By Tim Burrowes
As Emirates continues to grow apace, its communications boss talks about the quest to become a major player
Emirates sets its sights on being a global brand|~|Mike-Simon200.jpg|~|Simon... “When you’re growing very fast you’ve got to have immediate impact all the time.”|~|“I remember going home to my wife and saying ‘it’s a doddle, it’s a little airline, I can do it with my hands tied behind my back.” So said Mike Simon when he left his job at Gulf Air to take up the post of external relations manager with Emirates.
At the time it was a regional airline with just a handful of planes and a smattering of destinations.
Now Emirates can count itself as one of the most profitable airlines in the world, with 77 aircraft and 77 destinations. It has $30 billion of craft on order and next year becomes the sponsor of Arsenal’s new football stadium and shirt.
“It’s probably the most exciting marketing job in the Middle East bar none,” he says.
Mike Simon’s job is to look after Emirates’ advertising, PR, media relations, internal awareness, promotions, sponsorships and internet activities. He ultimately reports to chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, who he describes as “very hands-on”.
The success and ambition of the airline is hard to resist and it comes through in everything Simon says.
“Our target is to become a global brand,” he says. “At the moment we can call ourselves a global airline but we are not a global brand. That is one of the reasons we sponsor the FIFA World Cup. If you are seen alongside the likes of McDonald’s and Fuji then, by association, it also helps you in your efforts to become a global brand.”
Emirates spends 3.8% of its revenue on advertising. Around half of that goes on sponsorship.
Unless you have been on the moon for the past few years, you will not have missed Emirates’ sporting appearances. It sponsored last season’s English Premiership champions Chelsea, will put its name to London rivals Arsenal’s new ground (The Emirates Stadium), and has paid to have the Fly Emirates logo emblazoned on the back of international cricket umpire’s shirts.
Simon is a Norwich City fan – his career started as a journalist on the town’s Eastern Daily Press – but the wall mounted Arsenal shirt signed by striker Thierry Henry suggests he is mellowing towards the North London side.
Emirates originally tried to get its logo on to the shirts of Manchester United but was beaten by Vodafone a few years ago. But Simon is not bitter.
“It’s part of the business of sponsorship – you can get gazumped,” he says. “Ken Bates of Chelsea was on the ball and he called us up. We thought it would be a good idea to have a London side because we were increasing the number of flights out of London.”
The five-year deal ended this year with Chelsea as Premiership champions. “We have been astonished and surprised by the publicity it has generated. It has been a fun ride,” laughs Simon.
The Arsenal deal is worth US$182 million. Emirates gets naming rights for the stadium until 2015 and eight years as shirt sponsors.
“Naming stadiums does not come up every day of the week so we grabbed it. With eight years on the shirts you can really plan ahead and fit this into your budget forecasts.”
It is all a far cry from Emirates’ early forays into the world of sponsorship with the Dubai Rugby Sevens and Dubai Desert Classic golf.
Sponsorship took off at the 1999 cricket world cup, where Emirates sponsored the Australia team. The Aussies won and suddenly Emirates was being seen all over the world. The umpire deal with the International Cricket Council soon followed.
Sponsorship has paid big dividends for Emirates but Simon argues that it isn’t the be all and end all.
“We mustn’t get away from the fact that the bread and butter must always be the advertising,” he says. “In the long-term we don’t want sponsorship to take so much of the cake. We will gradually shift the investment back into advertising.
“When you’re growing very fast you’ve got to have immediate impact all the time. You have to go out there are chop trees down. Pretty basic vulgarity really. I’m not saying it would work for other airlines but we have been extremely lucky. We always seem to choose sponsorship that pays off.”
Mike Simon has lived a varied life. On leaving his native Norwich he held a Ministry of Defence public relations role in Libya before returning to the UK as a PR for the Home Office. Then came the switch to advertising as he joined Scandinavian Airlines to run its in-house ad agency. He took the work to his own independent agency before eventually losing the account.
“I was sitting in a cafe in Stockholm and somebody said to me ‘what are you going to do’,” he recalls. “Just as a joke, I said ‘I’m going to leave this bloody cold country and find a place where the sun shines every day and I’m not going to pay all this income tax’. Then I joined Gulf Air as their advertising promotions director.”
Simon is a keen novelist and a talented photographer. His office is adorned with pictures he has taken on his travels around the world.
“I spend my life traveling. It is a hobby as well as a duty,” he says. Looking up at his gallery, he adds: “If you can guess four or five of them you get a first class ticket.” Sadly, I only guess two.
Emirates’ first and business class travel is vital for the prestige image of Emirates but Simon denies it is at the expense of its economy offer.
“We tend to advertise first and business class because usually your frequent flyer sits there. So when you are choosing media, you tend to choose those that are read by frequent flyers. We also need to attract economy class passengers. It is not true to say we don’t care for them,” he says.
Ever the good PR man, Simon points out that Emirates was the first airline to put in-flight entertainment in every economy seat.
As Emirates continues to grow, Simon’s job will continue to evolve. He has just brought the airline’s PR operation in-house, which was previously handled by a network of agencies. The agency that led that network, Bell Pottinger, is being retained in the UK.
“The secret of successful marketing is refinement and enhancement. You have to keep refreshing. We tend to have very centralised functions,” he says. “I have a boss who hates the word marketing. Although we are one of the most marketing oriented companies in the world, he doesn’t like the word marketing to be assigned to any particular department.
“He says that everybody is involved in marketing whether they are selling tickets or putting baggage on conveyebelts.”
All of which means that Emirates must have the world’s biggest marketing department.||**||