Tony McDermott: Valvoline marketing manager

Meet the driving force behind Valvoline’s recent ad campaign.

WE’VE seen some epic automotive TV commercials over the years. Few are being made these days, though, thanks to advertising standards that can see a campaign pulled after a single complaint. So who’d get behind a balls-out, rev- and rubber-fest like Valvoline’s recent ‘Man Like Horsepower’ ads?

Valvoline marketing manager Tony McDermott was born into a car family. “My father used to take us to the car racing, motorbike racing. He had cool cars: an MG TC, Jag S-Type, Jag XJ-6, Brock Commodore. And my mum had cool cars: a 302 XY Fairmont four-speed, then a 351 XB four-speed...”

That sort of upbringing puts a kid in danger of becoming a motoring journalist. Leaving university with a marketing degree, McDermott joined the market research department at ACP (then-publisher of Wheels) in 1987.

“While I was working there, I wrote a few articles for Street Machine. I could write reasonably well, but there were people who could write really well. Marketing was just a better career for me.”

He joined Rothmans, before the tide had fully turned against tobacco sponsorship. McDermott spent most weekends “up close and personal” with Winfield-sponsored drag racing, speedway and the Gibson Motorsport Nissan team.

His employer’s Winston brand connection helped McDermott to tick a bucket-list item: driving a NASCAR.

“I was going to the US for a holiday, so I arranged to go down to North Carolina. Winston gave me VIP tickets to a race.

“I booked a three-day course at Buck Baker’s stock car school, where you drove real, 600hp NASCARs around Rockingham … People talk about driving around in circles, but it’s actually driving a track with four corners. I was doing about 140mph (225km/h), and then I went around with Buddy [Baker] at about 180 (290).”

Through subsequent career stints with bourbon brands Cougar and Jim Beam, McDermott’s ridden shotgun in V8 Supercars, Carrera Cup cars, a three-seater top-fueller and Gary ‘Burnout King’ Myers’ Ford Mustang at Summernats. He’s also raced his own VN Commodore V8 in Super Sprint competition.

McDermott joined Valvoline in 2008. The brand’s long association with radio announcer John Laws (“You know what I mean”) was under review. With full synthetic oils gradually dominating the market, the brand needed to emphasise its SynPower offering.

“Engine oil is not sexy, it is not exciting. Cars are sexy and exciting. So we wanted to tap into that emotional connection.”

The ‘Man Like Horsepower’ ads were shot in Uruguay, where production costs can be half of those locally. As McDermott found on set, local authorities are also a bit more flexible…

“We went into Montevideo, to the equivalent of [Sydney’s] Cross City Tunnel. They just closed it for us, we did our shots and off we choofed.”

While any such campaign has to be structured around industry guidelines, McDermott says the ad received about half a dozen complaints. “We expected that. One person can write an email and cost Australia hundreds of thousands of dollars... And the system is run by people who catch the bus.”

Crude intentions

Oil man and petrol-head Tony McDermott isn’t worried about electric cars drying up his employer’s market. “I think it could be 50 years before electric cars become universal because of the range issues and the ability to regenerate the battery. So until then, we’ll need hybrids. And in fact, Valvoline already supplies to Tesla: coolant for the batteries.”

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.