Danica on firm footing with GoDaddy
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The symbolism was significant. In a darkened, hulking room in GoDaddy's technology center, the public face of the multi-national domain name registrar and its head executive stood awash in white light.
A photographer's camera whirred through frames, the results snapping instantly onto a bank of monitors within sight.
Danica Patrick exuded confidence, moving from pose to pose. Blake Irving attempted to keep up without accidentally performing The Robot.
These stills would adorn company literature and other promotional materials, but they were, in effect, the first official portrait made of the company's most recognizable and influential figures -- the race car driver and the former Microsoft and Yahoo! executive who had become CEO in January.
Irving's hire would further a change in marketing direction for a company whose branding had featured titillation in becoming a billion-dollar revenue generator and the world's largest domain name purveyor. As GoDaddy continued to shift focus toward a growing small business clientele, there was a question as to whether Patrick, at the center of many of the racy advertisements that drew greater attention to herself and the company, would any longer have a place.
She'll remain right there in the bright light, Irving said.
"She's good for us, and we're a good match," he said. "She represents our customers well. She's GoDaddy to a large degree."
Racing is a sport that engorges money. Sponsors expect a return, and Patrick has acknowledged that, at some point, one of hers could demand on-track results of their own determination. When she became the only female to win an IndyCar race in 2008, GoDaddy's logo adorned her blue Motorola fire suit, but she has not reached Victory Lane in the company's colors.
There have been memorable moments -- such as winning the pole and finishing eighth in the Daytona 500 in February -- in a NASCAR career still in its formative stages, but she admittedly has much work to do to become a weekly competitor. Though Irving said Patrick has exceeded expectations in her rookie season, at some point doesn't performance matter to the company as Patrick delves deeper into this phase of her relationship with it?
"It doesn't," Irving said, at first whispering as if sharing a secret. "Because Danica wins the pole at Daytona doesn't mean our sales went up.
"It's great for us because she got a lot of air time. But honestly, Danica gets a lot of air time and she is one of the most popular drivers out there. You attend a NASCAR race and you see Danica gear everywhere -- and GoDaddy gear everywhere.
"Honestly it doesn't matter. I am on Twitter, I am on Facebook, I read the blogs and she gets assailed ... and who cares? She is still a magnificent driver, and she is getting as much done as she possibly can."
Growing the business
Patrick has possessed a preternatural comfort when the most cameras are trained upon her -- in a photo shoot, at the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 -- even if she couldn't have understood at the time how far-reaching those moments would be.
GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons was watching the 2005 Indianapolis 500 on television when, as a rookie, Patrick started and finished fourth, led a gender-best 19 laps and paced the field in the waning laps. He passed a message to one of his executives that sponsoring the then-23-year-old was now of great interest.
"Shoo," Patrick said, wicking theatrical sweat from her brow. "Glad I had a good day."
GoDaddy came aboard Patrick's car as an associate sponsor when she moved to Andretti Autosport in 2007, then became a full sponsor in 2010 as she began to transition to NASCAR's Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports.
Patrick had a vociferous advocate in Parsons. His decision to sell the company to a private equity firm in 2011 for a reported $2.25 billion and take on a lesser role removed an ally from a decision-making position who had long asserted he would sponsor Patrick "if she took up figure skating." That uncommon level of sponsor continuity allowed Patrick to make a more methodical advance to full-time Sprint Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing this season, said her agent, Mark Dyer of IMG Worldwide.
"We could have not taken three years to get to full-time Sprint Cup status if GoDaddy had not signed on to that two-phase plan," he said. "As a result of that, Danica has had much better of a rookie year than some other open wheel drivers that for whatever reason rushed in with much less Nationwide experience than she gained.
"The sponsor bought into what we thought was a sound, reasonable plan."
Crucial for Patrick was remaining part of the plan under a new regime. Irving admits he "didn't know Danica from Adam" when he joined GoDaddy and had seen her more in television commercials than in a race car. His perception of her, he said, was of a "looks like a good person, good-looking, athletic being used as sort of objectified."
Irving arranged to meet Patrick the weekend of the spring race at Phoenix International Raceway, and their scheduled 15-minute chat soon bloomed into a 45-minute discussion, Patrick said, "about economy, the business, what the plans were" and how the 54-year-old Irving is a much better golfer.
She said there was no trepidation in meeting a figure so key to her future.
"No. It's not my world, that I understand," she said. "It's all about growing the business and whoever is going to do that is the right person for the job. Usually when I see him now I just ask, 'What company did you acquire last?'"
Irving's move to GoDaddy bewildered some trade analysts because of their negative perceptions of the company's earlier marketing and Patrick's association with it. But Irving said he quickly determined that she possessed attributes to accentuate a new "mature" advertising campaign and mission statement designed to appeal to small business owners. Patrick will appear in at least one GoDaddy Super Bowl commercial again this season.
"Knowing you've got to take a company from the before picture of getting attention to being purposeful about who your customers are,'' Irving said, "when you meet a young woman who has fought her way through a male-dominated sport her entire life successfully and you start seeing what that's about and what's inside her has actually produced -- that is really pretty cool.''
GoDaddy remained with Andretti in the IndyCar Series for two seasons after Patrick left, swathing its electric green paint scheme and a star-making marketing campaign around James Hinchcliffe. His dual Canadian/United Kingdom citizenship and charisma made him a logical pitch man for a coming international push. Hinchcliffe won three races in 2013, but the company withdrew support after this season, citing expense in relation to customers gained.
My whole experience with NASCAR has been Danica in No. 10 or No. 7. … Danica representing us in that vehicle is pretty damned powerful for us.Blake Irving
Irving said the company is in North America's dominant motorsports series because that's where Patrick is. He's unsure if it would be there if she wasn't.
"I don't know," he conceded. "It's hard for me to actually take the two apart from each other. My whole experience with NASCAR has been Danica in No. 10 or No. 7. ... Danica representing us in that vehicle is pretty damned powerful for us."
In an odd coincidence, Irving said action star Travis Pastrana, whose crossover appeal is in many ways comparable to Patrick's, could "maybe" be a fit for his company if Patrick opted to leave NASCAR. Five days later Pastrana announced the termination of his two-year NASCAR effort, partially because of lack of sponsorship.
"I know how important it is to take care of them," Patrick said. "I know how important it is to do what they want and give them what they want. I know how valuable they are and how easily it can go away, so I guess all I'm saying is, I'm not naive enough to think that I don't have to do anything to keep it around.
"You need to work with them and you need to give them value, and the best thing that can happen for me is the company I am with grows. If they grow and I am a part of the program, then I am guilty by association. Forget if I am responsible for any of it. I'm with them. And that's important."
And she'll continue to stay with them, Irving predicts. Seven seasons and counting with a sponsor is millennia in modern motorsports, especially considering GoDaddy's term with Patrick involves an evolving brand and an evolving driver.
Neither Patrick's camp nor GoDaddy would identify the exact length of their multi-year contract, which added to the weight of Irving's prediction this summer that they would be together an "awful, awful long time." That span of time may be relative in two businesses -- racing and technology -- predicated on speed and performance. Irving said Patrick is earning her pay.
"Foreseeable future," Irving said. "That's a long time for me. When you see Danica in that GoDaddy logo, they're kind of inseparable. Certainly in NASCAR they're inseparable.
"She's awesome for us."