British Airways’ not very Bright move

February 16, 2011

Mystery surrounds, as they say, the unanticipated departure of Kerris Bright, BA’s head of global marketing – which hit the news last week.

Bright lives up to her name. She is a marketing luminary, a Fellow of the Marketing Society, and highly placed in those “power leagues” that do the rounds (usually not far off Aviva’s Amanda Mackenzie in ranking). BA spent about a year head-hunting her after her predecessor – head of marketing communications Katherine Whitton – took voluntary redundancy in 2008.

All to little avail. Though Bright signed up for the BA job about a year ago, she in fact joined in June. So she has served little more than 6 months before handing her notice in.

Ostensibly, she had had an offer she could not refuse from her former boss at ICI, David Hamill, whom she describes as “the most inspirational person” she has ever worked for. Hamill is now chairman and chief executive officer of Ideal Standard International, the bathroom fixtures company. The job he was offering her? Chief marketing officer and a team role in spearheading ISI’s international expansion.

Ideal Standard, the formerly British brand, is now part of an international consortium – mainly financed by private equity specialist Bain Capital Partners – with a focus on Europe and the Middle East. No doubt Bright has been lined up for a cut of the PE action over time – enticement in itself, it could be argued. And no doubt Hamill is every bit as charismatic as he sounds. Nevertheless, the abrupt U-turn in her career aspirations has set tongues wagging about her “real”motives for leaving BA. After all, try as you might to juxtapose Ideal Standard as a brand (under-rated, as it happens) with BA, however degraded it has become, and something doesn’t stack up.

The missing ingredient is called Frank van der Post. Van der Post, formerly chief operating officer of hotel group Jumeriah, was parachuted in last December to fill the new and senior role of BA managing director brands and customer experience. His appointment was part of a top-echelon management reshuffle as BA limbered up for its merger with Iberia, as a result of which BA chief Willie Walsh got to run the new holding company, International Airlines Group.

The important point to note here is that Bright’s immediate boss, sales and marketing director Andy Crawley, was boosted to an executive boardroom role at BA as commercial director with “particular responsibility for exploiting the revenue opportunities” arising from the near £6bn merger. He is no longer BA specific. And what did Bright get out of all this? Very little, except perhaps a smack in the face.

Not only had she not received a promotion herself, she had a new boss, van der Post, whose experience of brand strategy is arguably inferior to her own. All right, he is hugely experienced in the other area of his remit, customer relations. But so he should be, with over 25 years in the hotel business – most of it spent at Intercontinental Hotels Group. With all due respect to the Flying Dutchman, I doubt that he has ever achieved a branding success that bears comparison with Bright’s work for Dulux at ICI then AkzoNobel.

In sum, Bright had been “restructured” out of the strategic part of her role, but left with the less interesting tactical stuff (like dealing with agencies). Not, I imagine, what she thought she had been brought in to do.

Of course, a mitigating case could be made for BA’s behaviour. The chronic industrial unrest that continues to plague it makes the appointment of an experienced customer relations expert a great deal more of a priority than that of a first-class brand strategist. It’s difficult to launch a meaningful corporate brand campaign when so much of BA’s recent past is tainted with the memory of the Terminal 5 fiasco, and so much of its future with the possibility of paralysing industrial action. Furthermore – and I do not know the answer to this – it may be that Bright is more comfortable working with product rather than service brands (check her CV).

All the same, it looks as if BA has made a prime cock-up over the handling of Bright. Now, why does that not surprise me? I wonder how long the company will take to recruit her successor.

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