Carmel resident Zak Brown uses his passion for racing to ignite his motorsports marketing firm
When you are a boy growing up in the streets of Los Angeles, where cars are almost a religion, you just naturally want to become a race driver. At least that’s how Zak Brown, CEO and founder of Zionsville’s Just Marketing International (JMI) got his start behind the wheel.
“My dad was a race fan, and used to take me to the races,” Brown said. “It gets in your blood, and you’re always looking for your next ride.” For Brown, 40, his first ride on the racing circuit was go-karts.
“When I was 13, I was a contestant on the kids edition of ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” he said. “I won two gold Cartier watches.” He said he kept the watches for a while but eventually sold them and bought his first kart. He admits that his mother was furious. “But, I had my first go-kart,” he added with a grin. “Besides, what does a 15-year-old kid need with two gold watches?”
While still in high school, he started racing karts with the nephew of famed off-road racing legend Mickey Thompson. “Like I said, it gets into your blood,” he added.
During the next five years, Brown went on to win 22 kart races, catching the attention of the Formula road racing circuit in England. For the following few years, he won races and built a name and reputation for himself in European road racing.
“Then I decided to move back to the states and try for the Indianapolis 500,” Brown said. He didn’t quite make it into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but he brought with him from Europe the germ of an idea that would one day become the largest motorsports marketing company in the world.
“My sponsor in Europe was Trans World Airlines,” he said, “and while they were sorry to see me leave the country, they wondered if I could help them develop some marketing connections in the states.” It occurred to Brown that other corporations might also like some help navigating the complex world of motorsports.
“My sponsor wanted to know what I would call my company,” he said. “I didn’t particularly want my name out there, so I told them it was just a marketing company – just marketing.” The name stuck and Just Marketing International was born in 1995. “I didn’t really have a business plan,” Brown said. “I just pursued marketing ideas that I thought corporations could use.”
The company has since developed an enviable client list that includes Subway, Smirnoff, Crown Royal, IBM, Unilever, Farmers Insurance, driver Jeff Gordon and fully a dozen others. Brown, a Carmel resident, also has opened offices in London and Singapore to accentuate the international motorsports reach of his business.
Today the marketing and merchandising needs of JMI clients are handled by a staff of motorsports specialists and marketing professionals. The company employs 130 people.
In 2006, JMI moved into its spacious new headquarters building on Bennett Parkway in Zionsville. The building is open and airy, and obviously motorsports-oriented. A Formula 1 racecar hangs on the wall in the lobby, along with a display of racing helmets and driving suits. Another part of the building houses a dozen other cars including Brown’s prized Jaguar XK 140 and a vintage Austin Healey 3000. Brown said he owns a dozen or more racecars, most of them still racing in Europe.
When Current caught up with Brown last week, he had just returned from Europe, where he drove in the annual Monaco Grand Prix. Afterward, just for kicks, he test drove the newest Lotus F-1 car on the fabled Paul Ricard track in France.
“(It was) the biggest thrill of my life,” he said. All of which proves that even while manning the helm of the biggest motorsports marketing company on the planet, you still can’t keep a boy raised in L.A. out of the cockpit of a racecar.