NASCAR puts marketer in fast lane: Brown builds reputation for closing big sponsorship deals

August 8, 2005

Zak Brown retired as a race car driver years ago. But he's never moved faster than he does today as the founder and president of Indianapolis-based Just Marketing.

On the heels of this year's Brickyard 400, Brown expects to announce two more major NASCAR sponsorship deals brokered by his company. Those deals-which he can't yet discuss-along with recent deals to bring Johnnie Walker and Hilton Hotels to Formula One, will bring his sponsorship portfolio to near $150 million annually.

Though he has no current clients in the Indy Racing League, one of his goals for the coming year is to find the series a title sponsor.

"We're getting to the point where we can pick our battles," Brown said. "Not only do I want a deal in the IRL, I want the big one. For the right company, I think it's a really good deal."

Brown's client list-a who's who, especially in NASCAR-includes Crown Royal, Subway, Dietech.com, Henkel, STP, Smirnoff, Jackson Hewitt, Travelodge and Visteon. He has set up primary sponsorships for two of the top five drivers in NASCAR and four of the top 20.

Just Marketing is one of the only agencies ever to have primary sponsorship deals signed with teams, tracks and the NASCAR series simultaneously.

"He's done quite a body of work in NASCAR, and there isn't anyone on the business side-or really any side-who doesn't know Zak and his firm," said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. "He's been good for NASCAR, its teams and drivers."

Last year, Brown was chiefly responsible for getting liquor companies into NASCAR sponsorship. Before 2005, NASCAR didn't allow hard liquor to sponsor its teams or races.

"Zak opened the lines of communication to the right people for this landmark deal," said Guy Smith, executive vice president of Diageo Plc., maker of Crown Royal and Smirnoff Ice.

Brown, 33, made his first NASCAR deal in 1997. He pushed Just Marketing''s revenue from $1.59 million in 2001 to $10.6 million in 2003. The company had revenue of $15.1 million last year and Brown projects more than $20 million this year.

Revenue comes from hours billed rather than the size of a deal. He said fees from a smaller deal are about $200,000, while the most complex transactions can fetch up to $2 million.

Since starting the company solo in 1995, Brown has grown the firm to 55 employees, with expectations of adding 20 more by year's end.

Just Marketing is set to move into a new, 27,000-square-foot building in Bennett Technology Park in Zionsville this December, allowing the company to grow to 100-plus employees.

Ironically, Brown, a California native, raced in the Formula One feeder system in Europe for five years, and moved to Indianapolis to be close to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but has made the lion's share of his money in NASCAR.

"About 75 percent of our revenue comes from NASCAR," Brown said. "My biggest regret is not getting into NASCAR sooner. I started out pitching open wheel because that was my background. But when I started asking clients what they wanted, it was NASCAR."

Brown, who never attended college or took sales classes, said his experience as a driver and team operator are critical to his success.

In spite of that experience and his love affair with NASCAR, Brown benefits from not working for the series itself, its tracks or teams.

"That's been the key to his success," said William Chipps, editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based publication that follows the sponsorship industry. "Just Marketing set up a unique business model where they exclusively represent corporate interests interested in growing through motorsports sponsorships."

Chipps said other agencies have been trying to discover Brown's "secrets" for years.

"No one is doing the number of deals and size of deals right now that Zak is doing," Chipps said. "He's gotten audiences with all the heads of state in this industry in a relatively short period of time, and he always seems to close the deal."

Among his trophies was lining up the Subway restaurant chain as title sponsor for NASCAR's Rockingham, N.C., race, which used to take place not long after the Super Bowl. Because both the football game and race were broadcast by Fox in 2001, the network heavily promoted the NASCAR race during the game broadcast-garnering Subway 11 promotional mentions though it only bought one advertising spot during the game.

"That was just a matter of understanding the dynamics of the situation," Brown said. "There were some other advertisers who were not pleased with that, that's for sure."

"You don't get to where Zak has gotten without ruffling a few feathers," Chipps said. "This business is immensely competitive and when other advertisers and agencies see Zak getting more out of the system than they have by whatever means, that leads to frustration. That's just the nature of the beast."
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