Few headline writers on the business pages could resist the temptation last week. EasyJet, which began conditional trading on the Stock Exchange last Wednesday, saw its share price leap 10 per cent on its first day. And, yes, easyJet had indeed 'taken off'.
This is no small feat. The airline business as a whole isn't exactly the easiest place to be these days and the low-cost sector, which has to survive on microscopic margins, is even more fraught.
So what's the secret of easyJet's success? Actually, it's not so much of a secret. The answer, or one of the answers, is published in Advertising Works 11, the book of the winning papers in the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising Effectiveness Awards. A campaign by i-level for easyJet won the Charles Channon Award for Best New Learning in the most recent effectiveness awards.
And the submission makes for very interesting reading. Indeed, i-level claims not only to have turned easyJet into the 'web's favourite airline' but seems also to have come up with a blueprint for foolproof advertising effectiveness online.
EasyJet needed to drive online sales because selling online delivers better margins, but it had struggled to drive this side of its business through the use of poster and press advertising. So i-level was brought in to find out if online advertising would work for easyJet - and if it did work, to drive online sales forward to 30 per cent of the total by the end of 1999.
In answering the first part of the brief, i-level discovered a method of delivering the second. It pioneered the use of a new tracking model.
Instead of just measuring click-through, i-level 'tagged' all those who came through from a banner ad on to the easyJet site. Then, if they came back later and made a purchase, the tag could be used to score that purchase against the ad that first attracted the buyer's interest. Thus sales and advertising could be linked directly.
But that was only the half of it. The second, and equally important innovation, was the realisation that, as this information was being produced, it could be acted upon instantaneously. The agency had a feedback loop - and it experimented with using a 'fixer' to work that loop, making sure that the most effective copy was running in the most appropriate sites at the most appropriate times.
EasyJet's online sales leapt 47 per cent in six weeks and the campaign paid for itself twice over within that period. And although the business has since moved on - for unrelated reasons - the lessons learned have had a huge impact on i-level. It now employs fixers on all of its accounts and optimised effectiveness is now a major part of i-level's unique selling proposition.
Which begs the question: if you have a secret weapon, why tell everyone about it? The answer probably says a lot about the online advertising business at this stage in its development. The truth is that many agencies know about optimisation but in practice only pay lip service to it. And some of the inertia actually comes from clients, especially from those in the bean-counting departments.
Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, comments: 'Since the campaign ran, the notion of going in to alter campaigns has caught on a lot more. But the problem is that people tend to see just the cost of doing this. Agencies that don't specialise in this area, and are only interested in general media, will only see this as damaging to the bottom line, especially if online is incremental to what they do. You can see some people thinking that online is only 1 per cent of total adspend and it will increase to only 5 per cent in 2005. Online is often handled by a general media agency which, if it's looking at adding someone to the payroll, would prefer it was another planner/buyer.'
Isn't this astounding? Don't advertisers moan all the time about wanting evidence that their advertising works? And doesn't it sound a bit like the days not so long ago in mainstream media, where some agencies would quibble about whether it was necessary to employ so many expensive planners? Or invest in all that TV schedule optimisation software?
You could use that sort of analogy, Dobres agrees. He adds: 'We now do it across the whole client base. It's one of the ways we crystallise our offering. It's also in our interest, as the market leader, to demonstrate effectiveness. EasyJet was pioneering - it got them a long way. Yes, you can argue that this is a no-brainer, that it pays for itself. The truth is that it all depends on the capability of your media agency.'