Was Todd Sampson Qantas’ scapegoat in a year of reputation disaster?

The dust has begun to settle on last week's Qantas Annual General Meeting, but was one board member in particular hung out to dry? DAMIAN FRANCIS looks into the treatment of Todd Sampson and what's next for the airline.

WOULD you care to be Todd Sampson this year?

He could be forgiven for waking up in cold sweats at night thanks to the seat he has on the board of national carrier Qantas. Was it all worth it?

He must have thought so to stand for reelection.

Sampson has been in the cross hairs of many in the recent past as the Qantas brand has taken hit after very public hit and the punters have realised that he is the one board member with direct marketing and communications experience.

Sampson fronts the Qantas AGM last week

The Future Fund, which manages around $200 billion on behalf of the federal government (and counts Peter Costello as Chairman no less), made it quite clear it would be voting against Sampson’s re-election to the Qantas board.

Governance advisory group Ownership Matters also urged Qantas shareholders to vote against the famed adman, who once led iconic advertising agency Leo Burnett in Australia.

The only saving grace for Sampson was that his old nemesis, the AFR’s former Rear Window columnist Joe Aston, didn’t restart their war of 2015. He was too busy firing ballistic missiles at Alan Joyce.

Regardless, the waves created by the vocal Sampson detractors almost rocked the boat enough to fling the famous t-shirt wearing former-CEO and TV star far clear of SS Qantas.

Votes for keeping him on the national carrier’s board hit just 66.31%. Enough to see him into another term, but far from convincingly.

It meant that around a third of the votes were for his removal.

Was the Sampson outrage fair?

It could easily be argued that the outrage levelled against him was not unexpected. In fact, it would be relatively easy to argue that it was deserved.

The sheer fact that an AGM following a fantastically good financial year could be dominated by “brand Qantas” issues, and so downbeat it had attendees shouting at the stage, was evidence of just how big an issue the demise of Qantas’ brand value had become.

But is it too basic an argument to say that, as Qantas’ brand has fallen through the floor, so should Sampson’s role on the board? Or that just because his professional history includes leadership roles in the advertising industry, Qantas should have avoided the mess it is in and he should have done more to fix it?

Work from The Monkeys for Qantas

On a top level, yes. Remember that Qantas engages a roster of advertising agencies (from creative to media and everything in between) to ensure its brand and marketing is first class. World class agencies like Accenture’s The Monkeys. Agencies that should be giving strategically sound advice.

Also remember that it has its own internal marketing and communications professionals, some of which have held significant roles in the very agencies Qantas works with.

But a staff member’s, agency’s, or indeed a board member’s advice is only worth anything if the brand actually executes on it.

If Qantas got advice (emphasis on the ‘if’), then it was either shockingly misguided or it simply didn’t take it. Either of those mistakes can’t be wholly levelled at Sampson.

The industry has spoken (off the record)

I spoke to a number of former CEOs and board members in the marketing and communications space off the record to try and get a handle on what they thought had gone wrong. The majority of their thoughts are best summed up by this quote.

“The entire board has to take some serious accountability for the trashing the brand took and for allowing the CEO to exert far too much control and influence,” one former agency Chair said. “Joyce should have been controlled much earlier.”

Another pointed to Joyce being able to ban the AFR in Qantas lounges as the point where the board lost control, and honed in on Sampson as the person that should have led the charge for action to be taken as he saw the brand sinking quickly.

Former CEO Alan Joyce took aim at Nine’s AFR

But there was also common agreement that he required the cooperation of his board colleagues if he had, indeed, posited that Qantas should be swiftly banking in a different direction.

One person I spoke to did note, however, that if he felt strongly enough about the dire situation, and felt like his opinions weren’t being taken seriously, that he could have resigned.

He didn’t, which means he could have been a “passive observer” and therefore rightly culpable in-part.

Who can save Qantas’ brand values

With the AGM now over and Sampson reinstated on the board, the reality is that if brand Qantas is to recover, it won’t be due to Sampson, or The Monkeys, or any of the other agencies involved. It will be due largely to new CEO Vanessa Hudson.

The well worn and slightly macabre cliche of the fish rotting from the head is often true in business circles. More than a few shared that analogy when describing the previous leadership.

In Hudson, Qantas has a fresh opportunity. But results won’t be fast.

Founder and CEO of advertising agency Hardhat, Dan Monheit, explained that as a brand, Qantas comes with the additional baggage of being Australia’s brand.

“There is clearly some deep emotional investment in the brand – when it lets us down, we really feel it let down the whole country – the pride that has been built up in the Qantas brand is a double edged sword.”

You can thank the aforementioned agencies for helping build that..

Brand Qantas is down because the whole operation is down

Monheit also pointed out that what has largely driven the downward spiral of the Qantas brand isn’t something Sampson or his counterparts in the advertising industry could necessarily have fixed, even if they wanted to.

“The biggest issue with Qantas wasn’t really the marketing,” he said. “It was operational issues, it was selling flights that didn’t exist, it was cancelling people 18 hours before going on an international trip, not making it easy enough for people to be able to redeem credits.”

He continued by saying that it is pretty hard to paper over “horrendous operational performance and questionable conduct”.

“A brand is a promise and an experience. You know, there’s only so many promises you can make when you’ve got people waiting on hold for 12 hours to try and redeem credits that they never should have had in the first place because their flight got cancelled. No ad is going to make you feel any better.”

Qantas Chairman Richard Goyder and CEO Vanessa Hudson at the AGM last week

The general consensus of the pool of a few senior execs was that, luckily for Qantas, the same emotional state that Australia has found itself in that has led to the chastising of Qantas, its board and particularly Joyce and Sampson so heavily, will eventually lead to the rebounding of the brand.

It’s the significant emotional ties that Australia has to Qantas that mean it will get a second, third, fourth, perhaps ninth or tenth chance. That’s fortunate for Qantas and perhaps unfortunate for its competitors.

Furthermore, Qantas doesn’t have to propel itself into the ‘amazing brands’ stratosphere to succeed. It doesn’t need to become the Ferrari of the airline industry. It merely has to act normal and be cool.

In other words, don’t mess anything up for multiple consecutive months to begin to grow the trust of the Australian traveller back.

“There are lots of negatives shaping people’s feelings of the brand,” Monheit said. “As we return to travel, we reunite with family and friends, we get to enjoy that landing back in Melbourne or Sydney, and we get to enjoy that smile of the cabin crew as we walk off the plane, [Qantas’ reputation] will bounce back quicker than any of us could imagine.”

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