Can the RAF persuade its recruits not to fly?

DLKW has just won the RAF’s £2m recruitment ad account – but keeping potential staff’s feet on the ground while their heads are in the clouds is no easy task, as JWT found. By Lucy Barrett

High-flyers can think again if they believe that by joining the Royal Air Force they will get to take to the skies in their own fighter jet.

But that does not mean the RAF does not want them. Despite the heavily publicised job cuts that are being pushed through, the RAF – which attracts a stream of wannabe pilots through its youth corps – still needs skilled personnel, from linguists to engineers. And in order to attract the best candidates, the RAF is keen to present itself as “an elite flying force”, an image that raises awareness of the organisation in the outside world and acts as a morale-booster for serving men and women.

The RAF has just appointed Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners to take on this task after ditching J Walter Thompson (MW last week). JWT had handled the £2m ad account for more than 30 years, and on the surface appeared to be fulfilling its brief.

The remit was to attract recruits and the RAF met its target of 1,900 for last year. According to head of marketing Richard Huthwaite, it is on track to meet its (undisclosed) target for this year, too.

But it seems the problem was more deep-rooted and related to the image of the RAF portrayed in the advertising. Some insiders claim JWT’s latest ad was poorly received internally and was the “final straw”. The ad was a departure from the RAF’s traditional advertising, which has portrayed the RAF as an exciting and glamorous organisation in which to pursue a career.

The latest JWT ad had tried to show a softer, more caring side of the RAF. It featured a worker in a supermarket, who after getting a splinter in his finger is fussed over by the store’s management. They insist on closing the store down so they can attend to him. Apparently, the aim of the campaign was to underline the value the RAF places on each person, regardless of their position. One insider says: “The ad just didn’t reflect the RAF as the elite flying force of the world.”

But DLKW must be careful not to oversell life with the RAF: the service does not need to attract pilots to fly its fighter planes. Of the 48,500 members of the RAF, only about one per cent are pilots – a demand which is met by the steady stream of potential flyers recruited through its youth arm. Instead, DLKW must devise a campaign that will not only boost internal morale, but will also lure recruits to all 62 careers available in the force.

Yet this approach is at odds with the RAF’s recruitment website, whose opening sequence still promises potential recruits life as a jet pilot.

“It is a very tough brief,” says Huthwaite. “We don’t have to actively recruit pilots. We are looking to recruit for many different jobs, yet the RAF is about flying, so we still have to get that across.”

The award of the recruitment advertising brief comes at a sensitive time for the RAF, which, like the Army and the Royal Navy, is being subjected to sweeping cuts, announced last month. The RAF’s head-count is set to fall by 7,500 over the next few years, to 41,000. Although no information on where the cuts are likely to fall is available, Haithwaite says there has been no reduction in the RAF’s recruitment target for next year, which is set to remain at a similar level to the past two years.

It is not clear whether the conflict in Iraq, where servicemen and women have been injured or killed, has affected the number of recruits signing up to the RAF. Haithwaite says that its “recruitment percentage is up” but at the same time admits that as this year’s target is slightly lower than last year’s.

But DLKW must be careful not to exaggerate the benefits of joining up in its efforts to counteract any fall-out from the Iraq war and headlines about future job cuts, as the drop-out rate can be high enough without new recruits having inflated expectations.

Haithwaite, however, maintains that the RAF has a much higher retention rate than the Army and Navy. Nevertheless, he admits that the force has low awareness levels compared to the Army and Navy and says that the new campaign must help to raise its profile among the public.

The RAF’s low profile is partly to do with the fact that civilians simply do not see the force – many recruits are stationed abroad, and the 20,000 who are in the UK generally live on bases in rural areas. Furthermore, the generational tradition of following in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers by signing up to the RAF has petered out.

In a bid to attract recruits from all sections of the community and raise its profile, the RAF now runs advertising targeting ethnic communities and has allowed officers to take part in a Gay Pride rally. The force’s daredevil flyers, the Red Arrows, will also now carry the RAF prefix as the team performs up and down the country.

But raising its profile is going to be difficult for the RAF when it spends less than half the amount separately allocated by the Army and Navy for recruitment advertising. It must, therefore, ensure that its new advertising follows the lead of its retained tagline: “Rise above the rest”.

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