Cathay's early take-off

CATHAY Pacific will select a new advertising agency by the end of next month and expects it to ''get stuck into the airline's future positioning and communications plan immediately'', according to marketing communications manager Mr Alastair Blount.

Incumbent agency Leo Burnett, which declined to re-present its credentials for the HK$250-million-plus business a week ago, will hand over the reins to the new advertising agency this year despite initial reports that little would change until 1994.

''We want the business to exchange agencies as soon as possible without the airline incurring any penalty,'' said Mr Blount.

''Leo Burnett was aware of all the changes with our new corporate identity and positioning statement.

''We thought it would refresh and renew their approach to ask them to pitch on the basis of these new developments,'' he said.

''We were worried about fragmented communication in some countries and the lack of consistency in the advertising.'' However, Leo Burnett, which has held the account for more than 10 years, made the decision not to re-present its credentials.

Sources close to the agency said that agreeing to the review would have been tantamount to admitting that Burnett had not given the account its best shot.

With a dedicated team of 10 people specifically for the Cathay account, the feeling within the agency was that the job, though not necessarily perfect, could not have been done better.

''Cathay is a demanding client with exacting professional standards and it will always be a major challenge to satisfy them,'' said Mr Vince Swift, managing director of Leo Burnett Hongkong.

Industry sources agreed that another agency would have its work cut out to implement Cathay's advertising and marketing strategies to the client's total satisfaction.

''The permutations your strategies have to address, with the number of different out-ports, passengers, cargo, first, business and economy class advertising, are enormous.

''It's terribly difficult advertising business to handle,'' said one 4As agency managing director.

However, the prospect of gaining billings from a total marketing communications' budget which is approaching HK$300 million should help quell worries about logistics.

The Cathay account represents at least 15 per cent of Leo Burnett's total billings.

The financial impact of the loss will be worse next year when agency sources anticipate some ''belt-tightening'' in Hongkong.

''The impact on the Hongkong office in terms of revenue and agency morale was the prime consideration but the decision not to participate in the review was unanimous though regrettable,'' said Mr Swift.

''However, it was more important that the agency maintained its integrity by not re-presenting when it stood behind its existing recommendations,'' he said.

Mr Swift said none of the team working on the Cathay account would lose their jobs and that the agency would not cut any staff this year.

Furthermore, three senior appointments, among them Ms Maggie Burden from Saatchi & Saatchi's media department, are still going ahead.

All Hongkong's 4As advertising agencies were advised of the account's moving via Cathay's press release last week.

Many of them have expressed interest in handling the account for the airline.

The shortlist of candidates, however, is likely to be dictated by resources and regional ability.

Industry sources are agreed that two of the top three agencies, J Walter Thompson (JWT) and Ogilvy & Mather (O & M), are immediate propositions.

Other suggestions include The Ball Partnership and McCann-Erickson.

However, speculation from Britain indicates that JWT may be interested in the British Airways (BA) advertising account, which is understood to be wavering from Saatchis following the departure of chairman Lord King from the airline.

Should this happen - and BA, with billings in excess of HK$700 million, is a far greater attraction than Cathay - then the appointment of an agency for Hongkong's own airline will be blown wide open.

For now, however, Cathay is seeking an agency with depth of management and an understanding of its business in Hongkong and internationally, not just an advertising agency with creative ability, according to Mr Blount.

''Cathay has a marketing plan for the 1990s which incorporates the new positioning and will ensure that the meaning behind the Cathay brand is more than just personality,'' he said.

''We want to form a communication culture unique to Cathay forged by an agency with an international network whom we can call on for total marketing communications advice.

''Cathay wants to become the best airline of the decade and we need the best advertising and marketing help we can get to achieve this.''