This week’s Social Spotlight interview is with Bryan Cook, director of digital and social media for Joe Gibbs Racing. Cook is affectionately known as “Boris” and is the face of all things JGR social media. I spoke with him Thursday at the JGR shop.
What are you doing with this under-construction space at Joe Gibbs Racing?
We’re building a social media studio that’s going to center a lot around video, because those are the two big things that our partners and our fans are really enjoying.
Social media is one of the top three things we hear from partners. Obviously for fans, it’s a continued way to get them connected to the drivers and our team.
My goal is to make them feel like they’re a part of the team. The more we can do that, the more we can have a space that makes it easy to go live on a Facebook or an Instagram or even a Twitter is important. I think it’ll be important, too, because it’ll give us a chance to shoot more cars, it’ll give us a chance to unveil things, to showcase crew members and to have them here. (It’s) kind of a more comfortable setting to either do an interview or get some insight or talk about their job or talk about a car. I think that’s going to be an exciting part about this.
What exactly is the backstory for people calling you “Boris” when your real name is Bryan?
It started my first week on the job. I got on the team plane to go to Talladega — first time going to the track with JGR. Joey Logano was our driver back then, and he was sitting in the row in front of me. When I started, I had a big curly fro and facial hair and I looked a lot like Boris Said.
Joey turned around — and he hadn’t met me before — and he said, “Hey, has anybody ever told you that you look like Boris Said?” I said, “Yeah, actually.” He said, “That’s your new nickname now.” So he like knighted me.
And it’s been actually pretty awesome, because it’s kind of turned into a pen name. I read this book about how to be successful with people and in business, and they always talked about having an artifact. Like (former Secretary of State) Madeline Albright always wore a lapel pin; just something people remembered. I found out that’s kind of what the nickname has turned into. People remember it, it’s funny, I guess it’s endearing. Boris (Said) is a nice guy; I’ve met him a couple times and we’ve done some funny videos together with some stare-offs. So I have to thank Joey for that one — it kind of helped out.
I feel like everybody knows you at JGR. You could walk through anywhere and everybody knows exactly who you are and what you do. And you’re really part of the team. Does that help you with your job and make things easier when you approach people to do things?
Yeah, for sure. It’s vital. I always feel like I’m playing the long game. This is my eighth season with the team and I’ve been on the road every year with the team, going to almost every race. It’s been important for them to be comfortable, and of course, trust is the biggest thing. It’s knowing I’m for them, I’m biased for JGR — for making our driver, our team, our owner look good. It’s unashamed about that.
They want me to be excited when we win and disappointed when we lose. It’s important for them to know they can trust me and I have their best interests at heart. And also that I love the sport and love JGR, and I just want to tell a good story that is interesting to the fans, but also puts us in a good light.
It’s at the point now where I do feel like a driver can see me walking around and ask me to help them knock out a video or ask for an idea for how to do something on their own channels. They’re not technically employees — they’re obviously part of the team — but we want to elevate their channels. It’s been really exciting for me to see that development where you start with social media.
When I started, Twitter was really just becoming important. I wouldn’t even say it was vital to a business yet. It was more hobby level. But it was getting there, and Coach (Gibbs) and Dave Alpern, our president, had the foresight to realize we needed somebody in that position starting to catch the tidal wave that was coming. So it was important to kind of have fun with it then, but then over the long run proving myself and showing I was going to do a good job. Those guys now trust me to help them with their own things. So that’s exciting for me.
Let’s get into your general philosophy. I feel like you try to say to the fans, “You’re part of our team.” Does everything you do stem from that philosophy?
To start with my philosophy, I have to start with my background. I fell in love with racing when I was 12 years old. My uncle got me into it. I have kind of a funny story with it, in that I was kind of born with a natural artistic bend. So I started falling in love with racing because of the color and the speed and the excitement.
I know that world of how it feels to be a kid at a track and enamored by everything that’s going on. I always approach the social strategy from that standpoint, from viewing me as a kid: What would I want to see? What did that feel like?
I’m jealous of fans now, especially younger fans, with social media. I would have killed for the opportunity back then to be able to interact and send a drawing in or interact with a driver or crew member or give feedback and see it used in some way on a team’s social media. I would have loved that. So I always approach it like that. I want the person to feel like they’re part of the team as much as I can, and that involves direct interaction as much as I can.
I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to design street cars, and I wrote a letter to one of the car manufacturers and they wrote me back, and I still remember that. I remember how the embossment on the paper felt. So I just try to always keep that in mind when I approach it. That’s sort of a general thing, but it’s very important to have that approach. Because social media changes daily, it feels like — a new update to an app, a new piece of content, every week is a different story. And so I just always have to have that background in mind.
It’s pretty incredible hearing how you got started in the age before social media really took off. Particularly Snapchat — now if you were out there with the artistic skills you have, you would be a hot commodity just for Snapchat stuff alone. And it turned out you were already in a social media job, then Snapchat comes along and it becomes perfect for you in that way.
