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Sorrell shares his vision for F1's future


Along with politicians, bankers and lawyers, it's fair to say that those involved in the advertising industry and PR are looked upon with a certain amount of distrust.

Sir Martin Sorrell has spent almost his entire life in the industry. Having begun with Mark McCormack's management company IMG, where he first became friends with Jackie Stewart, Sorrell joined Saatchi & Saatchi in the mid-70s, subsequently joining WPP in 1986.

Today, WPP is one of the world's leading communications services and advertising companies valued by the UK stockmarket at 5 billion, and Sorrell its CEO.

A non-executive director of F1's Jersey-based parent company Delta Topco also, Sorrell has what might best be described as a love/hate relationship with Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 supremo's opinions clearly angering the WPP man on any number of occasions.

In an interview with Bernie's website, the official F1 organ, Sorrell appears to share some of Ecclestone's vision for the sport, but being an ad man goes that little bit further.

"There is much romanticism about Formula One of the past," he says. "Today it has to be more of a family sport, not less. It is a fixture in the Sunday afternoon TV programmes, and probably flamboyance - those white silk suits and devil-may-care attitudes - would be outworn attributes today.

"What you want to see is a highly competitive sport,” he continues, "and the more equal it is the more exciting it is, the more volatile in the sense of results. If you have just one winner continuously it dulls the enthusiasm. It is entertainment and it competes with other entertainments and not with other racing formats. It competes with people's time on a weekend. So you have to deliver. In that, and that is my personal view, Singapore delivers the most value, as they think about it as a complete entertainment event, on and off track."

Asked if he wishes to see the sport follow the 'complete entertainment' mantra; racing by day, Beyonce and Taylor Swift by night, he admits: "Personally, yes. Just take the lack of presence of F1 in the United States. In theory - and logically - you would have an East Coast Grand Prix, a West Coast Grand Prix, and I think you should have a street race in Detroit - it is still the motor capital of the US. You stay in the US for four weeks and could have two to three races, certainly two."

OK, two or three races in the United States we can understand, but...

"If you run a country and want to put it on the global map you don't have so many choices," he says. "You can get the Olympics, the World Cup or a Formula One race. And the first two are only every four years - and you have them only once. The arguments of waste are heavily overdone, because what you do is to accelerate the infrastructure that you have to build anyway, like airports and roads, and in this case it happens much faster.

"So speaking of a roadmap, without being specific, I would still go for Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East - that's what our clients are really interested in."

Asked if the sport should remain in China and return to India, there is no hesitation.

"Yes, definitely," he responds. "(But) why not look at Indonesia? It will be the third biggest country in the world in population in 25 years' time - after India and China. Then you could think about Vietnam and at some point in time about Nigeria. And then you head to South America: Argentina, Colombia, Peru. Probably not all of them will have an F1 race, but they are definitely considering events.

And Europe, the sport's heartland?

"The challenges some European economies have are such that it makes it very difficult for them. You have to go where the growth is. That goes for my business, as it does for Formula One. When I think back to 2005, the fast growth markets - what we call the fast growth markets - were probably ten percent of our business. They are now 31 percent."

Other than F1 in Nigeria and Peru, what does Sorrell see as the next 'big thing' in F1?

"Virtual Reality could be fantastic... driving the car!" he replies. "In the Ridley Scott film 'The Martian' you can do that. I have lifted off in the space craft from the surface of Mars, walked in space and looked down into deep space and got terrified, with the headphones and the goggles. The technology is already incredible and will improve massively in the next few years.

"Think about what you could do. And there are some - Bernie and others - who are embracing new technologies. When Sky started to broadcast there was an argument that audience would come down because it is pay TV. But the actual quality of the production and the use of technology and the engagement of the viewer is much better than it ever was. The product is simply better. But in the end, getting a flat fee for broadcasting rights is not necessarily the answer in the long run. That might be the old model: to get a fixed fee. You have to start to think about other models and how they can generate interest - what it can do for a brand in the future - and about the fact that revenue can also be generated in many other ways... Just look at the one and a half million people at the free Rolling Stones concert in Cuba. And Cuba is not Central Park! So just use your imagination as to what kind of revenue can be made..."

Asked how F1 might market itself better, he replies: "Formula One gives a platform to companies like Rolex, and that's just in media space, watching television or reading newspapers, digital or physical. You see the brand in the context of the competition and bring it to the attention of everybody on a regular basis. But you must not only focus on the consumer, but also on what it does to you internally - getting people aligned to the strategic mission of the company - what it does to the suppliers, governments, all your stakeholders. So you have to see it on a broader level. But you also have to activate it properly. If you pay 50 million for something, you probably pay another 50 to 100 million to activate it. And the more you spend, the better you do. There is no point in just buying rights."

And what of the fan?

"As I said, it is a fight for people's time. There are millions of options today for how to spend it. That is probably the biggest difference from 1968 to now. And Bernie understands that."

Ah, having raised the spectre of Bernard Charles, Sorrell continues.

"It is always easy to criticize, as he is somebody with extreme opinions. I recently interviewed him in London. He had a go at women, said Putin should be running Europe and so on. He enjoys it - he's been doing it for such a long time. He has an entrenched position. The truth be known, he is unique, right? And somebody who is unique - and this will get me into trouble - by definition cannot be replaced.

"By definition, Formula One does very well. It is a very interesting asset. Could it be run in a different way? Sure it could be. Could it be improved? I'm sure it could. But all I can say is, it seems to do pretty well. Monaco was my first race of the season and I spoke with a number of people and all seemed to be very optimistic. And one of the reasons why they are optimistic is that there is more competition. Red Bull has become more competitive, the races have become more attractive - and that is what fans want!

"He is very entrepreneurial," he says of Ecclestone. "He has created a 1.7 billion dollar a year business. He has created employment for a massive number of people. He has created an industry and pushed technologies. Bernie is still at the top of his game I have noticed. If I were to be super critical, I would say Formula One is too tactical and not strategic enough. And that brings us back to the digital issue: you may have to invest in order to gain - sacrifice some short-term effects in order to make high returns in the future.

"(F1) is exciting, its values are attractive and it could be an even better family sport. And it is going places from a branding point of view. The fast growing markets - the BRICS and Next Eleven - are the key.

"The next billion consumers are not going to come from the US or Western Europe - they are coming from Asia, Latin America and Africa. Formula One follows our strategy: fast growing markets, data, and digital. All those three things Formula One has. And it involves a stunning array of companies. Now that doesn't mean there can't be more..."

Asked to predict how the sport might look in ten years time, he says: "It will be very different - as the technology will be very different and that will make fans consume it in a completely different way.

"I said before that I believe that Virtual Reality will hit it big time. I know that some of my colleagues disagree, but I believe in it. Vodafone is building a digital stadium in Istanbul. It is really worth going to see that. The whole experience will change with the possibilities viewers will have. Technology will have moved on to an unimaginable level in ten years. What still amuses me a bit is that in F1 people see the race basically on TV screens. But I am sure new tracks will be built."

Finally, the sport lives on its heroes, the Sennas, Prosts, Schumachers and Clarks, asked what qualities he would 'breathe' into a new hero being created today, Sorrell's response is intriguing.

"That is, again, a romantic notion," he replies. "I think people enjoy a much more levelled playing field where you have the ability for many people to become heroes. When you go back to the above names it was a very much narrower situation - the alternatives were far fewer. Today there is much more competition for the 'hero stakes'! And if you think about all the alternatives you have today to spend your time on, the pool of heroes is much broader. It was very much less back then.

"I interviewed Kim Kardashian recently and had a conversation with her mother. A lot of people have various thoughts about Kim Kardashian, her mother and her sisters, but it is an incredibly well thought through concept and branding. Each of the daughters appeals to a different segment of the market. The natural urge is to dismiss it as being superficial - but it isn't superficial.

"So, you have to think about whom you are trying to appeal to. If you are a driver of a team and have a certain set of sponsors, who is the target market for those sponsors? But, of course, it is also a question of nationality."


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1. Posted by mickl, 09/06/2016 16:24

"Live VR requires a large camera rig which has multiple cameras attached the allow the wide field of view that you expect. I can't see cars being driven around with these mounted.

Sorrell seems to imply you just stick one camera on a car and you can have VR. What he is really thinking of is POV cameras. Wonder if he watches a lot of porn......

What they could do for VR is to have cameras around various points in the track to give home viewers the same grandstand view as people at the track but that again becomes unstuck by bandwidth issues."

