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Marketing CEO for Columbia-based firm driven to race Porsches

David Williams to compete for first time in weekend Grand Prix event

By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

9:38 AM EDT, September 1, 2013

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David Williams' Columbia-based marketing company makes heavy use of data to help business clients reach customers and maintain their loyalty.

As a racecar driver, the CEO of Merkle Inc. also sifts through data to improve his performance on the track.

"It's amazing how the use of data has evolved in motor sports," Williams said. "There is a computer in my car that captures more than 100 elements associated with the vehicle — G-forces and speed and brake pressure. We are capturing all this information in real time from that car, and after a race or qualifying or practice session, we download all that data into a computer and we can analyze foot-by-foot around that racetrack how fast we were going."

Williams will be driving a Porsche 911 in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge, the first year the Grand Prix of Baltimore festival is featuring this race. Other corporate executives, including the CEO of Patron Spirits Co. and the chief financial officer of Hunt Valley's Alpine Bagel Co., also will be behind a wheel in races during the three-day event.

The 50-year-old Williams sees many similarities between business and racing.

"Motor sports is a lot like building a company," he said, explaining that both require determination, calculated risks and the right people on your team.

"It's not enough to have the best car, because if you don't have the skills, you won't win. It's not enough to have the best skills, because if you don't have the car, you won't win," he said. "And if you have those two things and don't have the right team dynamic, you won't win."

In the past 25 years, Williams has built Merkle up from two dozen employees to an international customer relationship management agency with about 2,000 employees in 14 offices, including one in London and two in China.

Williams, who was born in Baltimore but spent much of his youth in Doylestown, Pa., started drag racing in high school. He inherited his interest in motor sports from his father, a fan of British sports cars.

The son favors German-made Porsches and an early goal of his was to acquire one by the time he turned 30. Williams met that deadline with a month to spare.

After a neighbor told him about racing lessons through the Porsche Club of America, Williams signed up.

"I did one of those events, and I was completely sucked into it," he said.

He ended up ripping out the interior of his Porsche to add a roll cage, a protective frame in racecars.

"My wife thought I was crazy," he said.

He club-raced for a half-dozen years, and then stopped in 1998 to devote more time to his four children and his growing business.

Williams had acquired Merkle Computer Systems a decade earlier at the age of 25. Merkle's business then was mostly helping organizations manage their membership files and mailings.

Merkle started to focus on direct marketing at a time when that industry was taking off, Williams said. Direct marketing went from a $20 billion industry in 1990 to $45 billion in a decade.

"We really rode that wave," he said.

As the new century dawned, Merkle moved more into digital marketing, an area of torrid growth.

"We are using information we know about consumers to try to put the most relevant ad before them," Williams said.

The firm's clients include Geico, Safeway, Aetna, Dell, DirecTV, American Express and Caesars Entertainment, which is building the Baltimore casino.

The private company generated $340 million in revenue last year and expects that to increase 25 percent this year, Williams said.

Last year, Advertising Age named Merkle one of 10 agencies to watch in 2012.

Merkle is among a small number of data-management firms that are expanding their services and beginning to compete with traditional ad agencies by, for example, helping customers plan media buys or decide where to place digital ads, said Kate Kaye, who covers the data industry for Advertising Age.

"They are helping their clients to understand the new world of marketing," Kaye said.

That includes assisting clients with making better marketing use of the data that consumers generate about themselves through their phones and online, she said.

"It's one of the big trends across the business world," Kaye added.

Merkle has used acquisitions to expand its capabilities. Last year, it purchased 5th Finger, a San Francisco developer of mobile apps and mobile marketing. The year before, it acquired Social Amp, a Facebook social media company in New York.

It also recently expanded its presence in China. Merkle has had an office in Shanghai since 2010 and opened a second location in Nanjing this month.

Williams goal is to reach $1 billion in revenue in the next decade.

His more immediate aim is to do well this weekend. The IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge he races in features semiprofessional drivers, all racing Porsche 911 GT3 coupes. The series is designed to teach drivers what they need to know to race in the faster American Le Mans Series, which this weekend features actor Patrick Dempsey.

Williams will race Saturday and Sunday. He has been racing in the IMSA GT3 series all year and is in second place behind racing partner Mike Levitas of TPC Racing of Jessup. Williams expects to compete in two 45-minute races this weekend, at times reaching "150-ish" mph on the roads around the Inner Harbor.

"Everyone always wants to know how fast do you go," he said. "My view has always been: Going fast is easy. Stopping and turning, that's where all the problems are."

Williams ran into trouble during a race earlier this year when he hit a guardrail in the rain and broke some ribs.

"Crashing is not something I worry too much about," he said. "It really comes with the territory in racing."

Williams has been working this year with a coach, Randy Pobst, a professional driver from Atlanta.

"David is a smart and analytical driver. He's a thinker," Pobst said. "I see it in his style. He builds his speed gradually, learning the circuit and getting familiar with how the car is handling on the track."

Pobst added: "He's very aggressive on the brakes. He's a late braker."

The pair use the car's technology to fine-tune Williams' performance. Pobst drives the Porsche for a lap, and the data from that is compared with how Williams handles the car.

"I can study that data all night long," Williams said. "It's fantastic."

Pobst is less of a fan of data gathering.

"What data does is help regular people catch up with you," Pobst said. "That's why I hate data. It gives such good information."

Williams acknowledged he's "a little bit of an adrenaline junkie."

Motor sports isn't his only thrill.

With his management team, he has hiked to Machu Picchu, climbed Mount Rainier, rafted down the Colorado River and run with the bulls in Spain.

He also encourages his employees to enjoy adventures. Merkle offers two "dream grants" to employees quarterly — $1,000 for an individual and $5,000 for a group — to pursue an adventure or philanthropic project. A picture on Williams' office wall features several employees on a sailboat they raced in the Caribbean.

"None of them had ever sailed before," he said. "They rented a boat and a captain and came in second place."

Williams said he has "a lot of cars" but drives a Maserati on a daily basis. He said he satisfies his need for speed on the racetrack. On regular roads, he said, other drivers are likely to pass him.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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