Maybe it sounds corny, but I really feel like I’m sort of in the zone, like I was meant to be here, you know? Who would have thought you could merge artistic stuff and NASCAR racing? In college, people laughed at me for that. I didn’t hide that I wanted to go that way in art school — that’s what my degree is in — so you can imagine how that comes across. But I think it’s important to find your niche, and I’m really thankful I have. I have to pinch myself; I kind of get chills talking about it now. Snapchat has been fun, to literally see an outlet for drawing in my world is exciting.
As long as we’re on Snapchat, let’s go there for a second. It seems like you try to tell a story chronologically from start to finish on a race day. Is that correct?
On race days, yeah, definitely. I still debate with myself about how to best do it. How much information is too much information versus fun posts versus documenting? But yeah, I definitely try to do a start to finish and look for storylines within the race. I’m not trying to pressure myself to cover everything. You can’t please everyone, but there’s a lot going on, especially with four (Cup) cars and three in Xfinity. It’s giving insight, it’s giving radio communication, and it’s really quality over quantity.
So on a non-race day, let’s say they come to you and say, “Hey Boris, we’re going to be having a car unveil and we want you to cover it.” So you have all sorts of options, and you only have so many hands. You could put something on Periscope, Facebook Live, Snapchat, even Instagram Live now. How do you decide what to cover it with?
I have a feel for which platform is going to spur the most engagement — which one fans expect certain kinds of content on. Twitter would be more news-related, maybe more breaking news. Facebook and especially Snapchat now are more of the fun, insider story behind things. It also depends on the partner as well; they sometimes have a preference for which outlet — either they have more followers on it or feel like it’s better for their business. So that comes into play, too.
I think right now, Facebook is the behemoth that has the engagement and it’s an easy way to store content as well as unveil it. So that typically is going to be the one we go to. I think (Snapchat and Instagram) stories are great, because they let us tell the stories in quick hits. For a car unveil, it’s typically a live hit, and Facebook right now, there’s no real other place to go for the numbers. The other ones are doing well, and they’re exciting, but if you have to choose one — and oftentimes we do, unless we want to use two phones — I’ll go with Facebook.
I tagged along with you to a paint scheme unveil last year at Fort Bragg, and I saw you use a two-pronged thing with a pair of phones on it — both being charged — and you were Periscoping and Facebook Live-ing at the same time. But you feel like overall, Facebook Live is the better platform for you?
I think so. And Facebook is really hands on. It’s an exciting time, because we have people from Facebook that are working with us — which is the first time in my seven or eight years that’s happened. I have to give kudos to Facebook for showing the initiative to do that. I think if other platforms did that, it might be a little bit of a different story.
It’s not all about numbers in social media — of course, people always want big numbers — but to me, it’s about authentic engagement. And that’s why I’m on Snapchat, too. If you think about Twitter and Facebook, the percentage of engagement from your followers is relatively low. On Snapchat, you could be looking at an 80% engagement. I don’t know our follower count, but say we had 10,000. We’re getting 8,000 highly engaged people to watch all the way through a story. That’s more valuable to me than if we got 20,000 on another platform that aren’t actually engaging.
Facebook Live is great because of the comments and the interaction and the ability to really include people in the space they’re not expecting to be.
I’m always sort of torn on what to shoot. Do I want to video? Do I want to snap? Sometimes I get myself in a situation where I’m like, “Dang it, I missed that. I should have done another platform.” When you’re covering something, do you ever get in a situation where you’re second-guessing yourself that you should have done it differently?
Definitely. I’ve kind of figured out a little bit of a process. I typically shoot first in Snapchat, because I know I can download it on the spot and I can (upload) it somewhere else. But then Snapchat, you can’t reverse that into (the app). So I make sure I have that, because it also gives me a chance to cut down on how much I’m shooting. It has a (10-second) window, and I want to make sure I’m getting the good stuff and the high-quality stuff, so it’s helpful for me in a disciplinary way to focus down on, “OK, what’s going to work here?” And then sometimes I’ll just shoot with a regular camera and I know I can put it up elsewhere.
But (Facebook) Lives a lot of times now have to be planned out — in my world at least — and have to be kind of thought through. You ultimately don’t want to embarrass anyone. Everyone on our team, we have great people here and the drivers are pros off the track in their media and their image. So along those lines of trust, you want to make sure they know you’re going live and they understand what the context is so there’s nothing unexpected — as much as you can control.
What’s the pressure like to be the voice of the company? You get all sorts of people tweeting at you and you’re having to answer them, and they might not be in a pleasant mood. Or you may have to deal with haters. How do you deal with people on a daily basis like that?
It’s funny, because I kind of walk on a line. You want to show personality, because this is a sport; it’s fun. I have fun every time I go to the track. And that’s what people want out of sports, I think. So you want to be fun and biased at a level that shows how much a part of this team I am and how much I care about it. And then you also have the wisdom side and the side about not embarrassing anyone. That’s a fun line to walk.
