Vale: Michael W. Jennings
Michael W. Jennings, promotions manager and so much more of Castrol in in the formative professional era of the 1970s, who passed away in July aged 90, was a hero of Australian motorsport, largely unsung.
At a time when fuel and lubricant companies like Shell, BP and Total were more an integral part of the sport than even the car makers Jennings used a grasp of promotion well ahead of its time to thrust Castrol, a lubricants specialist without the big budget of a fuel company, into prominence.
He turned racing drivers, the likes of the young Brock and Bond, Chivas and the Geoghegan brothers into brand ambassadors, long before the concept had been discovered by others (today everyone from soap powder suppliers to luxury goods manufacturers attach celebrities to their brands).
He discovered events which would otherwise struggle to succeed and made them noticeably prominent with Castrol as their naming rights partner.
And through the necessity of his limited budget he successfully challenged the charter of the ABC and had the national broadcaster air hours of motorsport, partially on the public purse.
Jennings was by no means the ‘father’ of GTX – the Winning Oil, but his below the line efforts were so successful that Castrol found itself in danger of becoming the GTX oil company, necessitating the seminal ‘Oils Ain’t Oils’ campaign to enhance awareness of its other products.
Jennings was one of four motorsport ‘oiligarchs’ of the 1970s. The others, John Pryce from BP, Arch White from Shell, Toby Bent from his own Castrol, all heroes, tended to play the sport. Jennings played the man.
The commercial prize for all of them was the initial ll business of the multitude of local vehicle manufacturers and the ow on demand from their franchised workshops.
The supermarket led DIY market was a mere gleam in the eye of future marketers but Jennings could see that just as Holden and Ford owners had become tribalists so, amazingly, there were loyalists to oil brands.
He set out to put personality into what is essentially a grudge purchase, bringing a purpose to Castrol’s premium positioning of its pinnacle GTX.
Race drivers and edgling race teams found themselves the subject of breakthrough PR and advertising campaigns in which their own awareness was enhanced along with the product. He helped make them stars.
When brilliant young promoter Vince Tesoriero proposed a production motorcycle race to capitalise on the bike boom of the early ’70s Jennings brought Castrol on board.
But when Network Seven, after airing the inaugural Castrol Six Hour, set its price too high and Channel Nine when even higher, Jennings turned to the ABC and opened a Pandora’s Box of opportunity by insisting that motorsport met the ABC’s charter of ‘broadcasting in the public interest’.
When ABC producers countered that they had insufficient funds he helped create channels – tested to be legal – that allowed him to funnel commercial money into the ABC.
He was so successful that the ABC not only broadcast the Castrol Six Hour but also Castrol Mr Motocross, the Castrol International Rally in Canberra, and latterly the Australian Touring Car Championship, although not with Castrol’s name as a pre x.
In Jennings’ time Castrol became entrenched in the sport.
He came on board at Castrol in 1968 at the start of the Holden Dealer Team and when Holden’s anti-motorsport stance made it difficult to have funds pass between divisions, Castrol stepped in, even paying the drivers. The payback was an increase in oil sales at Holden dealerships.
When Bob Morris found himself without Bathurst sponsorship it was Jennings who devised an arrangement which let Channel Seven sponsor Morris in kind with advertising contra and for Castrol to buy those spots from Morris at a giant discount on Seven’s normal rates – a win for all.
Jennings was a proud Tasmanian, a proud working journalist and a proud husband of his beloved Biddy and father of Christopher, Nicholas, Lisa and Timi.
He was a hard taskmaster, with a heart of gold.
When he crossed the oor from journalism to PR and then went client-side with Castrol he hired my edgling communications rm instead of his previous employer to assist him. He was my rst client. When I showed him around my empty office, soon to be furnished, he remarked, “Don’t buy an expensive desk; we wouldn’t look kindly on you spending our money like that.” I bought a $35 secondhand metal number. He was well pleased.
Michael Jennings retired early from Castrol in 1982, aged only 55. He’d given his all to his company, perhaps more than any of us realised at the time, and he’d had enough.
Less than two years later Peter Brock made the seismic shift from Marlborough to Mobil as his principal sponsor; the unintended casualty being Castrol. It was as well Jennings was not there for that. It would have been more than he could bear.
Mike Jennings with Australian Rally Champion Greg Carr