Inside the Mix

British Airways' agency switch leaves legacy of great ads, and greater opportunity for BBH

British Airways' agency switch leaves legacy of great ads, and greater opportunity for BBH

The much-argued notion that the short tenure of CMOs is leading them to buy less-than-great creative work from ad agencies seems to resonate in the fact that some of the advertising industry's consistently great work has been for British Airways - a company whose marketing director, Martin George, has been around since 1987 and whose ad agency had had the word "Saatchi" in the name since 1982.

But now BBH has swiped the global account, which will be served by both BBH and its half-sister, Publicis. In the advertising world, this is one of the biggest stories of the year.

M&C Saatchi was defined by the British Airways account and had been even before its tempestuous launch. While Saatchi & Saatchi had already held the airline's account for some 15 years before the last pitch 10 years ago, the boardroom coup that forced brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi out nearly led to then-CEO Bob Ayling awarding the account to BBH. But legend has it that British Airways chairman Colin Marshall overruled Ayling and insisted the account go to the brothers' startup, M&C Saatchi. The fledgling agency didn't even have an office back then, but I visited the firm for its formal launch shortly after, and it had acquired an enormous space - such was the confidence that the combination of the British Airways account and the Saatchi pedigree would lead to a prosperous future.
M&C was a rare example of an agency that was born as an institution.

Ironically, the top-level relationships that led to M&C winning the airline's account seem to have contributed to its end. Under a new CEO from lower-fare airline Aer Lingus, British Airways might no longer be allowed to be a show pony for creative brilliance. While M&C has built up a highly impressive range of subsidiaries and relationships with agencies offering a wide range of marketing disciplines, BBH is famously known and admired for creating more than just TV ads.

Cost is a pressure for British Airways, as for any other airline, and even if the era of the gorgeous TV advertising is (I hope) not quite over, there is no question that a cost-conscious management will want to ensure that every last drop of effectiveness is squeezed from its marketing efforts. Martin George, the airline's commercial director, pointed to ROI when talking about BBH's appointment, recognizing the "changing environment in which we operate" and praising BBH for its "proven track record of delivering effective advertising." The pitch was won with the tagline, "Upgrade to BA," which implies that the airline's posh credentials will still run through the brand experience at every level, as it does now. But with BBH at the controls (and rumors of other marketing disciplines going under review, as well), we can probably expect to see even more below-the-line work.

The question is, will it become as famous as the quarter century of top-quality TV advertising? Well, it doesn't really matter. It's hard to end a relationship as creatively fruitful as the one between M&C and British Airways, but it's vital to remember who the advertising is for in the first place. BBH has a large pair of shoes to fill, but it's unlikely to do so by making a pair of feet that look as if they belong to the Saatchis.

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