Advertisements
 

Whatever you think of the British Airways ad, for God’s sake don’t mention the War!

September 23, 2011

 

Long awaited; now we’ve seen it: BA’s first major corporate advertising campaign in over a decade.

It represents a litmus test moment for agency BBH which, frustratingly, has had to battle through years of turbulence, in the form of industrial unrest, corporate mismanagement and radical restructuring, not to mention volcanic ash-cloud and a recession, before being allowed to do its first major work since wresting the account from M&C Saatchi in 2005.

But what do we – the viewers, the BA audience – think of it? Does it magnify the brand, or is it simply grandiloquent? Does it, in sum, hit the right note?

To my mind, the 90 second ad rumbles along the runway well enough but fails to reach the soaring heights to which it aspires. True, it’s beautifully shot with what appears to be loving attention to period detail. And it’s hard not to be touched by the romance and heroic derring-do of early civil aviation that underpins this hommage to BA’s corporate history. Then there’s all that gleaming, nostalgic aerial technology: the primitive, wind-in-your-hair De Havilland DH-9; the elegant Dragon Rapide; that rugged warhorse the DC3; the once-ubiquitous VC-10, as we move into the age of jet propulsion (though not – I note – the more innovative and earlier Comet, with its unfortunate tendency to metal fatigue in mid-flight); and on through the sound-barrrier with the space-age Concorde, the fastest airliner ever built.

Stirring stuff. But here the epic narrative plunges into bathos, with the appearance of BA’s contemporary fleet of 747s – utilitarian, safe and (relatively) economic no doubt, but hardly the epitome of legend. Indeed, the ad’s closing sequence merely reminds us that the transcendent feature of modern-day civil aviation is its banality. Today’s pilots may be terribly well trained and reliable but, in an age of advanced avionics and autopilots, the risks they run hardly bear comparison with those of their intrepid predecessors.

That is not my only criticism, however. If you’re going to do a nostalgic commercial, make sure it’s glamorous rather than merely portentous. Virgin Airlines knew exactly what it was about with its 25th birthday tribute (crafted by RKC&R/Y&R) 2 years ago; it’s shallow, showy bling, but none the worse for that in imparting a sense of credible excitement.

With the BA ad, by contrast, we’re in trouble almost from the beginning with that overwrought voiceover addressing its paean to the heroic pilot qualities of a bygone age.

And then – and this is the corker – there’s that extraordinary catchline – To Fly To Serve; a motto, we’re told, pinned to the chest of every serving BA captain. Close your eyes, and you can imagine Guy Gibson touching down in his Lancaster after destroying the Möhne Dam. Actually, I’m not joking. “To Fly To Serve” is the English translation of Volamus Ut Serviamus, the motto of 691 Squadron – which was formed on December 1st 1943 with a brief to provide the Royal Navy with aerial training targets around the Plymouth area.

Unfortunate coincidence? Someone not done their homework properly? Probably. But also a subliminal clue that most national carriers (so I’m informed) are military in origin. BA, for instance, is a lineal descendant of Aircraft Transport & Travel (just glimpsed at the beginning of the ad), which was set up during WW1 with a fleet of former military aircraft. Not, I imagine, an aspect of BA’s heritage that its management would care to dwell on.

It would be no surprise to find this particular ad line experiencing a rapid upgrade.


I-Level default sends tremors through the industry

May 6, 2010

For those in marcoms, the descent of digital agency I-Level into administration has some alarming echoes of the sovereign debt crisis being played out in Greece.

Just a few short months ago, no one would have seriously contemplated the possibility of either event. Now, we’re beginning to worry that this portends the second leg of financial meltdown, and that a domino effect will ensue.

I don’t want to push the parallel too far, of course. I-Level’s management was always infinitely more competent than that of the Greek economy. Nonetheless, for those who had eyes to see it, this was a calamity waiting to happen. The detonator clock started ticking in February when I-Level, in alliance with Starcom MediaVest, lost out to WPP’s GroupM in a pitch for the COI’s £250m consolidated media planning/buying account. Up to that point, government digital media business accounted for £40m of I-Level’s billings, or about 40% of its revenue. Replacing a slug of income that big was never going to be easy, but the difficulty was exacerbated by I-Level’s financing mechanism. Private equity investors ECI bought a 60% chunk of the group in April 2008, as a precursor to its international expansion. The deal valued I-Level at about £46.5m, but had the effect of burdening it with debt of £32m – much of it redeemed at an unsustainable interest rate of 12%pa. Put another way, that meant the group had to earn pre-tax profits of at least £3m a year merely to cover its interest payments. Guess what? The punitive interest payments kicked in just as I-Level was beginning to lose business. And that was before the coup de grâce delivered by the COI.