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2. Posted by CeeVee, 09/06/2016 13:36

"VR gives you, the viewer, a unique, personalised view of the race but what about the other 50 million worldwide viewers that are also tuning in via their VR headsets?
What sort of bandwidth requirement are we talking about to give each and every one of them their own unique, personalised view of the race?
HD streaming requires something in the region of 5Mbps to maintain stutter-free viewing. Giving each VR headset the freedom to 'race their own race' with 50 million VR headsets online means you need 250 million Mbps of bandwidth. Or to put it another way that's 250 Tbps which is roughly equal to the current total of all traffic flowing across the internet at peak times.
VR is a technology that works OK in a standalone PC game, you can even share it with a few friends via a private network but it simply doesn't scale-up to thousand or millions of users with the current internet technology.
Sure there are faster technologies in development labs around the world but the infrastructure costs mean they aren't going to be available to Joe Public anytime soon."

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3. Posted by ScottC, 09/06/2016 12:22

"What he says probably makes complete sense actually, but only because he is talking about business.

The problem is that I am very definitely NOT interested in watching "business". I would rather watch motor racing. At a motor racing circuit. During the day. Or in the case of this weekend in France, day and night."

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4. Posted by Hardliner, 09/06/2016 7:22

"Blindingly obvious, blisteringly dull PR hogwash from a man who has devoted his life to selling increasing amounts of soap powder. Why does Bernie need people like this around?"

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5. Posted by mittagongcalling, 09/06/2016 3:24

"His response to the question "and what of the fans?" was three 3 lines!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

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6. Posted by -ape-, 08/06/2016 21:03

-YAWN - ZZZzzzzzzz"

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7. Posted by CeeVee, 08/06/2016 20:47

"Mr. Sorrell obviously knows nothing about VR technology other than the buzz-word phrase.
VR is not going to parachute you into the seat of an F1 car in a live race, put your hands on the wheel, your feet on the pedals and let you actually take control.
At best it may let you choose between multiple cameras to view various snippets of action.
VR is at it's best in gaming where it lets you control the actions/inactions/reactions of the in-game avatar, to make your way to the end of the game.
It doesn't make a lot of sense, or add much value to, a 3rd person passive POV.
As an average person if VR could somehow parachute me into the set of the LH or DR car at the recent Monaco GP the first thing I'd do is crash the car. I wouldn't magically change the result, I'm not a better F1 driver than LH or DR and it would be outrageously arrogant of me to think that I might be.
The key to understanding is to see that VR stand for VIRTUAL reality, whereas watching an F1 race is watching reality.
VR belongs in the gaming world where it has a natural home, not in watching live sport where it makes no sense at all."

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8. Posted by mickl, 08/06/2016 16:49

"and the Kardashians aren't superficial!!!!!!!!!!! The irony."

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9. Posted by ClarkwasGod, 08/06/2016 16:25

"Please please please keep this man as far away from any control of motorsport as possible."

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10. Posted by mickl, 08/06/2016 15:50

"So nothing about the cost of running a team, about F1 being essentially a stymied technological sport where innovation gains very little and usually gets banned, about it's governance and rule making? About how to get fans excited again about the spectacle other thank donning a tv screen to your face? About heritage or history about the sport. Basically saying, if you have money we will come an lick you and bend over. Don't think Bernie is that 'unique'.........

He's just basically spouted standard PR BS. Substitute every time he says F1 in that interview with any other sport or any brand or industry, it would be the same interview."

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11. Posted by MrSums, 08/06/2016 13:31

"What I don't get is why Sorrell - a marketing man who clearly understand market segmentation - has not grasped that you could have an EMEA F1, an AsiaPac F1 and and Americas F1 with an end of season mash-up of the top teams. That would get around the issues of the number of races in a year (say 15 regional ones and 5 groups) as a logistical nightmare for the teams AND provide F1 with an increased number of races from which to draw cash.

Damn' I should have patented that one ..."

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12. Posted by gasconboy, 08/06/2016 7:15

"Stick to advertising, you know very little of real motor sport. Why not keep F1 in Europe and export formula "E" to rest of world."

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13. Posted by bfairey, 07/06/2016 23:49

"as I have said many times "Bum's in seats""

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14. Posted by White Lightning, 07/06/2016 23:02

"You were right Chris, I didn't like it..."

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15. Posted by jimmynitz, 07/06/2016 19:20

"Smart man with no clue. Marketing claptrap. Shallow shite."

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