An Unconventional Career in the Luxurious and High Performance Automotive World


If you've ever found yourself on a guided tour of Acura's Performance Manufacturing Center where they build their NSX supercar, learned how to push a Land Rover to its limits on class 4 roads in Vermont, spent a day driving McLarens through Carmel during the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance or been whisked around in a Rolls Royce Cullinan during Art Basel, you've probably sat next to, received detailed driving instructions from or been given an in-depth answer about "six and three quarter liter vee twelves," by Chris Nunn.

Chris has spent the better part of the last decade becoming a go-to marketing consultant, factory-trained instructor and know-it-all nerd for some of the world's most luxurious and high performance automotive manufacturers. If you give him 5 minutes he will give you, in his opinion, a comprehensive list of the best cars on sale today while emphatically reminding you that driving is about so much more than just getting from A to B.

We spent the morning sipping coffee and talking about cars, motorcycles, design and fashion. Read on for a look into his unconventional career in cars.

How did you get involved in the automotive space? Was this a childhood dream?

Yeah, absolutely. But to best explain what I do now, I should probably explain how my career started.

When I graduated in 2008 with a degree in public relations, my goal was to work at a big box agency like Edelman, FleishmanHillard or Ogilvy. Then... the recession hit. Marketing and PR budgets tanked, paid internships disappeared and it seemed like no one had any interest in hiring let alone training an inexperienced college grad.
After some waffling and solid advice from a college professor, I started to think of my life long interest (okay, okay... border-line obsession) with cars as knowledge and experience that I could then market to automotive agencies as a unique skill set.

I had recently moved to Colorado when I stumbled upon this incredible social media campaign for the new Ford Fiesta. Turns out the experiential agency that put it together was headquartered in Boulder. I tweeted at their VP of business development something to the effect of, "Good to see another gearhead representing in BoCo! Hit me up if y'all are ever looking to add another one to your team." He called me 10 minutes later and we talked cars for over an hour.

I joined their ranks shortly thereafter and launched my career in automotive marketing by designing, developing and executing experiential campaigns over the next several years for Ford, Lincoln, Nissan and Infiniti. Essentially when a brand was looking to get the word out about a new car they were developing or looking to get prospective buyers in the driver seat, we developed a strategic, event-based approach to make that happen.

But ironically, the fun stuff didn't start until I lost that job. 
When I was let go I was devastated, of course. But due to a lack of business about 15% of the staff, along with myself, were cut. Albeit with full recommendations and the support to seek new ventures in marketing. Funny thing is, when I look back and am honest with myself, I was never content simply sitting behind a desk.

I wanted to be hands on with cars. And incredibly, eight months later a mentor of mine would hand-deliver an opportunity that would change my career path forever.
When McLaren was gearing up to launch their "sports car" in the United States, they wanted to start with a prototype tour. Essentially they were looking for a 2 person team to haul early versions of the now well known 570S dealer to dealer and do reveal events and prospective customer walkarounds to generate interest. But McLaren's presence in the US was still sparse and they had no product specialists to speak of.

My mentor, who was close with McLaren's head of North American marketing, literally called me up one day and said "pack your bags, you're going to London." A week later I was walking the floor of the McLaren Technology Center in Woking, England gawking at this tremendous lineup of McLaren racing cars, including some of Bruce McLaren's earliest Can-Am vehicles. And because my training was exhaustively cohesive, they even saw fit to set me loose on the Goodwood Circuit, the same place that Bruce developed his prototypes, behind the wheel of their 650S supercar. Can't talk the talk if you don't walk the walk! That was definitely a pinch me moment.

Fast forward five years and I've been lucky enough to receive factory certification from Jaguar, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and more. My role has differed from brand to brand, but the description has always been the same: to be the knowledge center for a manufacturer by knowing their vehicles and how their vehicles perform, both inside and out.

I've kept my ties with McLaren, helping them launch eight of their most recent models. My work has varied from shaking down a new vehicle with an owner on track to help them get comfortable with their new carbon fiber masterpiece to taking young McLaren fans for a blast up into the California mountains in a 720S.

As an instructor for Land Rover's Off-Road Experience Programs, I've spent more than 500 hours teaching and demonstrating for new owners how to best extract all the performance from their Range Rover or Discovery in adverse conditions. I've even stood on the mega displays at the same New York International Auto Show I used to go to as a kid, introducing the latest and greatest sheet metal to hundreds of attendees and fans.

What do you think the future of experiential marketing might look like, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic?
This is a strange time! ...which is obviously the understatement of 2020. For me personally business came to a halt about the same time it did for the rest of the country back in late March. It was a little disheartening at first to see our world come to such an immediate stand-still but, I'm a firm believer that challenges force innovation. 

