What can the ex-McLaren pit stop mechanic teach us about brand-building, improving efficiency, and keeping the wheel of innovation turning?
On track with F1’s Elvis – Owen James speaks to Marc Priestley
In between traveling around the world with the F1, TV broadcasting, writing articles and speaking gigs, Marc Priestley takes some time out to talk to Owen James about his thoughts on driving innovation and progress in the financial services sector.
Owen James: So why do they call you the F1 Elvis?
It’s nothing to do with my singing, I can tell you that. The name goes back to my primary school years where there were a number of Marc’s in my class. Somebody thought Priestley sounded like Presley and the name Elvis stuck. I don’t expect people in the F1 paddock know me as anything other than Elvis.
Like attracts Like: Why your image will help you attract the right kind of business
Owen James: Image is really important when it comes to financial services. Can you think of how lessons learnt in your experience in the F1 can be likened to financial services?
One of the things we did really well at McLaren, even over and above the other Formula One teams, was attention to detail. Image and branding is critical in the F1.
For example, when I worked at McLaren we wore white shirts. You can imagine that, as a mechanic, a white shirt is probably the worst thing anyone can give you to work in. Our boss, Ron Dennis, who is a little OCD, put attention to detail so far up the agenda that he didn’t want anyone in the pit lane to be photographed with a dirty uniform. So if we did get our white shirts dirty, we had to rush out and change into a clean white shirt immediately.
Whilst this was really difficult at the time – I remember thinking ‘why on earth do we need to do this’ – now that I look back, I completely understand the rationale. We were the image, or the face, of the team. The public don’t just see the pristine white shirts and judge the person, but they judge the whole team and the whole company.
The way you are presenting yourself informs a judgement of how you do business as a company. Attention to detail encourages the perception that this kind of professionalism runs throughout your business.
It gives you a differentiator that makes you stand out from the crowd. When you have blue chip companies that are looking to invest in Formula One, they will go to the brand which matches their own image – and McLaren is the brand which attracts the blue chip investors and sponsors through its presentation.
Owen James: How does one stand out of the crowd?
If you are in a competitive market, you are ultimately looking for sponsors, investors and customers – whether you provide a product or a service. The thing is, there are lots of companies who are trying to do the same thing – so how do you stand apart?
For us, we were trying to create a racing car that could go faster than all the other ten teams on a Sunday afternoon. All the teams need sponsors, they all need investors, and so it is about attracting the best fit of people to your business.
Certainly, this worked during my years at McLaren. We had some of the biggest, most lucrative sponsors and there is no doubt that it came from the way people perceived how we did business.
The tobacco fiasco and looking to innovate, especially when times are tough
Owen James: What would your advice be to the financial services sector?
The biggest thing I would say I have taken from my time at McLaren, is to leave no stone unturned. One of the biggest turbulences in the industry came when the European Union banned tobacco advertising in the F1. This came as a huge shock, as up until then we had been an industry entirely funded by the tobacco industry through sponsorship. At the time, we were in the unique position where we were one of the only places tobacco companies could advertise, meaning we had an easy and constant stream of revenue.
When that went, it sent shockwaves through the industry and we had to look for a way to survive in a new era. McLaren managed to endure largely because of our attention to detail which was our USP. It changed everything we did. We started looking at the process in minute detail, we started using the tools and the technology we had in Formula One to find opportunities that you would never normally discover with the naked eye.
One of the examples of this is the pit stop and how we converted the pit stop from a four second process to change four wheels and tires, to the two second process it is today. It took lots of little chunks to make such a big saving and we only did this through attention to detail to beyond the obvious. Because McLaren was able to do just this, as a result we became better in a whole lot of other areas, where we won the world championship a couple of years after the tobacco fiasco.
This innovative ambition for savings can be applied to any business. It is all about continuing to leave no stone unturned, continuing to look for detail. Even when you feel like you have reached your end goal, that shouldn’t stop you from looking for further improvements.
Once you do get to a point when you feel like you have an advantage over the competition, you need to be looking for the next advantage. Everyone will be looking to either copy you, or catch up with you.
This process we went through in trying to reinvent ourselves meant McLaren had to be innovative. This didn’t just apply to the marketing department, but throughout the company. From the pit stop crew to management, we were encouraged to think outside of the box. It was only at this point that we discovered we only did a lot of things because that is how we had always done them. And this was no longer good enough. So by approaching things differently, by thinking differently, we suddenly found a lot of opportunity.
Law of diminishing returns means companies need to innovate more than ever
Owen James: Too often, financial services blame overburdening regulation on its inability to innovate. What words of advice would you give?
The same can be said of the F1 industry. The F1 industry, like most others, has been more heavily regulated over the past few years than ever before.
I am talking about the restrictions in designing cars. Back in the 70s, we used to get things like six wheel racing cars, and cars with fans on the back, really clever ideas. Nowadays you cannot do that and there is an element that most cars, at least on the outside look more or less the same to the untrained eye. This causes an element of frustration within Formula One.
However, what is clear is that even within this regulatory environment, the law of diminishing return is creating a more competitive environment. This ties back into my previous comment of attention to detail. When you are looking for tiny, tiny gains, you need to look at a process or product from all angles. In our world it could be a thousandth of a second we are looking to save. You may ask, what’s the point of saving a thousandth of a second? The reality is that when you go around an entire car and you find ten examples of this, it translates into a much larger piece of time.
So we are still innovative, we have to be, but in much smaller increments. It is very rare that anyone in Formula One saves huge amounts of time with one idea. And that really sets an even more difficult challenge for the engineers and the designers. There is an element of being a race car designer and knowing that, whilst your challenge is harder, your success is greater.
Owen James: Now that we are at the halfway point, what is your prediction for the F1 Grand Prix?
[Laughs] Well, it’s very difficult to look beyond the two Mercedes drivers who as a team are hugely dominant. Because of the way the in-season regulations are formulated, it is actually very difficult for someone to close that gap due to their successes earlier in the year. The debate of who will finish behind the two Mercedes drivers in third and fourth place is a lot closer. The competition between Ferraris and Williams is very tight. In terms of the title – I think this will likely to go to Lewis Hamilton again.
Over the last couple of months Marc has been involved in the La Mans 24 Hour race and Formula E - a brand new single seater electric vehicle race which Marc is covering as a broadcaster on for ITV.
He is also currently working on a book outlining his experience as pit stop mechanic for McLaren.
Catch Marc at our upcoming Meeting of Minds Winning Advisers which will be held at Tylney Hall in Hampshire on 13 October 2015 and our Meeting of Minds Bank and Brand Distribution of Retail Financial Services to be held on 15 October 2015 at The Berkeley Hotel, in London.