As the Chief Marketing Officer and a non-executive board member at local low-cost airline, FlySafair, Kirby Gordon has his work cut out for him. The organisation he calls a “53-year-old start-up” has been hard hit by the freeze on flying imposed during lockdown and has had to dig deep to ride out the turbulence.
“With no-one flying, things got tough,” he says. In rising to meet this challenge, Gordon says he has had to draw on the full gamut of his experiences over his career, first in advertising and latterly as a marketer. He also found himself drawing on the knowledge he gained during his MBA.
Gordon went into advertising he says, because he saw it as the perfect marriage between creativity and business strategy. He did well for himself there but grew increasingly frustrated with the work and began to question his career choice.
“I realized that advertising wasn’t what I thought it was,” he says. In particular it was the effort and energy spent assuring clients that the work was having an impact, “advertising the advertising back to the client” that was starting to feel dishonest.
“We’d use these esoteric and almost meaningless phrases like ‘love mark’ and ‘black diamond’ to convince clients our work was worth their money, but we had no real way of measuring the effectiveness of a campaign. I didn’t like that. I wanted to know what the true impact was on their bottom line.”
The need to understand business more deeply, especially business strategy, drove him to the UCT Graduate School of Business where he enrolled on the MBA full-time in 2010.
“I was incredibly privileged to take a year off to re-immerse myself in academia, and at such a prestigious school,” he says. “There was so much to learn, from statistical methodology to authenticity in leadership. The softer stuff mixed with the practical, but all of it having real applicability. It opened my eyes.”
After completing his MBA and three months at the Kellogg School of Management as part of the UCT GSB’s exchange programme, Gordon went into marketing. It was a better fit for him.
“Advertising is communication, the colourful coating around the Smartie. Marketing is a function of business. Marketing asks how a product will get to market, how it should look and work, what it should cost on the shelf. It can be measured, and the impact is visible. It is definitely more interesting to me.”
Now at FlySafair, he is getting plenty of opportunities to put this to the test in a very challenging industry – even when not in the middle of a pandemic. He oversees all client acquisition and retention, and manages brand reputation, content production, and publication. But with the travel industry taking a big hit during lockdown, Gordon says had to turn all of this on its head. And instead of focusing on winning new business during the crisis, the company turned its attention inward, to focus on its staff.
“While the company is a modern, agile and funky organization, it has at its core the most sensational old-fashioned values and ethos,” he says. “We do things well. We do things right. There are no shortcuts. We treat people correctly. There is also this 1950’s Mary Poppins ‘can-do’ attitude.
“We decided that it was really important that we manage our people and their expectations and that communication within the organisation was earnest and honest at all times. We had tough decisions to make and many hard conversations were had. Transparency and integrity were pivotal. And we weathered the storm in this way together. I used a lot of what I learned at the UCT GSB during that time.”
People are starting to fly again now and the marketing team is getting back to business as usual, says Gordon, but with a difference. Airlines continue to face a unique challenge.
“Air travel was conflated with the spread of the virus,” he says. “Part of my work now is reminding people that airlines don’t spread viruses, people do, and that an airplane is the safest place you can be inside, for a number of reasons.”
It turns out that what the company learned about putting transparency and integrity at the forefront of communication with their staff during lockdown is coming in handy now in communicating with customers.
“We’re having to be very honest about regulations, about processes and procedures we have in place, about how things have changed,” says Gordon. “It’s almost as if we have to teach people how to use our services again.”
“In a way, I’m doing the ‘colourful coating around the Smartie’ thing again, but in a more meaningful and impactful way.”
Kirby Gordon is Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Manager at FlySafair.