because it happens. That doesn’t happen today in F1.
Sean Bratches, F1
That includes looking at sponsorship opportunities. F1 had just five under previous owner Bernie Ecclestone, and Bratches compared that to a Premier League football team like Manchester United, which has 96.
“When you juxtapose us with other similarly situated sports entities or leagues, we are way under-punching our weight class.”
Bratches admitted that half the time since he joined he hasn’t known whether to “laugh or cry”. For example, he found it astounding F1 had never run a global marketing campaign.
Its first, created by Wieden+Kennedy and launched last week, focuses on engineered insanity, which Bratches described as “two polarised concepts working in harmony in this sport like no other”. It builds on F1’s new philosophy of putting fans first and features F1 supporters, with social films supporting the main ad telling their story of F1 and what it means to them.
Creating a 21st century leadership team
F1 now has a commercial division with 10 distinct areas of focus, including strategy, digital events, hospitality, marketing, sponsorship, media rights and communications. And while Bratches said the group is “staffed from the head”, it needs to start “filling out the body”.
“We had a unique opportunity to bring in the leadership teams of this commercial division and it is a fantastic edit of talent. The unique thing in this role is that no culture existed prior to me arriving so I have been able to create my own culture, which is somewhat unique particularly for a 67-year-old company,” he explained.
That culture, he added, is about cultivating leaders that “make other people better”, sharing rather than taking credit, a code of ethical and moral behaviour and “communicating, communicating, communicating”. The offices reflect this, with F1’s London HQ designed to replicate a garage and sponsors including Pirelli and Heineken “provisioning” the team with features including a bar.
“I try to roll a grenade in every room I walk into to get things going. When I got here a year ago there was nothing in the pipe and I am really proud in terms of what we have accomplished. I think we’ll turn the sport on its head but there continues to be a lot to do,” he explained.