The many facets of Michael OLeary

If Michael OLeary were associated with any other brand than Ryanair it would have to be Marmite.

If Michael O’Leary were associated with any other brand than Ryanair it would have to be Marmite.

You love him or you hate him. Or rather, just as you’re loathing him, he does something that makes you like him. And vice versa.

Most stewards of successful brands carefully weigh their words so as not to offend. Not however our Michael, who with Teflon-coated abandon will abuse anyone or anything that he perceives to be irrationally obstructing Ryanair business objectives. He really doesn’t care does he? It might as well be the Taoiseach as the European Union, obtuse airline customers in wheelchairs as underperforming members of staff, bungling competitors as much as Luddite unionists and wrong-headed special interest groups. They’re all the same to him.

An instinctive marketer
And the astonishing thing is, he gets away with it. You may deprecate the loud-mouthed bully, but you must also admire the fearless, politically incorrect (in all senses) candour of his tongue-lashing. He’s the DCI Hunt of marketing.

Most of all, you wonder what it is that allows O’Leary to successfully abide by a code of behaviour that would reduce the rest of us to a pariah, the inmate of an asylum or, conceivably, a detainee at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The answer is uncanny instinct. There’s a little of Dryden’s Architophel in there: “A daring pilot in extremity; Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit, Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.”

O’Leary knows how to bend the rules just so far. By putting, for example, a hackney cab licence on his Mercedes so he can speed unmolested down the Dublin bus lanes, heedless of public criticism by the Irish transport minister. Or driving the Advertising Standards Authority to distraction by repeatedly flouting its rules, apparently with impunity. And then violently castigating the ensuing censure (or ‘censorship’, as he would have it).

In fact, you could argue that Ryanair’s singular success under his stewardship – it is now Europe’s third largest airline by passenger numbers – is all about bending rules. The rules that governed air travel before 1992; he, more than anyone else, seized the implications of deregulation and ran with them. If the leitmotif of Ryanair marketing is cynicism (witness the crowds rushing for unmarked seats as soon as the boarding announcement is made; or the disgruntlement of poorly paid, over-tired staff), it’s a well-merited cynicism. Ultimately, O’Leary realised that people will put up with almost anything as long as the price is right and the service adequately functional.

A sneer too far?
But has that well-judged cynicism gone too far? O’Leary, the seat of the pants marketer, is widely considered to have made a bit of an idiot of himself over the green issue. He, or at least his company, lied in an ad which claimed the UK airline “accounts for just 2% of carbon dioxide emissions”. The ASA ruled it breached rules on truthfulness by not explaining the figure was based on global rather than UK emissions (which are 5.5% of the total). And O’Leary’s reported suggestion that the solution to the global warming problem is to massacre the cow population makes him appear not so much flip as floundering. A left-over from the 20th century.

Any one who thinks he is going to get his comeuppance in the coming Ryanair profits dive should think again, however. His masterly handling of bad news showed he has lost none of the old magic. Upfront as ever, he warned that Ryanair (and others) were facing a ‘perfect storm’ with the possibility of higher oil prices, poor consumer demand, weaker sterling and higher airport costs. Profits in the coming year, he cheerfully admitted, could tumble by as much as 50%.

Most chief executives, faced with these circumstances, might batten down the hatches and hope the storm would blow over quickly. Not our Michael, the instinctive marketer. Ryanair has only one response to consumer uncertainty, he said: intensify the price war, by slashing fares and yields, stimulating traffic, encouraging price sensitive consumers and promoting new routes.


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