Ben Cowley spent five years with Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team as their Head of Content, and now runs his own digital and social media consultancy 64th & Social. We were lucky enough to catch up with him recently to ask him about how he got to where he is today.
“What is your name and job title?“
My name is Ben Cowley. My job title… good question! I went back and forth on this a number of times trying to decide what sounded the least pretentious and eventually settled on ‘Founder’. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of titles…
“Could you give me a summary of your current job role, and your previous job role?”
I currently run a small digital media agency, specialising in motorsport. Our remit is to help drivers, teams, sponsors and any other affiliated parties get the most out of their online presence. This includes anything and everything from defining tone of voice and content strategy to organising film shoots, live event coverage, community management, data analytics and so on.
Before starting the business, I spent five years with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team and three years prior to that with Lotus F1 Team (now Renault F1 Team). When I left the former at the end of the 2018 F1 season, I held the position of Head of Content – a role that gave me oversight of all aspects of the team’s content output. It was a demanding job but I loved every second and was fortunate enough to learn from – and be inspired by – a huge number of incredibly talented colleagues along the way.
“What did you want to be when you grew up?“
According to my Dad, when I was very young I told him I was going to be a racing driver at the weekends and work with him as a bricklayer during the week. The latter came much closer to being reality, as it turns out! Having tried to forge a career behind the wheel up until the age of 17, I eventually conceded defeat when attempts to raise funding for a full season at the top level of British karting didn’t work out.
“When did you know you wanted to work in Formula 1?“
Honestly, until I actually reached F1 I thought it was a pipe dream. Motorsport is in my blood and, one way or another, I was determined to find my way into the industry. But if you had told me 10 years ago I’d be where I am today, I would probably have laughed.
“What is the best thing about your job in Formula 1?“
Now that’s a tough question. It’s hard to know where to begin, really. If you were to ask me the best thing about working for a team, it’s just that – being part of a team. The camaraderie is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The only parallel I can draw is with what I imagine life would be like in the military, which may explain why a lot of ex-forces end up in the paddock. You’re part of an incredible group of people, away from home for most of the year, working crazy shifts in all conditions, giving everything you’ve got to achieve your mission. And you do it for each other – for your team-mates. It’s a very special thing to be a part of.
“What subjects and courses did you take?”
I concentrated on modern languages (Spanish and French) at GCSE, A-Level and then initially at University – purely on the basis that I was naturally stronger in those subjects than any others. Mid-way through the second year of my degree, I asked myself: “Where am I going with this?” and couldn’t find an answer. So, I packed in that course and spent the next six months working in a bar to pay off my debts while I figured out what I really wanted to with my life.
In the end, I enrolled at another University to study Marketing Communications – working pretty much full-time at B&Q (other hardware retailers are available) alongside my studies, as I was unable to secure sufficient loan funding the second time around. It wasn’t exactly a textbook educational path, but it helped pave the way for the career I have today.
“Did you do any work experience?“
After graduating, I struggled to find work within motorsport. The recession had hit and, ultimately, I had little to offer above and beyond any other candidate on paper. So, I took a job in recruitment and saved as much money as I could, with the intention of offering my services for free to gain relevant experience within the industry.
Eventually, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with a member of the commercial department at Lotus via LinkedIn. His career path was something I wanted to emulate, so I approached him for some advice. We got chatting and, a few weeks later, he offered me a fortnight of work experience with the team. That was my ‘in’.
That fortnight was extended into a month, then two months, then three, during which time I volunteered to help out in any department I could – from commercial to marketing, events and finally communications. A few months further down the line, when a member of the communications department decided to move on, I threw myself into helping cover some of the workload while they searched for a replacement. Eventually, I became that replacement!
It was a massive risk. I’d left behind my home, my friends, my partner and a well-paid job, all with no guarantees. By the time I finally had that contract in my hand, I was flat broke, single and living in a different room share each week – whichever was the cheapest available option I could find online. But I had the time of my life – and fortunately it all worked out in the end! Sometimes taking a big risk to follow your passion pays off.
“What has been your biggest challenge?“
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance, undoubtedly. Being brutally honest, it’s something I’ve worked very hard at and I like to think I’ve made significant progress – but it’s a never-ending battle. When you care so deeply about your work, it’s very hard to switch off. Recognising how crucial it is to do so is essential to career longevity, though. It’s all too easy to push yourself towards burning out – and push those closest to you away at the same time. No matter how much you love your work – and I genuinely adore mine – everybody needs a release. It helps keep your mind fresh.
“What was the best thing you ever did to help you get to where you are today?“
Relationships are everything in the motorsport industry. It’s a very small world and news spreads fast – both positive and negative. The same goes for reputations. At the end of my first race weekend with Lotus, I was rounding off my last few jobs on the Sunday evening and noticed the crew in their hi-vis shirts, packing down the garage.
I asked the Logistics Manager – a brilliant man called Geoff – if they’d be going for a beer back at the hotel. He laughed and said it would be hours before they could even think about leaving the track. So, I asked if I could be of any help. He seemed taken aback. As it turns out, nobody from the commercial side of the team had ever stayed to help with packup. It wasn’t a conscious decision on their part – it just wasn’t the done thing.
Aside from one or two events where I had other work commitments, I stayed for packup at every race. Not only did it help me build great relationships with the wider team outside of my own department, I gained one of my biggest career advocates in Geoff. It was also a lot of fun!
“What would you say to inspire someone to follow their dreams?“
It’s a massive cliché – but don’t be afraid to fail. Chasing a dream inevitably involves an element of risk, be it personal, professional, or financial. It’s intimidating to make that leap – particularly if it means making sacrifices in any of those three areas to do so. But if you don’t give it a go, you might just end up looking back in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time wondering: “What if…” You have to really want it too. If you go into it half-arsed, you’ll fail – it’s as simple as that.
“Any other information you think might be helpful to someone looking to do what you do?“
You can’t be afraid of hard graft in this industry. You’ll be working all sorts of weird and wonderful hours across multiple time zones, potentially with some relentless back-to-back events thrown into the mix too. I once went almost six weeks without touching down on UK soil – and it wasn’t because I was off sunning myself between races! It can be brutal and it’s not as glamorous as people think (most of the time, anyway!) But if you’re willing to put in the hours, you’ll have the time of your life.