Paul Simons: why Virgin’s global advertising review puts 20 years of brand-building at risk

What lies behind the Virgin Atlantic creative review?

virrhVirgin Atlantic have announced they’re going to conduct a global creative review of their business, putting RKCR/Y&R on notice. I wonder why?

I have similar queries on other relationships such as Argos making CHI & Partners re-pitch for their £50m or so account after a stonking year in 2013 on all fronts; however they retained it – after a lot of blood, sweat and tears no doubt. BBH have also been through the same wringer for months on BA but, again, they held the account and also added more work.

Obviously none of us know what has provoked the Virgin pitch; it could one of several reasons such as money, relationships, payment terms (allegedly another part of the Virgin group pay their agency six months after the invoice is submitted) or the work itself. I can’t begin to believe the last reason is the cause.

From the mid-90’s to recent times Virgin Atlantic was overseen by Steve Ridgway as CEO and he has stayed with the agency throughout that period. Apart from some outstanding work from RKCR/Y&R during that time (remember the 25 year film – Still Hot, below) the brand has been 100 per cent consistent on and off-line, something very few brands can claim. Steve Ridgway stood down last year to sail his boat down in Devon.

In various travel surveys Virgin has also accumulated numerous awards and has been voted the best airline in the world several times.

The one big airline challenge at the moment is the impact of the Middle East airlines and their hubs in the region such as Dubai. Some commentators in the industry are predicting a shift of passenger traffic to these hubs for long haul flights. Virgin is a long haul airline so maybe there is something in this as the creative work to date is very English (also very good) but, perhaps, not as appropriate for a changing focus of passenger volumes, in particular the lucrative business market. Despite cutbacks most companies allow their management to fly business class or first class on long haul.

However I would have thought the ‘brand personality’ of Virgin is its biggest asset so not something to meddle with at all. Irrespective of nationality, the ‘positioning’ of Virgin sets them apart from the more traditional approach most airlines take and to lose this would potentially be commercial suicide. One of the characteristics of the Virgin brand is it’s tongue in cheek, not taking itself too seriously in its approach to all communication: from booking to checking in to boarding the aircraft to the inflight experience.

I flew to New York a few weeks ago on Virgin and it was 10/10 all round. It was very enjoyable, very comfortable and levels of service were seamless from A to B.

As we noted earlier, none of us know why they are conducting a global creative review. But one thing is for sure – if they change agencies the last 20-odd years of brand building will be in risk of being consigned to room 101.

If that happens it would be a crying shame.

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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.
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