Forbes got an insider's look at the pitch game that Richard Branson's Virgin
Atlantic just went through in America. The gimmicks that backfired. The details
that derailed. And the stuff that worked. An enlightening read.
The Winner's Circle
Melanie Wells, 05.26.0
First stop: the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., an Interpublic unit with $363 million in billings. In its proposal, the shop noted it was eager to shed its image as "Southern gentlemen." Perhaps a bit too eager. The Virgineers griped about an untidy car driven by a manager who picked them up at the airport. Copus was surprised no one offered to help with her suitcase.
While the Virgin group liked Martin's idea of trying to lower flyers' anxiety by having the airline appear more "caring," the visit ended awkwardly. The Virgin group feared its concerns--aired privately--had been overheard, a suspicion aroused when Martin President James R. (Mike) Hughes popped in and addressed a couple of those very concerns. He even offered to carry Copus' bag. ("Absolutely not," says Hughes of listening in.)
At Mullen, an agency with $655 million in annual billings, things got off to a good start. A Boston disc jockey broadcast a welcome on the radio as the airline executives drove to Mullen's offices in Wenham, Mass. Another nice touch: Mullen tricked out a conference room in Virgin style, with groovy lamps, red and orange Gerber daisies and bar stools--resembling those in the airline's Upper Class cabin--all around a conference table. "Cool," Riordan later said, "but very uncomfortable."
The presentation, which lasted just under three hours, was all but over for Virgin after Edward Boches, Mullen's chief creative officer, said he wasn't a hands-on operator. Translation: The airline wouldn't get five minutes of his attention.
Later that day the Virgin brass sipped wine during a meeting with Merkley Newman Harty in New York, an Omnicom agency with $515 million in billings. The airline crew appreciated the relaxed banter and the suggestion that Virgin plant people at gates holding signs for "Madonna," as if they were picking up such glitterati. But Virgin said the pitch--which included Merkley staffers' written ideas taped to windows--seemed unpolished.
At TBWAChiatDay (another Omnicom agency, which handles Absolut vodka) President Shona Seifert pushed a new message for the airline: Virgin Atlantic keeps you "business fit," offering passengers a complimentary phone call to a family member, access to a gym in London, bottles of Virgin-branded water and onboard currency exchange. Too bad that a follow-up thank-you from the agency referred to Virgin Atlantic "Airlines" instead of "Airways." Details matter.
Crispin, an up-and-coming agency in Miami with $250 million in billings, stole the show by showing how much it could do with so little money. It greeted the Virgin group with a walk through its industrial-style offices, strewn with 600 red paper airplanes.
Virgin was impressed with the work Crispin had done for other companies. For Molson, it repackaged the beer with each label featuring one of 232 parodic icebreakers for guys looking to meet gals. In launching the BMW Mini Cooper, Crispin convinced Playboy to feature the car as a centerfold. It also put the Mini in the bleachers of stadiums and atop SUVs that were driven around town.
The agency's initiative dazzled the Virgin staff. Two Crispin employees had stalked Virgin crew members at their Miami hotel, and, plying them with drinks, got them to talk candidly. The crew mentioned that celebrities no longer fly Virgin as much. Riordan scribbled a reminder to talk to frontline staff more frequently. Crispin Chairman Chuck K. Porter said he would tie the agency's compensation to the results it achieved.
Seconds after leaving Crispin, Copus whispered, "We've found our agency."