Even so, its disappearance is a shock. Set up in 1999 by Andrew Walmsley and Charlie Dobres, I-Level had near-iconic status as one of the few first-wave digital agencies that surfed the dotcom bust and managed to retain its independence. Among its blue chip clients are Procter & Gamble, The Sun, Orange, Sky, Renault, Comet and Samsung. Its top brass, who are now all out of a job, include respected industry figures such as Walmsley himself, chief executive Steve Rust and chairman David Pattison. Up to 100 people are expected to be made redundant. I-Level’s demise is a warning, not merely to those who would sell out to private equity investors, but of the fragility of fortunes, even in the relatively buoyant digital sector.

UPDATE: RIP I-Level. The administrator, Zolfo Cooper, has liquidated I-Level. Media owners such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google will be faced with multi-million pound losses. It’s the biggest and most spectacular implosion of a high-profile agency since Yellowhammer went bust in 1990. The only part of I-Level to survive is the fast-growing social media operation, Jam, which was sold to Engine yesterday. That means about 20 staff out of a total of 120 have been reprieved.

ELSEWHERE IN ADLAND, I note the champagne corks are popping – and for good reason. DDB London learned this week that it had scooped the £75m Virgin Media account, previously with RKC&R/Y&R.

Woodford: Walking tall

Its understandably chipper chief executive Stephen Woodford tells me that the agency’s proposed integrated strategy was key to winning the business. Whatever, it’s not every day an agency wins an account that instantly boosts its income by 10%. And it gets better. DDB is heavily dependent upon international business, such as VW. Virgin is almost entirely domestic. It thus provides the London office with some valuable “shop window” advertising that should in time attract other local buyers.


Baillie and Hatton defection to Ogilvy creates ripples at BBH

October 14, 2009

Baillie/HattonWhat’s really interesting about the appointment of Hugh Baillie as chief executive of Ogilvy Advertising is that he’s part of a breakaway. And the break is away from Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Former group business director Baillie is being joined by Rachel Hatton as group head of strategic planning, and planning director at the ad agency. Hatton was head of planning at BBH during what may come to be seen as its heyday, when it won all those awards, culminating in the IPA Grand Prix and Agency of the Year title in 2008. Baillie helped to win the global Johnnie Walker business and has led some of the agency’s key accounts, Axe/Lynx, Britvic and Surf among them. Both are BBH stalwarts, Baillie having joined from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1998, and Hatton from Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) in 2000.

So, this is a significant coup for Ogilvy and a significant set-back for BBH. Baillie and Hatton come as a team (for example, they both worked on Britvic). It’s a little like that buddy-buddy wrench at DDB London when Paul Hammersley, then ceo, and David Hackworthy, planner, quit to go to The Red Brick Road in 2005.

What makes this worse for BBH is that the defection of senior staff to WPP agencies is becoming a habit. Richard Exon, ceo of RKCR/Y&R, once occupied a similar position to Baillie at BBH. True, he was seduced across at managing director level, and got the top job only after James Murphy set up his own agency, Adam & Eve. But let’s not split hairs. There was also the unfortunate matter of John O’ Keefe, who sat in the BBH creative pantheon only one echelon below Sir John Hegarty. He decided to seek his fortune as global creative director at WPP. Then there’s Guy Murphy, head of global planning, and Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, JWT London. Why has JWT come knocking on BBH’s door? Well, who else’s? BBH is the one to beat in JWT’s competitive creative set, and has the most clients in common (Unilever, Diageo and Vodafone spring to mind). If you can’t beat them, get them to join you, you might say.

Nor is the BBH exodus confined to WPP. Derek Robson quit to go to Goodby, in the USA, as a managing partner; Penny Herriman is managing director and – some would say – soon to be ceo of WCRS; Chris Harris was poached as managing director of Leagas Delaney.

Swallows not making a summer? Well maybe. Any agency which has attained the status of BBH is fair game for the headhunter. In a  sense, it’s a back-handed  compliment that rival agencies feel the need to pillage BBH for top talent.

Nonetheless, another conclusion can also be drawn. And I would be very surprised if this did not condition the thinking of at least some of those senior people who have recently defected. BBH is now 27 years old and in the throes of generational change. It has greatly expanded (into a micro-network) – which in itself offers fresh opportunity for younger talent. And in fairness it has tried hard to bring on a cohort of younger managers – of which London chief executive Gwyn Jones is perhaps the most prominent example. This has not been enough to quell mutinous thoughts in the marzipan layer, a few to the point of defecting. Of course, some of these people may have been talented, but not talented enough. BBH, like everyone else, has had to make some harsh decisions about the size of its workforce, which has been, literally, decimated. One in ten has gone or is going. Nevertheless, I cannot believe that every one of the top-flight defectors has had an assisted exit. After all, it’s also the case that the route upstairs, managerially speaking, is now blocked; and for ambitious people that is a signal to start looking elsewhere.

It is hard to think of BBH without Nigel Bogle, Jim Carroll or Simon Sherwood. On the other hand, if they do not outline their retirement plans in the foreseeable future, the result will be rebellion or atrophy. BBH, at very best, will become less an agency, more a law firm overloaded with “partners”. Not an enticing prospect for the UK’s premier creative shop.


%d bloggers like this: