Virgin will miss Steve Ridgway – but can they find a new direction with Delta?

Steve Ridgway (pictured) leaves the airline after 27 years, just two years less than the first flight to New York in June 1984. I had the pleasure of working with Steve briefly when we produced the first advertising campaign for Upper Class back in the ‘90’s when the mountain to climb was persuading BA business passengers to shift to VA.

Back then the DNA of Virgin ran through the airline like the proverbial stick of rock. It felt like a private club of a few ‘gung ho’ individuals taking on the big boys. Chris Moss was also around at the same time, a genuine inspiration in all things marketing. In a meeting one day he asked what people normally did when they watched a movie? Ice cream was the answer and on my next flight I was offered a choc ice after the main meal as I settled down to watch a movie. They had a lightness of touch that allowed fast implementation of ideas that expressed the spirit of the brand.

Steve Ridgway was a charmer, a very nice person with a way about him of getting things done without any fuss. I would put him in my top five of genuinely pleasant, yet smart, clients I have had the good fortune to work with.

However since then my relationship with VA much has changed. The airline will be 30 years old next year, by the time they hit their 25th anniversary they had racked up 64 million passengers since their first flight. Now they have a new incoming CEO from American called Craig Kreeger. In a statement he said “I have been competing with Virgin for many years but have always admired its laser focus on its people, its products and its customers.”

The interesting question going forwards is how the ‘brand’ will be managed as big, corporate issues such as the sale of 49 per cent to Delta? Virgin Atlantic has been positioned as a quirky airline, with a big dose of English irreverence, and a rock and roll side to its character.

This brand character has delivered two very important assets; the first is distinction in a cluttered market and second a product that has raised the bar on delivery to customers. In my opinion VA has been the annoying itch that has forced other airlines to up their game. Further, Virgin Atlantic has enjoyed top ratings on every survey of airline brands.

As Bill Bernbach once said “If you stand for something you have people for you and people against you, if you stand for nothing you have neither.” Virgin Atlantic has clearly made a stand about flying the flag for the mother brand. However it is polarising – you either love it or not. On a personal level I always end up in a tussle over which airline to choose for long haul. The other half always goes for BA, as she is a total loyalist, whereas I will lean towards VA. I think on average she wins!

The question in my mind is what might emerge over time? A bit like WPP and Sir Martin Sorrell, Virgin Atlantic still has the high profile founder in Sir Richard Branson and in both cases the inevitable issue of succession will become a reality at some point in the not too distant future.

Delta is a huge US corporate organisation and with all things American they will want their assets to have universal global relevance. I find both Delta and AA to be bland airlines, very American with anything remotely different removed in the pursuit of eliminating anything that might put off a potential customer.

It is reminiscent of the John Scully time at Apple when he managed to destroy the reason why Apple was a success in the first place. In the end they had to bring Steve Jobs back to sort out the mess; a misfiring example of a corporate man being drafted in to a more imaginative, creative organisation.

I’m not remotely suggesting Craig Kreeger as the new CEO will do a Scully on VA, I know nothing about him. But questions about VA’s future must be being considered all the way from from Holland Park (Sir Richard’s London residence) to Atlanta (Delta’s HQ). Delta is the big gorilla sitting at the board room table with 80,000 employees operating 5,000 flights a day. I wonder if the nuances of the Virgin Atlantic brand will chime with American corporate men and women?

RKCR/Y&R, Virgin’s ad agency, has produced outstanding work for VA with the magic dust of long term memorability. I still use the 25th anniversary TV spot as a brilliant example of powerful brand properties.

Let’s hope Virgin Atlantic continues to evolve with the help of Delta and isn’t emasculated via a thousand small cuts. In the meantime I would like to wish Steve Ridgway my best wishes for his future and to enjoy his other passion, sailing down in Devon.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.