A New Hurdle For IndyCar

On Monday, fans of the IndyCar Series got what I personally interpreted as jarring news. IndyCar Chief Marketing Officer CJ O’Donnell is leaving the series effective at the end of the year. There were the obligatory nice statements from O’Donnell and CEO Mark Miles about his pending departure and the great things he had done – but even if this was a very friendly parting of the ways, it’s a huge blow to the series.

CJ O’Donnell was hired in November of 2013 as one of the two huge hires by Mark Miles (the other being Jay Frye), after Miles decided to stay in the position fulltime after Randy Bernard was fired in the fall of 2012. Miles had been Chairman of the Board of Hulman and Company, and stepped into the CEO role of Hulman Motorsports on a temporary basis until a replacement could be found for Bernard. At some point, Miles decided to stay and hold both roles.

O’Donnell came with over twenty years of experience at Ford Motor Company in a variety of marketing and management roles. He was in product development and Executive Vice-President roles with Ford, Lincoln, Mercury Jaguar and Mazda. According to his IndyCar bio, O’Donnell was a key member of a very small team responsible for turning around the Mazda brand.

He is a Pennsylvania native and holds degrees from Villanova and Columbia. Perhaps key in his decision to come to IndyCar in the first place is that he had raced open-wheel cars and sports cars in SCCA.

Apparently, O’Donnell was a key player in the decision to go with NBC as an exclusive television partner and has been heavily involved with the marketing plans for next season’s broadcasts. I can’t substantiate this, but I’ve heard he also played a key role in landing Verizon as the title sponsor.

I know what some people are thinking. IndyCar marketing has always been called into question by fans, and I’m guilty of it as well. But you know what? Your marketing plan is only as good as the budget you have to work with. O’Donnell didn’t create his budget. He did the most with what he had.

Think back to IndyCar marketing a decade or so ago. The best the series could come up with at that time was the laughable Gene Simmons creation of I am Indy. IndyCar marketing efforts were abysmal at best and sometimes downright comical. Under severe budget restraints, CJ O’Donnell brought IndyCar marketing efforts from being a joke to at least a very respectable level. If there was more money available to the marketing budget; he would have taken things even further.

I have to think that the constant limits in budgets made this a daunting task for O’Donnell and it probably took its toll. Quite honestly, his talents were somewhat wasted here given the budgets he had to work with.

But the reason why this is such a blow to the IndyCar Series is that they are in the midst of a search of a new title sponsor. A potential new sponsor would probably like to know what the marketing plan would be for the series going forward and how their company could mesh with it. To no longer have someone leading the marketing department is a void that will be difficult to overcome in any boardroom.

The power of marketing is usually underrated. Granted, I’m a little biased because my degree is in marketing. Most people think it’s a few people sitting around a table coming up with a few jingles, logos and tag lines and that any creative mind could do that. There is so much research and strategic planning that go into a marketing campaign that it boggles the mind.

I think CJ O’Donnell had some long-range plans for IndyCar, but he could never execute those plans due to a limited budget.

Someone much closer to the situation may read this and tell me that the budget was much bigger than I’m making it out to be. But I know that there is just so much money that IndyCar has to work with.

When I go to races, I’m always amazed at the logistics involved for the travelling series based in Indianapolis to go from race to race. I can’t even begin to think of the cost to fly so many IndyCar staff to each race several days in advance – feed them, house them, pay for ground transportation, the multiple transporters just for the series, the communications and networking that have to be set up. Salaries for all of these necessary people have to be paid along with race purses, as low as they may be, and countless other expenses I haven’t even thought of while typing.

They do all of this for a series they hope will earn a 1.0 TV rating. Oh and by the way; anything left over can go to marketing to hopefully turn that into a 1.2 rating next year. It’s a monumental task and without the deep pockets of Hulman and Company, it would be impossible. I know that at one time, Mark Miles was given a time frame when the company had to be profitable. I doubt that we’ve reached that yet, but when companies are trying to stretch dollars, what’s normally the first thing they cut? Marketing.

I’m always amazed that if revenue is down, the first thing that companies cut is marketing. They see that as a quick way to save a buck. The way I see it – if business is bad, companies should double up their marketing efforts. How do you plan to increase business if potential buyers are no longer hearing about your product? It’s the old chicken or the egg thing, but that’s always been my theory.

Years ago, Sears decided to cut back on their marketing because they were in financial straits. Today they are on the verge of bankruptcy. Yes an outdated business model was one of many factors contributing to the once formidable company’s demise, but twenty years ago they made the decision to reduce their marketing budget significantly in order to stop the bleeding. You see what happened.

Every industry in the marketplace is filled with examples of a superior product being dwarfed in market share, by a far inferior product simply because of the power of marketing. Although everyone claims to not be fond of anything McDonald’s makes – they are consistently the market share leader and it’s not even close. They command a whopping 17% of market share in the very crowded fast food industry. Number Two is Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut), who lags behind at 10.8% Why does McDonald’s continue to be the unquestioned leader in their industry? Because of their marketing, certainly not their product. That’s how important marketing is to a company, yet for some reason – it is frequently overlooked and underappreciated.

So it’s unfortunate that Mark Miles and IndyCar are losing such a key figure at such a critical point in time. Unless a new sponsor has already been secured and just not announced yet, I’m not sure if I could think of a worse time for O’Donnell to leave. This is a new hurdle that IndyCar now has to deal with at a very inopportune time.

Hopefully, Miles has plenty of connections to replace him – but that person will have big shoes to fill. You may not be able to see tangible examples of O’Donnell’s efforts and some may think I’m overeacting over his leaving. You won’t notice it next spring or even a year from now. But unless someone can come in and seamlessly continue the work he was doing, we will be feeling the loss of CJ O’Donnell for years to come. I wish him well.

George Phillips

19 Responses to “A New Hurdle For IndyCar”

  1. I have one question for all of you lovers of C.J. O’Donnell: in what world is it “good marketing” to pay for commercials of your product to run DURING YOUR PRODUCT??? We are already watching! Sheesh! Absolute idiocy.

    No George, this is a blessing. IndyCar has the worst marketing department of any major professional sporting league. You might be forgetting also that Verizon told us over a year ago they were gone and? Crickets….

    Don’t let the door hit you on your ass C.J…..

    • billytheskink Says:

      I very much doubt Indycar is paying the network(s) to run those ads, more likely they are given to the series as part of their contract. Perhaps they are “traded” to the series from unsold ad inventory.

      Quite literally every other major sports organization does the same thing, running ads during their own broadcasts to promote themselves, from the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NASCAR to NCAA conferences and individual universities to Professional Bull Riders and the Cornhole League.

      Indycar undoubtedly has marketing issues, but following a common practice of most major and professional sports is not one of them.

      • See my response to your exact same comment from George earlier. They are usually advertising later games on the same day, Billy. Read before you comment, lol!!!!!

        • billytheskink Says:

          That is one element that such ads cover, but far from the only one. To use the NFL as an example, they run ads for things like their online store and their ticket resale website in addition to ads promoting the next game (though many of those are produced and aired by the network, not the NFL). They also run ads promoting nothing specific beyond the league and its players during games, this year’s campaign is called “Get Ready To Celebrate” and features celebrities calling players to suggest touchdown celebrations. That might not be a bad angle for Indycar marketing, using the drivers more in their allotted ads.

          In any event, are the NFL’s ads promoting following games especially different from IndyCar using its allotted ad time to advertise the date and time of its next race?

  2. Juan Lamb Says:

    I don’t know enough about the inner workings of it to tell if it is good or bad, but I can say I was immensely disappointed in the way they promoted Josef after his championship. Just like RHR, they missed the boat. I think I only heard one radio interview here in the Nashville area with him and I bet he had to have his own PR people get that.

    • Only Josef??? George says O’Donnell was hired in November of 2013, so let me see, that’s five series champions (whom I don’t even remember, isn’t that nice?) and five Indianapolis 500 winners that have been totally ignored by the media, because someone isn’t doing their job at 16th & Roundabout. It’s beyond terrible, it inconceivable and unforgivable. We are long beyond time for a change in that “leadership.” The only problem now is that the folks who picked C.J. are still in charge! Who will they waste another five years on?

      Oh, and one other thing: I Am Mindy wasn’t any less successful than showing your own ads on your own product, come on!

      • Does the NFL not run ads for upcoming NFL games during NFL games? Yes, they do. Do they run generic NFL ads about how great the NFL is during NFL games? Yes, they do. Now I’ll agree that IndyCar should be also running those ads on NBCSN during NASCAR races, NHL telecasts, ancillary programming that takes place on that network for those entities as well as the NFL.

        But remember what I said many times in this post – He can only do what his budget will allow. – GP

        • George, most of those ads are for games later in the day on the same channel, come on (smiles).

        • George, I’m not talking about other monies, I’m talking about the dollars they are already budgeted to spend. Why on earth are they spending it preaching to the choir? Isn’t the point of advertising outreach and not inreach?

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I really don’t know enough about the job this guy has done, except that the marketing side of Indycar has been sad. So let’s wait and see.

    • Sad is an understatement; it’s been virtually non-existent. Just read Robin Miller’s mailbag, every week during the season there is letter upon letter from folks outside of the 465 beltway (which runs around Indy) complaining they have seen no advertising at all for whatever race is near them. Now, folks say it is the job of the promoter to do that, but, excuse me, I have been in the music business all of my life (near 40 years), and damn it, WE have to promote ourselves as much as the venues we play and the promoters have to, ESPECIALLY in today’s marketplace (shameless plug: please check out my original music at http://www.reverbnation.com/philkaiser, you don’t have to sign up or purchase anything, lol!)!!!

      Now, here’s another example of the non-thinking that is going on in their “marketing” department: every year in May they spend THOUSANDS on billboards advertising the two races at the IMS. But guess where they buy them? INSIDE THE 465 BELTWAY! Are you kidding me?

      Don’t get me started, lol….

  4. maybe Miles wants 3 jobs.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I thought O’Donnell did well forming a consistent marketing message for Indycar (focusing on speed and schedule diversity, drivers on-track vs off, highlighting danger but not reveling in it), especially compared to his predecessors. I do not think he oversaw much significant growth in the reach of Indycar’s marketing message

    I suspect much of the issue is the resources he was given, but I do think it is fair to criticize the distribution of them. I, personally, would have pursued a nostalgia angle as part of the series’ marketing strategy. Nostalgia is one of the few things that is playing well across all of motorsports.

    Of course, what do I really know? My father worked in advertising and marketing for decades, and knows full well (as does George) that pretty much everyone from the mailroom to the accountants to the CEO believes that they could do the job just as well, if not better, than the people educated and paid to do it. I know I’ve had such thoughts before…

    • Oh, you mean like how you think you can do Robin Miller’s job better than him? I just read you new comments at RACER on Miller’s OPINION page called “the mailbag,” and you have no trouble telling a guy who has been writing about IndyCar for FIFTY YEARS how to do his job. Mr. Pot, meet the kettle….

      • billytheskink Says:

        I wouldn’t probably describe those comments as telling Robin Miller how to do his job, but I can see how it might come across that way, so fair enough.

        I think it is fair to point out that in what I posted on RACER, I did express that I think Robin is good at his job and that he would do a good job covering the topic of driver pay more in-depth than he thus far has.

  6. I just watched a video of Tony Stewart driving A.J. Foyt’s 1961 car at the speedway followed by a interview session in the pit with A.J. Robin Miller, and Tony Stewart. The iink was in Miller’s Mailbag today.
    Why am I bringing this up here? Because the sound of that car going down the front stretch takes your breath away and could have/should have been used in some marketing ad. I could climb the stairway to heaven listening to that car.

  7. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Well, I think we found Phil’s pet peeve! 😀

  8. ed emmitt Says:

    I had a nice 8×10 picture of Will Power that I took at Indy with the pit pass and had him sign it at RA. He said nice picture,my reply was it only cost me 500 dollars to get it at Indy. He said no wonder they are so rich. Later I had JN sign a picture and Will leaned over and said they cheated that guy out of 500 dollars. The driver are well aware of the situation. I’m with you on this one Phil.

  9. While I don’t wish to piss in anyone’s Cheerios, it might be germane to this argument to point out that there was actually a short article in”Sports Illustrated” this week pointing out Scott Dixon’s relative success when compared to A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Al Unser.

    I make this point because too often in recent years, the only time IndyCar has graced the pages of SI has been when someone was killed. Even the winners of the 500 have been occasionally ignored. Granted,. the article was placed next to a full page ad from Firestone acknowledging Dixon as IndyCar Champion, but ANY recognition in the pages of this mag is better than none.

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