Most of the executives who have appeared on CBS's hit series Undercover Boss so far have, understandably, been the heads of their companies. The idea is that the boss goes undercover, learns what it's like at the bottom and makes changes accordingly. But the next honcho scheduled to appear on Undercover Boss isn't really the boss. For that matter, he isn't the President, or even the CEO. On Sunday, the reality show will feature Steve Phelps, head of marketing at NASCAR.
In this week's episode, Phelps will hide his identity -- like past undercover bosses -- and will take time away from the head office to change tires, paint stripes and face all the low-end work that it takes to keep the rubber meeting the road. Viewers will get to watch the organization's chief marketing officer pose as the fictional Kevin Thomas, supposed winner of a promotional contest, on the small screen. Among other jobs, Phelps will work in a pit crew, cook food in a concessions stand and perform track maintenance.
However, unlike most of the past undercover bosses, Phelps doesn't have direct decision-making power over many of the workers that he'll be shadowing. This marks a significant departure for the series. Until now, one of its central conceits has been that each week's anonymous exec has direct hiring and firing power over the ordinary workers that he or she briefly interacts with.
Admittedly, marketing is vitally important for NASCAR, which reported a slump in ticket sales earlier this year, and Phelps -- who worked for the National Football League for 15 years -- is very highly regarded. But the decision to go with NASCAR's head of marketing, instead of its CEO, president or even chief financial officer, is an odd one.
Why Pick Phelps?
According to NASCAR, it selected Phelps because its CEO and president are both highly recognizable. But that explanation doesn't really hold water: Previous undercover bosses have grown facial hair, changed their glasses and even worn wigs to hide their identities. It seems like a crew cut, a pair of nonprescription frames and a set of muttonchops could easily hide CEO Brian France's identity.
And it's a shame that France won't be on Undercover Boss. He's a pretty fascinating guy. After inheriting the company from his father in 2003, he helped transform NASCAR racing from a regional sport into a global brand that sanctions races in 39 states, Canada and Mexico.
He has used the company as a springboard to build a media empire with consolidated TV and radio rights, including a prominent promotional company that represents Halle Berry and Goodyear Tires, as well as a marketing juggernaut that brings in more than $2.2 billion per year. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the century's most influential people. A year later, it honored him as one of America's best sports executives.
But on another level, Phelps's casting makes perfect sense. Undercover Boss, after all, has been a marketing bonanza for many of the featured companies, a fact that hasn't been lost on its many critics. If, as many commentators have argued, the show is little more than a publicity stunt, then who better to represent a company than the man in charge of its public image?