Andrew McCallum, executive director of comms, Gatwick Airport

The director of comms at Gatwick Airport has built a powerful team as he goes flat out to upstage Heathrow

Challenge: Gatwick's Andrew McCallum aims to upstage Heathrow
Challenge: Gatwick's Andrew McCallum aims to upstage Heathrow

When BAA sold Gatwick Airport to Global Infrastructure Partners in 2009, the only member of the executive board to retain his position was Andrew McCallum.

The jovial, welcoming Scot is now faced with the rather daunting task of repackaging Gatwick as 'London's favourite airport' (PRWeek, 4 May).

McCallum clearly feels no kinship with his former boss BAA, now a rival. While showing off Gatwick's £1bn refurbishment project, he cheekily lets it slip he toyed with the idea of gaining headlines by dumping all of Gatwick's BAA-branded signage on the roundabout outside the airport.

'BAA was entirely focused on runway three,' recalls McCallum. 'Heathrow was always going to be its primary focus.

'As a general point, BAA felt PR was for the corporate story and it was not very proactive. What we're trying to do is achieve more pace. That's what we need to do if we want to be a challenger brand.'

McCallum, who is only 33, talks energetically about pace, competitiveness and - most of all - challenging BAA. He draws comparisons with Virgin taking on BA and Apple's battle with Microsoft. His vision is to promote Gatwick as 'London's airport of choice', emphasising the quality of service compared with its larger competitor.

He has a battle on his hands - his bosses want to increase number of passengers passing through the airport every year from the current 32 million to 40 million by 2020.

McCallum joined Gatwick in 2008 from British Gas owner Centrica, where he had worked since joining as a graduate trainee in 2000. Initially taking on a comms team of four at Gatwick, he has built this into a 16-strong, five-team unit, spanning media and PR, public affairs and policy, internal comms, brand comms and corporate responsibility.

To help with Gatwick's demanding brand realignment, McCallum this month enlisted the help of The Red Consultancy for a three-year brief. 'We're not paying them a huge amount,' smiles McCallum, playing up to the thrifty Scot stereotype.

No amount of great PR is going to move Gatwick any closer to London, which is 28 miles away, but McCallum argues: 'One of the key responses from people is the importance of connectivity to London. The Heathrow Express takes half the time of the Gatwick Express, but our service goes into Victoria, which is much more central than Paddington. It's a perception rather than a reality.'

The ambitious McCallum's 'David versus Goliath' urge to outdo his former employer is palpable. The Guardian's transport correspondent Dan Milmo says the challenge might not be as tough as it initially seems: 'Gatwick is helped by fact that it is not Heathrow and not owned by BAA. Whether fair or not, both suffer from a degree of knee-jerk criticism, particularly in the wake of the December snow fiasco. McCallum knows how to differentiate Gatwick from its main rival and the airport is definitely emerging from Heathrow's shadow.'

He has already faced down his fair share of crisis. Last year, while he was still building his comms team, McCallum had three instances of planes being grounded due to the elements: two snowfalls book-ending the Icelandic ash cloud in April.

'Most people hone in on airports when these things happen,' says McCallum. 'It's our job to co-ordinate with the airlines. We often act as a hub in big issues such as the ash cloud. The visual story is at the airport and media can get access to passengers.'

Despite such meteorological mishaps, McCallum says the painfully drawn-out sales process in 2009 was the toughest period of all: 'My main job was managing internal comms and keeping people motivated. There was no new information, but at the same time we were having to satisfy their need for information.'

Centrica director of corporate reputation Simon Henderson describes McCallum as 'hard working with a good balance of strategy and delivery of projects'.

McCallum is evangelical about the possibility of social media and speaks excitedly about interactive Twitter feeds, incorporating Skype into the airport website and placing Stickybits barcodes on the many boarded-up areas where refurbishment is taking place. When scanned by customers' iPhones, the barcodes launch footage explaining the building work going on.

'Alastair Campbell was travelling through the airport and tweeted that he was held up in a queue. It was a fairly direct tweet. We got back to him in less that a minute and got people to sort out the queues immediately. You could tell he was blown away.'

McCallum flashes a winning smile and one cannot help thinking he might just stand a chance of felling Goliath.

2010 Executive director of comms and external affairs, Gatwick Airport
2008 Head of comms, Gatwick Airport
2005 Group head of corporate reputation, Centrica
2004 Group corporate responsibility manager, Centrica
2002 Group community affairs manager, Centrica
2000 Graduate management trainee, Centrica

Andrew McCallum's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

Landing the comms and external affairs brief at Gatwick during an exciting and transformational time for the airport was a fantastic opportunity for me. Being part of a dynamic, new executive management team, redefining Gatwick while building and leading an energetic and talented team to drive home our messages, is both challenging and rewarding.

Have you had a notable mentor?

No-one specific, but I've been very fortunate to have worked with some excellent people during my career, from whom I've learned a great deal.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Be confident in your own ability and trust your convictions. Work hard and always deliver. Listen and learn from those around you. Have a career plan but be flexible and adaptable.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

I expect new recruits to be energetic and passionate, ambitious yet realistic, to have an opinion and share it. And, of course, to have excellent writing skills.

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