Recently I sat down with Formula 1 CMO Ellie Norman to talk about the F1 transformation, and what happened to the famous lycra Grid Girls. You can read the full piece here on Forbes.com
Thomas Barta: Ellie, great to have you. What are you working on right now?
Ellie Norman: The biggest thing we are working on within Formula 1 is clearly what we will be doing in 2021. Longer-term, the big topic is how we are relevant to society.
Barta: Relevant to society? Tell us more.
Norman: This year, we launched “We Race As One” that is made up of three pillars: sustainability, diversity & inclusion, and community. What’s important to us is how we use racing to accelerate progress and benefit society. Take sustainable fuels. A big topic for us is how we reduce carbon emissions within Formula 1—and bring this progress to the one billion combustion engines driven on our planet today.
Barta: Hold on—when I think of Formula 1, I think of racing. You talk about sustainability. Has something changed?
Norman: Fair question. I always think of marketing as a blend. And it is blending the short term: racing/entertainment with the long-term: sustainability/relevance to society. Day-to-day is broadly around three core areas: growing the fan base, getting more people to watch Formula 1 on TV and digital, and getting more bums on the seat— meaning getting more people to come to the events.
But we need meaning, and we need purpose. When the UK government scrambled this year to find breathing aids, we stepped in and helped build up to 1,000 breathing aids and ventilators a day. Formula 1 has some of the smartest engineers on the planet. And when we put the collective effort together, we can achieve amazing things. This project was important for society—and it galvanized the Formula 1 community.
Barta: 2020 was a special year. What were some choices you have made?
Norman: On reflection, Thomas, I’d say I’ve experienced nothing like it. This year, the business was turned upside down, with many of our races being canceled. In such a situation, you can respond in one of two ways. You can either freeze. Or you can be flexible and open to new ideas. I chose the latter—and I learned that I can.
Barta: Can you share some examples of what you did to save the business?
Norman: The most important element for us was to maintain fan engagement. Within two weeks of our first event being canceled on the 13th of March, we launched the Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix. In parallel, we were exploring how to deliver a great product for our broadcasters, our sponsors, and our host countries. We immediately started working with host countries to ensure that we had procedures and protocols in place to be able to come back to racing safely. We achieved this in July. We had planned 15 to 18 races this season. We should finish at 17.
Barta: That’s stunning. So, lots of flexibility required…
Norman: Yes. I think we’ve responded to it with huge agility. And that’s really been a combination of all the skills inside the organization and our stakeholders as well.
Barta: When you think about yourself, what lessons did 2020 teach you?
Norman: Everything’s going to be okay. This year was full of moments where I didn’t have the answer or the experience. But when I step back, using my judgment led me to the right answers.
Barta: How did you get internal buy-in for your initiatives?
Norman: You’re never going to have the perfect data to prove everything. It’s as much about seeking the input of stakeholders at an early stage. And being very, very focused on what we want to achieve together. It’s also critical to show some quick wins. As obvious as that sounds, you need some quick wins to demonstrate what the result is and why this was the right call from the right direction.
Barta: If data had the answer, what was your question?
Norman: Where are my next 100 million fans? That’s why one of my top priorities is building our first-party data—in a way that’s meaningful for our fans.
Barta: Many marketers are currently under huge pressure. There is uncertainty—and often not a clear path ahead. What’s your advice?
Norman: Hold your nerve. We’re going to have continued fluidity, continued change. It’s really about balancing the immediate with the long term. It will never be a straight line. It’s also about being brave and recognizing you may have some fairly uncomfortable times to go through. When we’re at our best, we provide hope to people.
Barta: You mentioned bravery. As a marketer, what’s the bravest thing you’ve done?
Norman: Perhaps joining Formula 1 as a woman—with a change agenda. Many people told me, “Oh my God, you’re brave for going into that environment.” Because the perception of it being quite a traditional male environment…
Barta: …but it is a traditional male environment, isn’t it?
Norman: Perhaps. When people think of women in Formula 1, many picture the Grid Girls. Beautiful women dressed in Lycra, holding lollipops with the driver’s name and number.
When I joined, we sat down as a management team and asked ourselves, “Okay, we’re going into 2018. What role are Grid Girls playing? Where do we want our fan base to be? How do we want to be perceived?” It was pretty clear we had to move on.
We started a major initiative to break down the barriers and make the sport more accessible. We showcased our many talented women. Formula 1 is more than just drivers. Each team has 1,000 or more people working, and there is every single role you could possibly imagine.
We replaced the Grid Girls with Grid Kids, who sing the national anthem next to the drivers—instilling a huge sense of pride and the ability to see how they could be in the sport.
When you’re changing the fabric of a sport, it does take many brave decisions. I wouldn’t call myself brave, but it does make me proud when people say, “Wow, that was so great to see the sport change.”
Barta: You also tried to take on racism.
Norman: Right. I’m incredibly proud of how we pushed the message for ending racism—especially after the tragic death of George Floyd. Sport can unite people. We’ve got a huge fan base, half a billion people. We broadcast in almost 200 countries around the world and often reach up to 90 million people on one weekend. We have started using the ceremony at the start of every race to draw attention to ending racism, and to emphasize the importance of equal opportunity. This alone won’t solve all problems—but it has been a huge step for sports. The key now is to have the actions implemented following raising awareness through our initiative.
Barta: You have the responsibility for a large team. What’s your team leadership philosophy?
Norman: I try to encourage and create a safe environment where people can share an opinion, a point of view, a perspective—in a respectful way. It’s down to the leaders to create an environment where people feel safe, and they feel that they belong in their own skins and can contribute by sharing a different point of view. This will lead to braver and better outcomes.
Barta: You are very successful. What gives you confidence?
Norman: That might be how I come across, but I sometimes have this voice in my head, which tells me otherwise. And I think what gives me confidence is being true to my character set: honesty, trustworthiness, integrity. Quite often, when my confidence is knocked, I go for a walk outside. Space, nature, being in a quiet environment—these help me rebuild confidence.
Barta: What’s the advice you’d give your younger self?
Norman: Say yes more often; be more open to opportunities. Nothing is perfect. When opportunities present themselves, take them—say yes. Don’t always think about those opportunities in terms of purely financial gains. Think about where an opportunity could lead you—it’s worse to have regrets than to have failed. We learn from failures to be better.
PS: This year, I’ve admittedly written fewer posts. Let me explain. In January, work had started for the 2021 Marketing Leadership Masterclass with my friend and top CMO Syl Saller. When the pandemic hit, people started asking if we could shift more training online. We bravely decided to bring the launch forward to 2020, together with our friends from the Marketing Academy and the wonderful Sherilyn Shackell. What followed was 24/7 editing, shooting, post-production—on an ambitious new learning platform with all new IT. We made it. The 2020 class will be graduating shortly. Far and away, it’s been our best class ever! With the Marketing Society and her fabulous new CEO Sophie Devonshire, we have just agreed a new global partnership for the March 2021 class (applications are open)!
As a consequence, I have dedicated less time to research and writing. That’s going to change again in 2021—thank you for bearing with me.
Wishing you a joyous Holiday season!