Etihad Airways Picks Cheil Worldwide and Barbarian Group for Its Westward Expansion

As UAE-based carrier reimagines luxury

In March, Etihad Airways made headlines with a new ad campaign—created by M&C Saatchi and starring Nicole Kidman—aimed at redefining luxury in the context of business travel.

Now, Cheil Worldwide and New York-based, tech-centric creative agency Barbarian Group have been chosen to handle digital and social-media marketing duties for the United Arab Emirates-based airline as it seeks to cement its presence in the West.

Last year, Etihad added 10 new destinations to its roster and reported more than a 50 percent jump in net profits as it pulled closer to chief competitors Qatar Airways and Emirates, which Adweek recently called "the world's most glamorous airline." Now Etihad seeks to counter that claim; the company recently earned media attention for new services like a flying "Residence" that somehow includes a living room, private bathroom and two-person bedroom. (Flights from Abu Dhabi to New York cost a cool $32,000.)

Etihad vp of marketing Andrew Ward told Adweek the company can "claim to be the most innovative [in the marketplace] at the moment" thanks to such offerings as the Residence, which Ward described as a "three-room suite in the sky" with "its own personal butler."

The airline, which currently flies to six cities in the U.S., wants to increase its profile stateside and has a particular type of client in mind. Ward said there is "an important corporate market in the U.S. that we want to tap into, so we need to develop our brand presence." This desire led the company to issue RFPs for its digital and media-buying accounts, the latter of which it awarded to Publicis Groupe's Starcom earlier this month.

Ward told Adweek that Etihad went with Cheil because "we felt that we required a specialist in digital marketing" as the airline moves from "spending 5 percent on digital four or five years ago to spending nearly 50 percent on digital in 2016."

Regarding the review, Ward said, "Cheil understood us as a brand, is genuinely passionate about air travel and showed an instinct for the brand that was pleasantly surprising at pitch level." He also cited the network's propensity for strategic analytics and said Barbarian Group had the "right flexibility" to meet its needs, describing the shop as "very much a modern agency rather than a traditional agency."

Etihad is not moving away from traditional, above-the-line advertising. Ward calls himself "a strong believer in the power of TV," but he believes that "Cheil will help us realize how great the efficiencies of digital activation will be."

"The correct media mix is important," he said.

Cheil and Starcom have already begun working with M&C Saatchi's Abu Dhabi and Sydney offices on the "Flying reimagined" campaign, but Barbarian's contribution will involve more digital content marketing.

"We will be driving the creative content strategy and design experiences that will turn 'Flying reimagined' into a highly curated, customized experience across the digital ecosystem to satisfy [Etihad's] business goals," said Barbarian Group CEO Sophie Kelly. While M&C Saatchi remains the client's lead creative agency, Barbarian will "own digital strategy and content creation to support the brand idea."

"Marketing and analytics to measure the experience we curate will be driven by Barbarian in collaboration with M&C Saatchi in a 'total communications' package for the brand," she said.

On strategy, Barbarian Group executive director of media Colin Nagy said, "They want their content to be as innovative as their product/user experience." The agency won the account, in part, on the strength of past content marketing work for Pepsi and General Electric, among others.

"We're excited because this client represents a global brand in a category where we're highly engaged," Kelly said, noting that Nagy contributes to travel–focused outlet Skift. "Everyone on our New York team will be working on this account, and we also have a team based in Abu Dhabi."

Nagy added that the agency will also work with Starcom to develop "the perfect marketing and paid social angles with the right kind of targeting."

"We want the digital marketing to be a true reflection of the quality of the service Etihad Airways provides," he said.

Future work by Cheil and Barbarian Group will take the form of display ads and content—both paid and unpaid—distributed via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as the client encourages followers to "download your story."