‘Now was the time for some fresh thinking’, says Cathay Pacific marketer Edward Bell

Cathay Pacific’s decision to part ways with McCann after 25 years was not a reflection of the agency’s work but a belief it was time for “fresh thinking”, its senior marketer has insisted.

Edward Bell told Mumbrella the agency had put forward some “great ideas and great thinking” but said it chose partners that would ensure Cathay was “best placed for the future”.

The remarks followed Friday’s announcement that the airline had cut ties with McCann and handed creative, media and social duties to Publicis and VCCP.  R3, which ran the pitch, has said Cathay’s global ad spend is around $50m.

Among the reasons that swung the pitch the way of Publicis was its ability to combine creativity, data and technology at scale and having creative and media “on the same page”, Bell said.

Meanwhile, he described VCCP as “refreshing and inspiring” and “thoughtful and creative”.

Bell – Cathay’s general manager of brand, insights and marketing communications – said McCann has been in the running “all the way to the end” and had put in a “really strong showing”.

Edward Bell: The decision was no reflection on McCann’s work

He added that calling the agency review was just one part of an company-wide assessment where “everything is being reviewed”.

It had nothing to do with the quality of McCann’s work, he said.

“Cathay Pacific is going through a three-year transformation where we are looking at everything, as you have to. Everything is being reviewed and that includes the way we go to market and who we go to market with,” he said.

“You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it’s not like everything we are doing is wrong. But there is a massive company wide effort to refresh and challenge a lot of the previous thinking and the best way to do that is not to assume anything. So we called a pitch and invited McCann in certain markets to be part of that.

McCann has been with Cathay Pacific since 1993

“I have nothing but the utmost respect, affection and admiration for McCann and it wasn’t easy to turn away from a group that is very committed to us and knows us really well.

“But after so many years, and given the transformation we are going through I just felt that if ever there was a time to refresh the relationship and bring in some fresh thinking now was the time.”

Bell dismissed any suggestions McCann’s work had become stale after so long on the account, stressing that they, and other agencies, had presented some excellent ideas.

The decision was based on the future needs of the airline and not an attempt to “redress or make a conclusion about the past” – he said.

“McCann had a lot of great ideas and great thinking but when it boiled down to it we selected partners who we thought we would be best placed for the future,” Bell added. “There were probably 6 or 7 proposals that were really good, McCann among them, so it wasn’t a case of moving away from McCann because they were no good, it was nothing like that at all.

“When we looked at everything on the table we were most impressed by Publicis Group, and what they had to offer as a holistic solution, and VCCP. The agencies we chose we felt were more in tune with where we want to go in the future. It was a future-focused thought process.”

Bell declined to discuss the specific duties that Publicis and VCCP will undertake. Broadly, however, Publicis creative and media agencies will take care of market activity with VCCP set to handle “a big chunk of strategy direction and articulating the brand platform”.

“It’s going to be what we hope is a collaborative effort between different viewpoints to create a holistic package that positions Cathay Pacific in the right way and executes that into really rich consumer experiences,” Bell said.

The marketer, who joined Cathay 12 month ago from FCB Greater China, said he expected the agencies to take a “nuanced team-based approach” rather than “VCCP does creativity and the network does the delivery”.

“We were very impressed with the Publicis creative shops but what really swung it for us was their compelling vision about putting together creative with data and technology at scale,” Bell said.

Such a vision is shared by Cathay, he said, with Bell also praising the ability to achieve that “with one P&L, one budget and one set of objectives and tactics”.

Too often creative and media work independently, he said.

“In some ways this is going back to the future, it’s going backwards to go forward with the promise of  making it more holistic and strategic. That is where it needs to be rather than chopping it all into bits and specialisms that don’t talk to each other.

“It’s about creative and media being on the same page. The whole idea of that being split up presupposes that those things can work independently or through some kind of sporadic collaboration.

“These days more than ever, how do you draw the line between what is a creative idea and what is a media idea? It’s getting harder and harder to do. This a huge opportunity for those people who are prepared to commit to a strategic agenda, and we certainly are.”

Bell said it was too early to discus marketing plans and how the airline will be positioned to the world. But he said projects were already underway.

“We are very much focused on digital video and already have machine learning and AI working for us and there is a lot of pretty powerful stuff in various stages of development.”


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