OPINION: Cowen on ... British Airways

It goes without saying that a lot is riding on M&C Saatchi's first

British Airways ad since 11 September. The business traveller brief is

arguably the most crucial that the agency has ever undertaken for


A recovery in the airline's overall passenger numbers over the past few

months disguises a continuing shortfall in this crucial area. The vast

majority of BA's income comes from these premium flyers and their

numbers have stubbornly remained about 20 per cent down since


Presumably a significant portion of the missing flyers are American -

and so it's rather surprising that this campaign is initially limited to

the UK market. The creative certainly does not seem designed for a

Stateside run later on. Rather it implies that big-shot Americans don't

have to move from their plush Manhattan offices as eager puppy-like

Brits will be only too happy to dash over the pond competing for their


This may rankle a bit, but it's a sensible strategy nonetheless.

Americans are not yet in the right frame of mind to be persuaded on

board by an ad but they might think differently if lots of UK executives

start turning up. On the other hand, there's plenty of anecdotal

evidence and theory (mostly based on this country being used to

terrorist threats) that suggest Brits may be more open to flying and

even consider it a point of national pride to do so.

You sense that the ad is pandering to the British stiff upper lip by its

otherwise laughable presentation of the chap who is prepared to fly.

He appears out of thin air to the strains of BA's Lakme theme with

bright eyes, a firm handshake and an accent straight out of the Battle

of Britain. "Chocks away, ginger! Made it through the terrorist cordon

OK. Here to show you our flowcharts." He's a flyer in the Biggles mode,

a shining example of British business unbowed by evil threats.

Are corporate executives likely to be inspired? Not necessarily. The

number of business flights has stayed low largely because so many of the

previous total were borderline necessary in the first place. How many

agency executives can put their hand on heart and honestly swear that

all their foreign trips in, say, 2000, were worth the air fares? A lot

of fat has been sensibly trimmed from travel budgets in the economic

conditions encouraged by 11 September. If it is to loosen corporate

purse strings once more, BA needs to come up with concrete reasons why

"to be there" is really better than the phone, fax or video-conference

system. Not just for the one-off deal-making cases, but for all those

less crucial trips.

This ad offers no real arguments on this point. Instead it offers up a

caricature of how and how not to establish a working relationship that

could come straight out of a corporate video. The ad contents itself

with appealing to guilt rather than logic. Plenty of executives have

changed their travel policy over the past months and are most likely in

the dark as to how this has affected their business. The ad's cartoonish

treatment exploits the nagging doubt that we are somehow missing out,

the fear that some faceless rival is in the US while we're not, the

paranoia that we're behaving like the muppets at the end of this


Corporate insecurity being what it is, this could work. But it has to

work now. The longer business passengers resist flying, the more likely

they'll realise their world didn't end when they stopped paying a tax to

BA. Then the airline's future strategy would really be in trouble.

BA needs to forestall a possible sea-change in corporate habits. It's

relying on Biggles to do so.

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