Image: Ryanair

APEX Insight: Kenny Jacobs brought a thrift savvy to Ryanair that enabled the airline to thrive as a low-cost carrier, one that’s established a reputation for curbing frills and making its passengers’ dollars work hard for what they pay for efficient, effective service.

Since 2014, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, has helped transform the way the airline presents itself to the world and how it serves its customers. Jacobs’ professional roots are not in aviation but in value retail, having worked as the CMO for Moneysupermarket, and previously as the marketing director of Tesco. His retail background is considered a plus at Ryanair, where CEO Michael O’Leary prides himself as an industry outsider and the airline itself functions as an exception to the rule, defying – and in many ways disrupting – legacy operations.          

While Ryanair has grown into a powerful competitor in Europe on the strength of its low-cost no-frills business model and discount marketing approach, it has softened some of its hard edges in recent years and positioned itself to stay ahead of market changes by deploying the Always Getting Better (AGB) program, now entering its fifth year.

Since he took over, Jacobs has focused Ryanair’s marketing strategy on agile simplicity, working to advance AGB while staying true to the airline’s core values: to help more people fly to more places for less.

“We didn’t have a marketing strategy before,” Jacobs says. “Ryanair used to do sales when we needed to do sales. The personality of Ryanair was cheeky, quite male-oriented, having a good bit of fun. I think some of that is great, but now it’s evolved, and it hasn’t become something overly sophisticated. Our marketing strategy is that piece of paper beside my desk that says, ‘Low fares made simple is being like Amazon on digital and data, being like ALDI on price and quality and executing faster than anyone else.’”

“Be like Amazon on digital and data, be like ALDI on price and quality and execute faster than anyone else.” — Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair

Though simple, Jacobs says adhering to these three targets has worked for the past four years, and he expects that it will work for the foreseeable future. He ensures that his marketing team works toward achievable goals and isn’t sidetracked by buzz – something that airlines are getting better at, but is still an issue. “There’s a lot of distraction out there. One of the things I’ve geared the team toward is the lowest-hanging fruit. Just saying, ‘OK, there are plenty of things we can do, but, really, what is going to make the biggest difference right now?’” For Jacobs, it’s focus and speed. “We move quickly and we get things done. That is what I think of when I consider how this marketing organization feels. That also shapes the type of people that I want to get onto the team.”

Jacobs requires that team members’ individual marketing plans fit on no more than two pages, which then have to be further distilled into his own two-page big-picture plan. “What do we want to achieve? What are the metrics of each project? What’s it going to return in terms of revenue and profit? What are the early benchmarks of success? It’s very much a lean planning approach that works,” he says.

When asked about the greatest accomplishments of the AGB program so far, Jacobs responds without hesitation, pointing to the digital transformation of the airline. “Introducing two bags, allocating seating, things like that caught a few headlines because we were taking on some notorious policies. But when I really look at the four years of AGB, it is definitely the website and everything we’ve done on mobile that have made the biggest and longest-lasting differences,” he says.

“When I really look at the four years of AGB, it is definitely the website and everything we’ve done on mobile that have made the biggest and longest-lasting differences.” — Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair

These digital initiatives, Jacobs says, have had the most positive impact on the airline’s top and bottom lines, but they have also made air travel more affordable and easier to book for our customers. “The old Ryanair website was bad, and we didn’t have a mobile app. So yes, we had cheap fares, but you had to go through pain to book them, and we didn’t necessarily sell ancillary products in a data-driven, targeted way,” Jacobs says.

The AGB initiatives around digital transformation required hard work and commitment. “We had a fairly massive desktop migration to undertake and we had to catch up on mobile. So although digital made the biggest difference, it was the hardest to deploy. And that’s because you need to continually work at it,” he says.

Jacobs says the airline has occasionally missed opportunities, but relatively few, and he doesn’t worry much about them anyway. “There are things in customer service that we are doing in 2018 that I wish we had done sooner,” he says. “But in the second half of last year, and for this year, we’ve already made very good progress. We’ve hired a new in-house customer service team in Madrid rather than outsourcing some key processes. I think this will be the year when digital meets customer service. It will allow our customers to serve themselves and not have to call our customer service locations. They can do what they want to do in the Ryanair app.”

“There are things in customer service that we are doing in 2018 that I wish we had done sooner.” — Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair

Another goal of AGB over the next year will be to add a greater amount of ancillary sales from third-party services, also supported by digital platforms. “There are exciting opportunities in Ryanair Rooms, holidays, transportation, car hire, concert tickets and things to do at the destination. Getting into these third-party ancillary products and using the data and digital to sell them in an ongoing, smarter way will increase penetration,” Jacobs says. “Ryanair Rooms has been rolled out with travel credits in all markets, and that’s working extremely well. We’re seeing great numbers of customers earn their travel credit and redeem them on the same flight.”

According to Jacobs, the airline has found ways to make the product more relevant to families and business travelers, and this has allowed it to grow. “But most importantly, we haven’t lost our focus on creating the lowest fare – and that is a key point that makes Ryanair different from any other airline in Europe.”

“C-Suite: Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer, Ryanair” was originally published in the 8.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Marisa Garcia was once locked in a hangar in Oberpfaffenhofen while fine-tuning Gandalf’s new seats. Seriously. The firemen got her out. Writing is less confining, but she has lovely memories of those hands-on days.