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Smoother than his boss, and more web savvy - but just don't call him the new face of Ryanair: Marketing chief leads revamp for airline that carried 81m people last year
[May 03, 2014]

Smoother than his boss, and more web savvy - but just don't call him the new face of Ryanair: Marketing chief leads revamp for airline that carried 81m people last year

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) There is a curious anticipation about meeting the heir to Michael O'Leary as the public face of Ryanair: like watching the Incredible Hulk in reverse, all raging monster before a glimpse of mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner.

But the appointment of Kenny Jacobs as chief marketing officer was enshrined as part of the Ryanair revolution when O'Leary, the chief executive, decided he himself was getting in the way of efforts to convince the public that the Irish airline's customer service had changed.

O'Leary, who had only ever referred to social media with contempt, was suddenly on Twitter, enthusing about web engagement and customer relations management. Ryanair would be signing up customers and "CRM-ing the hell out of them," he promised.

Step forward digital evangelist Jacobs, 40, to present a smoother version of the Irish charm - even if he's reluctant to be designated the new face of the low-fare airline.

"He said that, I didn't say that . . . I was hired to be the person for customers at Ryanair. But I'll be talking for Ryanair quite a bit, because the big things I'm accountable for - the brand, customers, the websites - will be what we need to talk about." Jacobs, a native of Cork, hired from Moneysupermarket and formerly at Tesco, is suitably deferential to the boss. "He gets great headlines, long may that continue. But we've got a broader mix, we're starting mainstream advertising, and using our own media - like airports, aircraft and websites - to do a lot more communication." The airline's customer service rebirth, announced as a decision to "stop unnecessarily pissing people off" last July, has included ditching a website that deterred casual visitors in favour of an all-embracing online strategy. Jacobs plans to forge a reviewing community and speaks the digital lingo: "The most interesting thing is Ryanair facilitating user-to-user content - this is Kenny from Manchester who's gone on a golf tour in Poland with three mates, why here and not Spain, how was it? It's much more powerful than brand-created content - it lends authority, it's Ryanair for the people, by the people." The O'Leary of 2012 - dismissing the thousands of people on Facebook who supported a passenger complaining about being charged pounds 236 to print four boarding passes - might have raised a disbelieving eyebrow, but Jacobs insists: "It'll be you and me putting stuff on Google+, Facebook, Instagram. Content meets social meets mobile, that trinity is what it's going to be about." The relaunch hasn't been without hiccups - a botched revamp saw the website disappear from many Google flight searches - but Jacobs is confident the blip will not affect them, with the power of the Ryanair brand meaning only a fraction of potential passengers arrive online via generic searches. A website that works fully on mobile devices, along with a new app and electronic boarding passes, will arrive in late June. He is also excited about a new farefinder feature: "I want to fly from Stansted this weekend, spend pounds 100 max on the flight, where can I go to? It's like flight roulette." Starting to register its massive customer base - 81 million passengers last year - will be "the fulcrum on which the whole platform will turn. Tell us where you go, what do you like to do. It's what other businesses do, so it's not a Eureka moment." So why did it take Ryanair so long? "There was a bit of 'if it isn't broke don't fix it'. But the competition changed and the customer changed. It's down to digital: there's full transparency of information, everyone's going mobile, and customers want you to make it easier for them. There was a big need to respond." His arrival has seen the airline's first TV advertising campaign in decades. Ryanair will significantly increase marketing spending, but the ads do not signal a wholesale loosening of the famously tight purse strings. "There is relentless focus on low cost. We used our own staff in the ads, we shot them in Stansted and we did it in one day." Anyway, he insists: "I'm a bigger believer in making the product itself better. That's more important than just doing ad campaigns saying we've fixed everything, please forgive us." A section of the flying public may still feel Ryanair has much to be forgiven for, but Jacobs says: "The Ryanair's-not-nice story is one that's principally UK and Ireland - but the brand is perceived in different ways across the 30 European markets. Some of the national flag carriers are incredibly inefficient and unreliable, and consumers in those markets love Ryanair." Whether other Europeans like it or not, more changes will come, he says: interiors, inflight entertainment, food, the business product. The future of the infamous Ryanair landing bugle is in the balance. Further ahead, transatlantic flights - when the right planes are available - will demand new levels of service.

Hours after we meet, a new Ryanair headline appears: Crew "encouraged passengers to play rowdy toilet roll throwing game to win free booze" on a flight to Tenerife. Not, perhaps, the brand experience Jacobs had in mind; but while he cracks on with the digital makeover, he can rest assured the headlines can take care of themselves.

Captions: Kenny Jacobs says he was hired to be the person for customers at Ryanair, but Michael O'Leary 'gets great headlines - long may that continue' Photograph: Fintan Clarke (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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