Here's the thing, though: interactive events in particular feed a basic human need to engage. So much of what has made experiential this unstoppable force was the idea that you could not only create brand impressions with your consumers but memories, genuine memories, that they could carry with them forever.

It doesn't matter if you're talking about energy drinks, couches, skin care or cars: where there is a need in our society, there always seems to be a specific product to fit those needs. But sifting through mountains of reviews online can only get you so far.

At the end of the day, you want to sit on that couch, drive that car or sample that energy drink before you invest in an allegiance to that brand or product. And brands know they can increase the number of evangelists they have if they can just get that product into their hands, even if it's only temporarily.

All that said, from the conversations I've had over the last few months, I do believe that while we will most likely see experiential return to its old form in due time, this idea of Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) experiential is something that's been brought up in conversation more than once.

For some manufacturers, this marketing strategy is granular. Let's say Bill has been a long time Lexus owner of 25 years. Lexus knows they can count on him for continuous sales and almost certainly can bank on him to pull his friends into the brand as well. What if Bill was planning to buy a new Lexus come summer of 2020 but he's not comfortable coming into a dealership. Why doesn't Lexus bring the brand to Bill? They could drop off the latest version of their GX460 SUV for him to use for a weekend of camping with the family. That gesture would speak volumes to Bill. And much to the envy of his closest friends, Bill would probably never stop talking about "...that one time Lexus went above and beyond!

The approach would vary in execution but the motivation is the same: taking the show to customers instead of customers coming to the show allows brands to continue to make those same memories with their dedicated fans and buyers, just modified for the times.

Do you have any favorite memories tied to a specific drive, whether it be a motorcycle or car? 

You know, driving full-tilt on the Goodwood Circuit where Bruce McLaren not only developed his cars but tragically lost his life at a young age was palpable to me. Especially in a twin-turbocharged, carbon-fiber cruise missile carrying his name on the nose. The significance of that moment in my life was immense for so many reasons.

But when I think about truly joyous memories, I can reach as far back as when I was a kid. I remember riding in the back seat of my grandparents' Mercedes 300d. It was this banana creme color with a rich, peanut-buttery brown leather interior. I can still pick out the clatter of that diesel engine from a mile away. It always makes me smile. 

I can remember riding in my parents' Range Rover Classic, a vehicle that to this day my father wishes he never sold. I remember learning to drive stick-shift on our family's denim-blue Jeep Wrangler. I can even distinctly remember driving my very first turbo-charged car: an Eagle Talon TSI! The list just goes on...

Professional highlights though? I once took a McLaren fan for a ride in a 570S Spider at a Cars & Coffee event in Texas. He was visibly nervous. Sweating from the hands before we even left the parking lot. But after he settled in, he was just so blissfully happy about how civil the 570s was to drive, he forgot he was driving a quarter million dollar car. He was extremely conservative while driving so we switched seats and I drove us back at a "spirited" but legal clip. He was silent for the whole drive back and when we stopped he burst into this combination of hyperventilation, laughter and tears. He wiped his eyes and said, "I'll never forget that for as long as I live." That was a powerful moment to me.

And while I've only just dipped my toes into motorcycles recently, I've enjoyed every second I've spent on my Husqvarna Vitpilen 401. For a first bike I truly don't know what else I could have asked for. It's gorgeously designed, incredibly neutral, has approachable yet engaging performance and is remarkably well put together. As I learn more about the motorcycle industry, I hope to create as many memories on two wheels as I have on four. 

Do you prefer going fast on the track or pushing through a tough off-road trail?

Hmm. I'd say it really depends on the given day. I have had almost as many "pucker" moments at less than 1mph off-road as I have had above 100mph on track. I respect that both, regardless of the vehicle of choice, still require some semblance of technicality and skill to do well. I think that's why I enjoy both ends of the spectrum so much. They are so different but at times will equally demand your complete attention whether it's traversing an obstacle without damaging your driveline or clipping that last apex just right.

But if I had to choose? Give me a slow car on a technical track, all day. You learn so much appreciation for driving skill when you're relying on momentum to go fast. Some of my favorite driving memories have been chasing down high-horsepower sports cars in something humble like a Mazda MX-5 or a VW GTI. 

What tips do you have for someone searching for unique car models? How do you do your research when finding cars for buyers?
This may seem obvious but, my number one golden rule when sourcing cars for clients or helping a friend find the perfect new car is simple: Drive. Everything. 
I, like many others before me, have fallen in love with a car over the way it looks... only to experience the plummeting disappointment of hopping behind the wheel and finding out it has absolutely no soul.

People will always be driven by aesthetics, but when you're looking for your car, 50% of your decision should be predicated on how it makes you feel. It doesn't matter if we're talking about a Porsche recreation by Singer or a Toyota 4Runner. Do your homework, drive all the things and find that car that not only speaks to you, your needs and your lifestyle, but that makes you smile.

