Ryanair trebles ad budget as O’Leary embraces TV

A ‘thank you for flying’ campaign on TV3 signals take-off for new marketing strategy

He had promised to take a step back from public view because he was “getting in the way of the brand stuff”, but Michael O’Leary is not going anywhere just yet.

The Ryanair chief executive delivered what he calls his “caring and cuddly” new message in a television ad that debuted on TV3 last night, while the airline plans to treble its advertising budget this year to promote the “evolution” of the brand.

A special 60-second version of a new "thank you for flying" ad, which ran in the Coronation Street commercial break yesterday evening, featured an "address to the nation" by the self-described "cheeky chappy" turned "serious" chief executive. The airline's first "proper" television spot in many years was produced by TV3, with O'Leary filming his part in the broadcaster's Sony HD studio in Ballymount last Friday. A 30-second version will be carried on TV3 and 3e over the next fortnight.

“When we did TV before it was with a straight still image, with a price stuck on it. This time, we are spending a little bit on production,” says O’Leary. “It’s only my somewhat less than attractive face, but we felt that was the best way to communicate the message. I would have preferred pretty girls myself.”


A second “agency-produced, polished” campaign highlighting its simplified website is pencilled in for March or April. The airline has not yet appointed a creative agency and the pressure will be on in any pitching process. O’Leary has previously described creative agencies as “useless”, “expensive” and prone to producing identikit campaigns for their clients.

“I have had a lot of harsh words. Generally, they’re all useless. But it’s part of the changing culture in here. It’s about changing the way we advertise the message.”

Although its spending remains “a fraction” of other airlines’ outlay, Ryanair will increase its Europe-wide advertising budget to €40-€45 million this year, up from €15 million last year. “In the past we thought the fares could do the advertising, and we could just do a cheeky-chappy ad, or something controversial,” he says. “We own the price message, but now the message is going to change.”

Unlike previous Ryanair print advertisements, the current TV campaign, which promotes user-friendly revisions to Ryanair’s seating and cabin baggage policies, does not seem set to spark complaints to advertising standards authorities.

TV3 commercial director Pat Kiely even describes O’Leary’s tone in the ads as “statesmanlike”, which is perhaps “pushing it a bit far”, admits O’Leary, but he insists Ryanair is “nothing but serious” about its new message. “We have deliberately chosen to move away from humour.”

Operating in 26 countries means “we can’t be shouting in English anymore”, he adds.

His embrace of a more sophisticated TV-led branding message means print advertising will account for just 20-25 per cent of its marketing budget this year, down from 80 per cent last year.

O'Leary has partly found it easy to contain Ryanair's advertising budget thanks to his talent for making the most of editorial coverage, such as a notorious BBC Breakfast interview in 2009 when he joked about charging for use of toilets on flights. "The great thing is, I'm generating so much free publicity from this Damascene conversion," he recently told the Sunday Times.

Now he says he believes TV3 is “the perfect advertising partner” for Ryanair.

The airline’s change in attitude to television is contributing to optimism at TV3 Group for the year ahead, as it seeks to build advertiser interest in its production facilities and show that it can “empower” companies that do not typically advertise on television to use the medium.

The campaign includes a presence on TV3 digital platforms such as 3 Player and viewing companion app Showpal, a weekend “takeover” that will see the airline sponsor all of TV3’s otherwise unsponsored programmes this weekend and Ryanair flight giveaways on its daytime shows.

The “misunderstood” O’Leary still intends to retire from the media spotlight. The airline has appointed a new director of sales and marketing, poaching an as-yet-unnamed executive from another plc, and he or she will be given a prominent publicity role alongside other senior management, “instead of it just being mad Mick”.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics