I love the Airbus A380. It’s an engineering masterpiece. The world’s largest aeroplane. Quiet. Spacious. Loved by passengers. Yet the A380 demonstrates what happens to businesses and careers when ‘cool’ trumps ‘relevant’.
The A380 promised a solution to a pressing aviation issue: congested airports. Getting a landing slot at notoriously busy JFK and Heathrow is now close to impossible. An A380 can take more than 800 passengers from A to B, almost double what airlines pack into ordinary planes. With A380s, airports could handle many more passengers. And if airlines fill the planes, costs per head could plummet. The A380 superjumbo also promised a solution to an emotional issue: making Airbus cooler.
With those prospects in mind, Airbus’s management squeezed the A380 into the firm’s busy agenda, siphoning capacity from urgent priorities, such as a new single-aisle plane (Boeing was then developing the popular 787 Dreamliner) and the renewal of the short-haul A320 (the firm’s workhorse and breadwinner). On October 25 2007, after years of delays, crisis and struggle, Singapore Airline’s A380 lifted off from Singapore to Sydney. The new plane stunned the world.
A new era had begun. It would be short-lived. Just over a decade later, Airbus announced the A380’s demise, wrote off billions in development money and turned to new projects. What happened? Most airlines had failed to fill the plane. Airports weren’t so clogged as to justify rebuilding terminals to accommodate it. And with four engines and lavish bar spaces, the A380 easily swallowed a third more fuel per passenger than the latest Boeing 787. As a commercial venture, the A380 failed—badly.
Doing business is tough. Much tougher than writing leadership columns about it. In hindsight, everything is always clear and easy. I have great respect for leaders who take risky decisions (which is fitting, as I’ve screwed up so much myself). I’m certain Airbus’s management was diligent at the time. In fact, they convinced governments, customers and suppliers to take risks and pour money into the massive project.
These weren’t all stupid people. And the A380 had many rational arguments on its side. But the superjumbo was also cool.
Then British prime minister Tony Blair named it a “symbol of economic strength” and Spain’s premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero spoke of “the realisation of a dream”. Inside Airbus, the emotions ran high. The management were facing the classic choice: sticking to the fact or being part of a dream. Eventually, the warning voices from finance and engineering were silenced by the guys in the cool camp. The rest is history.
I’ve picked the A380 for two reasons: it’s an iconic failure, and it’s easy to remember. More importantly, it represents a crucial day-to-day leadership dilemma: how to set priorities while avoiding the pitfall of choosing cool projects that fail the relevance test.
Cool for a day
Who wants to work on boring stuff? Nobody. That’s why marketing, for example, is so attractive. I know CEOs who see advertising simply as a means to meet celebrities. These are extreme cases. But look around. Which are the cool projects, the ones everybody wants to be a part of? At Airbus, it was the A380. The adventure. Beating Boeing. Building the biggest.
I recently met a firm that has a massive customer data challenge. It has reams of amazing customer insights from years of interaction sitting in its drawers, but no way of analysing or using them.
Relevance is how promising careers start and it’s how good careers become great. Make relevance your game.
But it has also decided to rebrand. Rebranding: the magic word. Guess what everyone in the C-suite is talking about now? Rebranding. And the massive customer data potential? Postponed to some indefinite future. They’re too busy.
The moment glamour comes into a project, leaders face an agonising choice: should I go with the cool; jump on the bandwagon, no matter how relevant the work is for customers or the business; or should I keep my cool instead of being cool?
Reality always kicks in
No matter how cool a project is, one day it will hit reality and in business, that’s profit and loss (simply put). The cool A380 was a massive market failure. Airbus simply didn’t grasp what it would take for airlines to operate a plane of that size (it even had bigger versions in mind).
News Corp’s much-hyped leap into the cool digital arena with its purchase of Myspace (in a market it knew virtually nothing about) had a hard landing. And many marketers seen on fancy yachts during the Cannes Lions Festival later get fired for not driving revenue.
A case in point: I sometimes go to Cannes to teach leadership (and to see some great creative work). One year, I went with two CMOs. One raced straight to the yachts; she’s now looking for a job. The other did two events and then, while the DJs filled the dancefloors, asked me to meet and work with him on his annual plan. He’s just been promoted to CEO.
It’s not always that simple, I know. But at the end of the day, what matters for success in business and careers is relevance.
Make relevance your game
For the next project, for the next career-defining move, look at the options and evaluate two things. First, how cool is this? That’s all about the word of mouth, the trends, the hype. There’s nothing wrong with working on a cool project, providing you can answer ‘yes’ to the second question: is this relevant?
Relevant is a big word. Look at relevance for customers; for the market. Will the project make a genuine, positive difference to them? Think about relevance for the organisation. Will this make a real dent? Will it help the firm thrive in a way the C-suite will appreciate?
When you get this right, you are working in the value-creation zone, where you are relevant for the market and the firm. Relevance is how promising careers start and it’s how good careers become great. Make relevance your game. And if you succeed, hop on an A380 while they’re still around. It’s failed the relevance test but it’s a cool plane to fly.
Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker and the co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’. He has teamed up with Marketing Week to launch the Marketing Leadership Masterclass, a new CPD-accredited online course designed to equip marketers with everything they need to become a better leader. To find out more and book your place visit leadership.marketingweek.com