I’ve figured out ways to do that; experience has helped me do that. There’s always an opportunity to engage in fun back-and-forth banter. That’s just a human thing. It goes back to authenticity — understanding this is really about one-on-one interactions with people that are now seen on a broader level. Everything that comes along with that has to be considered.
There’s been some great times with other teams, specifically, where we can have some fun back-and-forth that’s not over the line. I remember with (Richard Childress Racing), for example, we’d have fun back-and-forth in a competitive way just about a pass on the track and things like that. And I love that, because I think fans want that. I remember growing up, my uncle had one driver and one team. He was a big Earnhardt fan, and there was nobody else he wanted to deal with, and he was going to talk trash about Jeff Gordon — who I liked. And that’s part of our sport, so you don’t want to lose that.
But as far as being a voice, the great part about this company is it’s a family-run deal, and it feels like a small team even though we have a lot of employees here. At this point, I have a pretty good feel for how Coach likes to be represented. That’s always my first thought: I want to represent Coach Gibbs and our drivers and our team as a whole in the right way and the way he would want to be represented — not about my personality, but about what his would be.
So I keep that in mind, and I double-check and re-read everything, and I think, “What would this person think?” and “What would that person think?” It can be exhausting, but the payoff is big, and if things go bad, it could be really bad. There’s a lot of pressure and you make mistakes, but we have a good team here, so I figured it out.
Is it always just you? Do you have helpers or assistants or anything like that? If somebody tweets, is it always you who tweets back?
Not anymore. Within the last year, because of all these platforms we’ve already talked about, it’s almost humanly impossible. So we have one person, Stacie (Fandel), who helps with Twitter and getting things up and getting posts scheduled. And then we have a girl named Amanda (Godwin) and Evan (Wahl) and we have an intern named Sarah (Traylor) that help out. We work on the creative and work together on brainstorms and make videos and all that. They always joke with me that it’s kind of like everybody thinks there’s just one person — Boris. I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead, but there’s a character Negan, and his whole group all goes by the name Negan. I’m not quite that egotistical — I hope. But they always joke with me about that.
Within the first six or so years, it was a lot of a one-man band — and that was a lot (to handle). But I loved it, and I still do, but it just got to the point where we needed a team. And I have a good one.
How many races do you end up going to per year?
Right now, I’m scheduled to go to all of them.
So you never get off-weekends?
It’s tough to get an off-weekend. This weekend in Martinsville, I’ll get Saturday off. I’m just going Cup day, so that’s good. But they’re good about giving me my Thursday and Friday off, or the two days I need to find here and there, depending on what the race schedule is. The West Coast Swing is always a tough one, as it is for anybody in the industry. But there’s a lot of great stuff there — like we covered the car swapping, which is an insider look that a lot of people don’t see. So it’s worth it, but it’s definitely a whirlwind schedule.
I know you have help now and you do get some off-days, but it’s still such a demanding job and it has to be overwhelming at times. What’s your secret to making it through the season where you can enough time for yourself and be rested?
I don’t do much with my personal social media channels. It gets to the point where I’m creatively spent by the time I’m home and relaxed. So I’m not on my phone as much once I get home, and that’s pretty important for me. You have to be able to turn it off, and I think I can.
In our industry with news breaking all the time, it’s hard. I have the people who are important on my contact list on the special tone when I get an email from them, so I know I’m not going to miss that.
But for me, it’s just getting away from a screen is the most important part. It’s hard, because I really love the sport and so if I wasn’t working in it, I’d still be following it. Becoming a little less emotionally attached to it is the key, I think. And not too far (away), but just to where you’re not draining yourself is important.
The last thing I’d like to ask is about your amazing art and some of the creations you make. Let’s say you’re going to post something on Snapchat — some really cool snap with a drawing on there. How long does that take you to do, and how exactly do you do that?
It varies. I’ve learned to not bite off more than I can chew. I remember for the playoffs a couple years ago, NASCAR had me draw the four finalists in kind of a Snapchat portrait, and that’s the longest one I’ve done. The whole time, I’m just praying Snapchat wouldn’t crash while I’m in the middle of a portrait. That one took at least 40 minutes per drawing — I think one of them took almost an hour. And one of them was Kyle Busch, which I felt the extra pressure of not messing up, because I knew I’d have to see him later. But I haven’t done anything quite like that since.
It’s kind of a daunting task. Right now, I lean toward fun. I don’t try to be a perfectionist on Snapchat. I’ve seen a lot of artists where they’re like chiseled in their drawings. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve decided to start using a stylus. It’s a little easier on the fingers.
I like to enhance the photo I’m taking. If I’m on the shop floor, it’s fun to draw a character down there. Or I’ve been doing these things where I turn our race cars into Cars characters and put the eyeballs on them. So things like that that are simple and I know I can knock out pretty quickly.
In my world, there’s so much content and so many buckets to fill, it’s hard to not be discouraged, because you feel like you could always be putting something up — but it’s not realistic. So when I’m drawing, I just have a good feel for how long something is going to take, so I just try to temper that and keep it in that window.