Is Ogilvy up for British Airways' creative challenge?

As British Airways returns to Ogilvy, it is time for the airline to start investing in its brand again.

For Annette King, the chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather Group UK, the return of British Airways to the agency fold was deeply personal. In her former role as the chief executive of OgilvyOne for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, she’d watched in pain as the customer loyalty part of the business left the shop in March 2014 and joined the ad account at Bartle Bogle Hegarty as part of a consolidation process. King desperately wanted it back and last week her ambition was more than fulfilled as the entire business moved into Ogilvy. 

Sir Nigel Bogle, the founding partner of BBH, will have been familiar with these emotions. When BBH prised the account out of M&C Saatchi in 2005, it is said to have been the fulfilment of a decade long grievance.  Legend has it that BBH had won the British Airways account in 1995 when it was put up for pitch out of Saatchi & Saatchi – it was only the intervention of Maurice and Charles Saatchi, who were just about to launch M&C Saatchi with BA’s then chairman Bob Marshall, that ensured it became their agency’s founding client. 

For Ogilvy, which will be working with Group M as part of a WPP team effort on this business, it’s yet another boost to its collective confidence and vindication of the restructuring of the business that King has carried out. On the back of its astonishing new business run all eyes will be on whether it can match this success creatively (and its first repositioning work for new client Vodafone – a perpetually troublesome client – is due to break imminently). 

For BBH, it’s a disappointment but probably not a major one. BA might lack the prestige it once had in its heyday at Saatchis and M&C – there hasn’t been anything comparable to the work of Tim Mellors or the Hugh Hudson-directed film that saw a 1000-strong case assemble to make up a Picasso face for some time. But then the airline industry has changed beyond all recognition since then and with it the prestige of handling a national flag-carrier. In this intensely competitive world big bombastic brand films matter less than getting bums on seats. 

One of BBH’s first challenges upon winning the account was trying to improve the airline’s image and restore customer confidence after the disastrous opening of Terminal 5, but happier (and more creatively rewarding) times were to follow with BA’s involvement in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the "Don’t fly" campaign. Since then its work has largely focused on the essential but relatively humdrum task of shifting holidays and on targeted comms at high value customers. 

BA now faces fresh challenges – more cost cutting (including the removal of free meals on short-haul flights) has diminished its brand equity further, leading to suggestions that it’s time it started investing in its brand again. Whether it does or not and whether Ogilvy is creatively up for the challenge – no pressure there then Mick Mahoney – we’ll have to wait and see, but you can be sure that King won’t want the account to slip from her grasp again.

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