MW Live – Profile: Paul Dickinson

Virgin Atlantic’s sales and marketing director believes that developing customer relationships is vital to maintain the impressive figures his premium airline brand has recently posted.


  • 2007-present sales and marketing director, Virgin Atlantic
  • 2004-2007 customer service director, Virgin Atlantic
  • 2001-2004 sales and distribution director, Virgin Atlantic
  • 1999-2001 sales and marketing director, RAC
  • 1996-1999 sales and marketing director, Magic of Italy (part of Granada plc)
  • 1992-1996 travel products director, Airmiles
  • 1990-1992 marketing manager, Visa International
  • 1985-1990 graduate trainee, British Airways

As world events from natural disasters to economic downturns hit the globe, marketers for long-haul destinations have had to constantly be on their toes. For Virgin Atlantic sales and marketing director Paul Dickinson, that challenge has been compounded by the recession and a reduction in the number of business travellers.

As a company that posted a near doubling in full-year pre-tax profits to £68.4m last month, Virgin Atlantic is one airline bucking its industry trend. Dickinson is keen to stress to those attending Marketing Week Live how important it is to use metrics and ad tracking techniques to determine how to spend on advertising and maximise return on investment.

He reveals: “We’ve increased our measurement on the effectiveness of our campaigns through metrics, ad tracking and market research. These give us a lot of confidence about whether or not to invest. And if we should invest in what media, which channels, with what timing and in what proportion.

“It helped us enter the recession with a head start over some advertisers – we knew what we could expect our advertising to generate.”

Dickinson says results from its tracking initiatives and metrics contributed to the good results posted by the airline, following an ad campaign celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“January and February are the busiest months for travel bookings, coinciding with some of the cheapest media costs, which is fortunate for our business cycle,” says Dickinson. “When we came out in January with our biggest ever spend, we were being slightly counter-intuitive, even though we knew the recession was hitting.

“We went out with confidence, but some of our competitors didn’t have that confidence and therefore reduced their spend. The consequence was that our share of voice was fantastic.”

The decision to focus on the airline’s anniversary was a tactical one. With no new routes or aircraft to boast about, the airline played on the reassurance factor to woo new customers. Dickinson explains that as so many airlines have gone out of business in the past year, he felt that consumers wanted businesses with strong track records, as did investors. The anniversary campaign was not only a good excuse to shout about the company but also a way of emphasising the longevity of its operations.

As well as the anniversary communications, Virgin Atlantic has focused on maintaining customer loyalty among frequent users and has enhanced its Flying Club membership scheme. Dickinson is keen that people at Marketing Week Live appreciate just how important customer relationship management and data will be to their future operations.

“Part of our new strategy is not just to sell tickets, but also to sign people up and develop relationships. Over the past year we’ve signed up more than 250,000 additional members to The Flying Club. It’s a combined effort in advertising and building a loyalty base, similar to the Tesco Clubcard,” reveals Dickinson.

This reliance on CRM has resulted in a change to the services and products that Virgin Atlantic marketers push. As businesses clamp down on foreign travel for employees, this requires a change in how the airline tries to make its services attractive to them.

“The amount of business travel has halved, so we have cut the amount we communicate with them and re-evaluate the proportions on which classes we promote,” he says.

Cutting back does not mean consumers will stop spending altogether, however, and Dickinson says that main summer holidays are still proving “sacrosanct” for many families. But they are booking later due perhaps to concerns about circumstances changing, so communications have to be adapted to this trend.

It is clear that with global responsibility for sales, marketing, ecommerce, contact centres and customer relations and a team of more than 1,000 people across the world, Dickinson is a man with much on his mind. But having started work at Virgin Atlantic just three weeks after 11 September 2001, he is well equipped to deal with this.

At Marketing Week Live, he hopes to encourage marketers that it’s not all doom and gloom. An active approach to brand promotion can help keep businesses alive and kicking, no matter what else is happening around them.

Paul Dickinson will be speaking at the “Smart Marketing in a Recesssion” panel debate at Marketing Week Live on Wednesday 1 July 2009, 1pm-2pm at Olympia, London.

What I want marketers to take from Marketing Week Live

I’d like marketers to come out of the conference thinking of five key points:

  • If you’re not measuring it, you can’t defend your marketing budget from cuts. Metrics are the only way to prove the effectiveness of an ad and justify the financial value to your chief financial officer.
  • Ensure you build a full case internally to defend your budget and get the most potential out of your allotted funds.
  • Put communications at the centre of your work. Even if you have reduced budgets, your PR department can help to recover funds with maximum coverage thanks to exposure opportunities.
  • Ensure you are doing brilliant work, which represents your brand ethos. If no one can tell what the ads are, then even without metrics, you can be sure you won’t see a return. Be confident yourself that there is a return on investment possible from your marketing communications.
  • Redevelop your plans fast. Keep in touch with everything that is happening, and act upon it instantaneously. The market is changing rapidly, you can’t predict behaviour, but you can respond to all the signs well and quickly.


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