If you're an enthusiast looking for a statement car, make a list of wants versus needs. We have so many choices for cars new and old today, I promise that there is a healthy list of really cool options out there for even the nerdiest of aficionados that exists at the nexus of practicality and fun. Even if we're talking about high-horsepower supercars. 

In the automotive industry, what individuals (can be photographers, filmmakers, influencers, drivers, writers, etc) do you look up to? 

Oh, wow... The list is too long. 

I have a lot of respect for the people who sculpt and create beautiful cars despite regulations and restrictions. I think Robert Melville, who is McLaren Automotive's Director of Design, is just such a tremendous talent. He's also just such a very, very kind and humble person.

I almost religiously follow Ken Block and his Hoonigan antics. And I've always looked up to Chris Forsberg, Ryan Tuerck and Travis Pastrana for the really incredible things they've done with their platforms for both drifting and rally. 
In an industry full of brands that are so focused on keeping up with their competition, I have such huge admiration for carving one's own lane much like RJ Scaringe has done with Rivian. That company stands to put the automotive game on it's proverbial head and I can't wait to see how they do it.

This might sound odd but I think YouTube car reviewers deserve more recognition and appreciation. There are dozens and dozens of channels out there producing competent, informative content that would have passed for professional-grade less than a decade ago. And even now, there are some that stand out above the rest for being not only informative but entertaining. The guys at The Straight Pipes, Car Throttle, Everyday Driver and Throttle House come to mind. But even more so, I'm a long-time fan of the Aussies at Mighty Car Mods, the crew at Carfection and Finnegan and Freiburger from Roadkill.

And truthfully, I consider myself lucky to draw inspiration from those who I work closely with in my industry. Andrew, Eric, Kurt, Mark, Heather, Lisa, Laycee and Tim... I'm looking at you!

Oh, and of course... there's the photographer extraordinaires and marketing visionaries behind Sett. Have you seen their work?? Incredible stuff.

How do you personally stay fueled, as in excited about your own industry?

The automotive sector has reached such a frantic pace that it's genuinely become a full-time job just attempting to stay up-to-date on all the things that are happening with cars in 2020. We've never had as many choices as we do now. I'll date myself by saying this but, I remember when BMW made 3 cars: the 3 series, the 5 series and the 7 series. Today they have SIXTEEN different models that you can purchase here in the United States. That's not even including the various M-badged variants. That astounds me.

But in the same vein, cars have never been as good as they are now. They're safer, quicker, more fuel-efficient, more spacious, quieter, smoother... It's getting harder and harder to buy a truly "bad" car. And I appreciate the progress that the industry has made despite the similarities between brands and stagnation that innovation in automotive can sometimes experience.

I've found inspiration in widening my gear head circle as well. I only jumped into the motorcycle industry with both feet  just a couple years ago and, even at first brush, it was like discovering cars all over again. I don't know why I have such an insatiable hunger for this industry but I consider myself lucky to work in a world where my passion serves to directly impact and even propel my professional success. 

There is often overlap in the design of "luxury and premium" items, what have you noticed from a design perspective that overlaps between fashion, cars, watches, motorcycles, architecture ... 

Aesthetics are definitely a binding web for all of those industries. We're seeing a huge resurgence in popularity for "classic" automotive silhouettes. Boxy body SUVs with massive greenhouses are now seen as handsome when they used to be seen as lumbering and inelegant. To me that trend seems almost memetic of the simplicity and understated touches of in-trend fashion. Neutral cuts and earthly colors are now displacing the popularity of bright shouty color ways.

Luxury doesn't have to be a Purple Rolls-Royce. Luxury can be a 1965 Dodge D200 Powerwagon ICON Reformer in flat white powered by a Bio-Diesel 6-cylinder. 

That said, I also think better and better design has given way to one unifying demand from customers across all industries: Zero. Compromise.
What I mean to say is, luxury products are getting so competitive that $250,000 can't just buy you exclusivity.

That Omega Seamaster on your wrist can no longer simply be worth its own asking price because of its incomprehensibly complicated Swiss internals. It also must look incredibly handsome. Oh and be able to sustain the pressures of diving nearly a quarter mile below the surface of the ocean.

Aether and REV'IT cannot simply produce motorcycle gear that is just safe and practical. They have to provide utility and protection and avoid shouting "I'm a motorcycle jacket!!" 

Pedro & Tailor's line of clothes can't just feel great to the touch, fit well and look great. P&T stands above the rest because of the mission. Because instead of simply being another clothing line, it celebrates the places we come from... It transcends and celebrates unique cultures, histories and stories. While making you look damn good.

What's next for you? 

Most likely knocking at Rivian's door till they let me in. You hear me, RJ? Sights: Set.

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