Conversing at the Indianapolis 500 last month, a Verizon executive made a remark to CSM Sport & Entertainment’s Ashlee Huffman that struck her.
“‘It’s cool you guys have been a niche agency, and kind of a boutique specialist agency, but you’re proper now,’” Huffman, general manager of CSM’s motorsports division, recalled the Verizon executive as saying.
Huffman and the executive from Verizon, which counts CSM as its motorsports agency, were discussing how the agency she had worked at has diversified away from working only on motorsports, which was the main niche of the former Just Marketing International before CSM acquired it in 2013 for $76 million.
JMI founder Zak Brown and President and COO Jon Flack left the agency last year, setting off what is likely the largest transition in the agency’s more than two-decade existence.
CSM executives say they are now reinventing the agency for the future. They acknowledge growing pains during the transition, which has seen a number of other former JMI employees leave the firm, but they say things are looking up.
“Zak and Jon certainly built JMI — they were not only huge presences in their own regard, but respected in the industry,” said Huffman, who was promoted to the GM role in May. “But at the same time, as we make the shift to CSM, it’s a different agency; when we say we’re rebranded to CSM, it’s clear now.”
Six months ago, at the start of the rebranding, it was in name only, Huffman said. But she added that in the last two months, the motorsports group has started to find a rhythm in working with more than a dozen CSM agencies that specialize in different verticals and sports.
Huffman said CSM has retained its motorsports clients, which include Verizon, Crown Royal and Hisense, “so I almost feel like we have the best of both worlds where we have the opportunities and larger network under CSM, but we’ve kept that specialized motorsports skill set.” She said it was too early to break down the percentage of revenue that would come from motorsports now compared to the past.
Since acquiring JMI, CSM — the sports and entertainment arm of U.K.-based Chime Communications — has slowly built up its presence in the United States, where it previously had little to no market share. That has included a host of acquisitions including SJX in 2014, JHE Production Group and LeadDog Marketing Group in 2016 and GlideSlope earlier this year. CSM’s employee count in the U.S. has grown to nearly 400.
Rick Cuellar, group account director of CSM, who works on the Verizon account that oversees the telecom provider’s IndyCar Series title sponsorship, said he has seen the adjustment to a more diversified agency firsthand.
“A lot of calls where I used to say, ‘I’d love to be involved in that project; we just don’t have the capabilities or bandwidth to extend that far out of racing,’ we can now say, ‘Yes, I can pull in experts of that category or that discipline,’” Cuellar said.
He cited Hisense as an example. The Chinese consumer electronics company recently developed an interest in esports, perhaps unsurprisingly given that televisions are its chief revenue stream in the U.S. CSM set up an activation that included playing an esports game on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Speedway TV video board during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 weekend in May.