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Why McLaren's CMO is pulling into the F1 season already ‘energised’ by Liberty Media’s ownership

When Bernie Ecclestone finally handed over the keys to the Formula One brand and all its fortunes earlier this year, marketers delighted at the previously unthinkable prospect of a revamped commercial model under Liberty Media’s tenure. And going by the account of McLaren, the changeover’s new regulations appear to be exactly what the sport has been looking for.

Rules on sponsorship that were developed and staunchly protected by the old guard were infamously restrictive and “one dimensional”, according to new chief executive Chase Carey. Any deal was near-strangled by matters of rights and old-fashioned in its connotations with track-side hoarding and (literal) banner advertising; as such, the teams’ collective sponsorship revenue fell by $200m between 2012 and 2015.

“The old fashioned model was a team like McLaren was [seen as] a rights holder, and access to the drivers, access to the team, the car…all those kinds of things were seen as rights,” explained John Allert, chief marketing officer of McLaren Technology Group, at an event organised by brand consultancy The Clearing and The School of Life.

“Now…we're treating all of our sponsors as partners. We're not as worried about specifically what those rights are so much as what their ambitions are for the programme. We're working with them much as an agency would do to help them. Yes, against a kind of a matrix of what rights they have access to, but we’re helping them actually realise their ambition for how they use those assets, and how they then meet their own marketing objectives with the help of our brand and the assets that we have.”

It seems odd to even be discussing the benefits of these kinds of sponsorship agreements knowing how lucrative they can be in other sports, but nonetheless it’s a “hugely energisng” change of mindset that McLaren is eager to dig into.

“Liberty is seeing the sponsors basically as amplifiers of the sport,” said Allert. “[Sponsors] have marketing budgets, they have advertising budgets and [Liberty] have some of the strongest brands in the world across all the different teams. So why wouldn't you use sponsors as a means by which you can – by working with them and by helping them do things that they haven't been able to do traditionally – turn up the volume on the sport, showing how exciting it is through all of their campaigns? And that's exactly what Liberty are planning to do.”

A new dawn for content distribution

Outside of sponsorship, the world of owned media is opening up to McLaren now that regulations on content ownership have also been relaxed. Digital and social opportunities have been widened – for once, the team can provide fans with what they’re asking for, as Allert explained: “In the old world of Formula One we were oddly prevented from using any kind of moving image footage that was taken at races.

“In an era where fans are demanding not just rich content but immediate content, it's been hugely fortuitous for us that we now have new commercial owners who share the team's visions for meeting the demands of their customers and their fans, as well as new fans, by using moving images, highlights, clips with the drivers…to bring people closer to the sport.

“It's an exciting sport so why wouldn't you use those kind of content rights quite freely to get out and help generate the popularity in the sport?”

This newfound ability to self-distribute content is also an antidote to Sky’s hold of the Formula One broadcast rights, which immediately limited the amount of people who can watch a race due to the network’s pay-to-view model. However this might not even be a problem much longer, as according to Allert, Liberty’s plans to make the sport more accessible will include a restricting of TV rights.

“The days of coverage either being terrestrial or pay-to-view will probably become a thing of the past,” he said. “I think that you’ll see Formula One distributed through more innovative and contemporary digital channels, so people can watch races not necessarily with TV subscriptions but…through their iPhone, through their tablet, whatever it is.

“Some of it may be user pays, but I think they're trying to broaden the popularity and the best way to broaden the popularity is to give more exciting content to more people.”

A brand for the tech age

Other plans for McLaren include “going back to the future” with more live marketing and physical experiences (“the kind of traditional things that people once did around events, enabling people to be closer to stars of the sport”), as well as expanding its licensing strategy into new product lines such as homewares and clothing to “extend the brand into the everyday”. But as the brand drives off into the sun with Liberty, Allert’s team are making sure they know what it stands for too.

“If people compare McLaren to Ferrari for example, we’re kind of the yin to their yang,” he said. “They’re a brand that's all about passion, we're a brand that's all about innovation and technology and for a certain kind of audience, that resonates really strongly.

“I think particularly in a world of extraordinary change in innovation and technology, McLaren is a brand that is appealing to a very wide group of people –­ and an increasingly wide group of people.”