The British Airways chief executive, Robert Ayling, was in Cannes last
week to pick up his Advertiser of the Year award.
Ayling was accompanied by Maurice Saatchi, to whom he paid fulsome
tribute from the stage. Moments earlier, however, the two had looked on
as BA’s former agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, landed the International
Agency of the Year award. The irony was lost on no-one in the packed
auditorium. Ayling spoke to Campaign before the ceremony.
SH: How much truth was there in the ‘world’s favourite airline’ claim
when it was coined?
RA: Well, of course, at the time it was a deliberate boast. It was true
and justifiable in that BA carried more passengers than any other
airline, and still does.
What’s really remarkable is how that line has become a reality. Today,
people choose to fly BA in preference to other airlines.
Was it a difficult decision to move the business to M&C Saatchi?
The airline had to take stock, appraise the situation and make a
conscious decision as to what to do. It couldn’t be an irrational one.
One thing we didn’t do was to say: ‘Maurice is setting up his new
agency, we’ll be his first client.’ We’re responsible for running a very
large public company.
I feel that it would have been very wrong not to have dealt with things
the way we did. I also thought that if Maurice’s new agency could win in
a competitive pitch it would be much better for them. I think it’s
proved to be true. It won. It wasn’t by any means an open-and-shut case.
It won fair and square.
Has the issue of the cost of your advertising been an embarrassment to
you over the years?
I think good, high-quality advertising you can use around the world is
expensive. We’ve accepted that and believe that it’s been a good
investment over the years. I’m as committed to it today as I was ten
I think BA’s advertising has been an absolutely key ingredient in our
success and development.
There has been a very mixed reaction to the current ‘dreams’ campaign.
Are you bothered by that, or sensitive to the criticism?
What’s interesting is that there’s been a reaction. Good advertising
causes a reaction. A lot of advertising causes no reaction at all. I’m
not blind to the fact that in some cases there’s been a negative
I think we have something which is strong and it’s not going to please
everyone. I don’t think it’s controversial. It hasn’t caused great
public offence - it’s caused an emotional response. And I hope it makes
people think about what it’s about.
What do you think of your competitors’ advertising? Do you rate any of
To be quite honest, I don’t see a lot of advertising. I almost never
watch TV. Not because I have an aversion to it, but because I don’t have
time. I don’t get a showreel of ads or anything. I leave it to Derek
[Dear, BA’s marketing director].
Do Virgin’s tactical ads make life difficult for you? Is it in any way
good for you to have such a strong marketing counter-offensive?
Well, I think that the competitive environment within the industry keeps
us all on our toes. Competition is good. People who are in competitive
businesses - especially large ones - have got to make sure that they
stay within bounds.
You don’t go into the office in the morning and say, ‘oh, a competitor
is particularly strong so we must do this’. You look at the whole of the
How much of your image is advertising-led, and how much of it is PR-led?
The way we respond to [day-to-day PR issues] has to be part and parcel
of everything else. If I say something which is discordant with the
impression we want to create with the advertising we put out, then
people will wonder about the truth. I don’t think that you can actually
hide the truth, it will eventually come out. You must be as open and
natural as you can.
Being a big global player with a gnat like Virgin attacking you, do you
find it difficult to avoid being dragged into some sort of dogfight?
I treat all competitors, including Virgin, with the respect they deserve
as competitors. I wouldn’t expect a competitor of ours to respond to
every competitive act that we perform. And we certainly don’t do this.
We have to worry about our own services more than we worry about our
How much of ‘the chairman’s wife’ syndrome is there at BA? How much
autonomy does Derek Dear have?
Derek Dear has never been asked by me to make any material changes to
any advertising. He’ll call me with ideas, and I give him my thoughts.
He goes off and develops the ideas with M&C Saatchi.
He rejects many which I never see. And then for major ads, he will show
them to me for information and courtesy. I suppose I could say ‘that’s
absolutely dreadful’, but I never have.
What’s your favourite BA commercial?
I like the current campaign, but I think my favourite is ‘global’. That
was a really great piece of advertising. It had grandeur and emotional
appeal at the same time. That’s a very difficult thing to get into an