Close-Up: Live Issue/M&C Saatchi - Ad industry’s controversial advocate speaks out/Maurice Saatchi speaks to Stefano Hatfield about his experiences in advertising

Maurice Saatchi doesn’t like giving interviews. That’s clear from the lack of on-the-record pieces over the past two decades. The last was a soft television encounter to coincide with the launch of what has become M&C Saatchi. Five years to the month after M&C’s launch, it became Campaign’s agency of the year last week.

Maurice Saatchi doesn’t like giving interviews. That’s clear from

the lack of on-the-record pieces over the past two decades. The last was

a soft television encounter to coincide with the launch of what has

become M&C Saatchi. Five years to the month after M&C’s launch, it

became Campaign’s agency of the year last week.



But, after all the congratulations, the big party, the flattering press

and resulting speculative Sunday Times story about a potential outside

partner, here is Lord Saatchi. He is sitting before a tape recorder in a

goldfish-bowl sideroom off the top-floor, open-plan suite he shares with

David Kershaw, Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair.



Here, he pays tribute to the very young, ’devoted and dedicated’ staff

(average age 28) of M&C Saatchi, whose award he says the agency of the

year is. He singles out the joint chief executives, Moray MacLennan and

Nick Hurrell, for particular praise.



’This award has given extraordinary pleasure to the people here.

Campaign has made it the most meaningful of awards - something that is

very serious.



So it was a great thrill. Nick and Moray are the best two agency

managers I have ever worked with and Tim Duffy, the best strategic

brain. They were running Charlotte Street when they were 28, when it was

the biggest agency in Britain, and doing so superbly. Then they’ve gone

on to build this. This award of yours is actually for them.’



In truth, M&C Saatchi has been a contender for agency of the year for

the past two years but lost it on its creative work. Its output hasn’t

met with universal approval, particularly among the Soho set. What does

Maurice think of the work so far?



’The agency’s credo is brutal simplicity of thought. We believe in a

creative hard sell. It is not focused necessarily on the sort of

advertising that’s going to win peer praise, although that is very

important. But, if anything is our absolute priority, then the work

is.



’You’ve got to remember that, as well as the likes of BA, this agency

handles Dixons Stores Group, as Charlotte Street always did. I believe

in that diversity. I am very proud of Dixons. It’s the most effective

advertising in the retail sector. Because it works, Dixons has become

Britain’s biggest press advertiser at pounds 100 million. Being the sort

of company it is, it does not spend a cent unless it pays.’



Nevertheless, Maurice defends the ad industry from the frequently

levelled charge of disappearing up its own backside and falling in love

with pretty pictures.



By way of a defence, he takes me on a journey through the history of

advertising, expounding Rosser Reeves’ USP philosophy and then Bill

Bernbach’s influence. He believes that what’s happened in advertising

since has been the tension between the twin notions of what a good

advertisement is - an unresolved tension.



It is one of several discourses Maurice embarks upon: they range from

new paradigms of economic theory, to what the internet means for

agencies, to why the significance of globalisation for brands is still

little understood.



Listening as he delivers these theories calmly and with supreme

self-confidence, you soon begin to understand how beguiling it must all

sound to senior clients.



He is on far stickier ground discussing his own agency’s future. Having

become Britain’s sixth-largest agency within five years, does M&C

Saatchi not now face the same problems that other mid-sized agencies

face, only a decade sooner?



Maurice’s ’no’ is based on what he half-jokingly refers to as his new

Zen-like demeanour. It would be a problem if the agency still had global

ambitions in the way it had before. He admits that Charles and he were

league-table obsessives at Charlotte Street, but claims not to be today,

because they are less insecure. I don’t entirely believe him.



’Insecurity and paranoia were behind our drive for world leadership,’

Maurice says. ’We were the biggest agency in Britain and we lost an

account due to global alignment. So, even being the number one local

agency, and the most respected, wasn’t enough to protect us. That was

what started us on our quest to see if we could take on America.’



So let’s hear Maurice Saatchi on some of the issues that resulted from

that quest, issues he has never really commented on. Did you really

believe in globalisation?



’People said we just dreamed this up as a new-business tool or something

that justified a megalomaniac desire for world domination. But we used

to write what we thought were very erudite annual reports and documents

about globalisation in the belief that it was true, and we had to warn

clients they were in danger. Looking back, we made a hell of a lot of

mistakes, but with that particular one, we had 20-20 vision.’



Your one-stop shop concept was a major contributor to your coming

unstuck and led to severe criticism. Was the strategy bad or was the

execution, through earn-outs, just flawed?



’We believed in the one-stop shop. We thought it was more sensible for

marketers to be able to co-ordinate all their forms of marketing, but

there wasn’t universal praise because of organisational structures.



It was going to take time to make integration happen, but it is now.



’The earn-out was devised as a device to reassure investors and convince

the markets that agencies weren’t flaky stocks whose assets went up and

down in the lift. It makes me laugh now, because agencies are today on

multiples of 40. When we started, it was four. The earn-out served its

purpose very well in up periods and became a liability in down

periods.’



But how did you come to bid for Midland Bank?



’At the time, we were told we could walk on water. I think you begin to

believe your own press.’



What was your biggest mistake?



’I’d have to say overweening ambition. But the 80s was a completely

different world. On the other hand, I’m very proud of Saatchi & Saatchi.

It was well built by fine architects.’



Does Charles still have a major role to play?



’Well, he does, when he puts his mind to it. He is a most brilliant

person. He’s as involved as he wants to be. If there’s something to be

thought about, then there’s nobody better to do it in the world. But

Charles is not a nine-to-five person.’



What about the charges of cronyism so often levelled at Maurice and

Muirhead?



Is there anything wrong with winning business through contacts?



’I’ve never thought so,’ Maurice says quietly. ’I’ve always taken it as

a compliment. Cronyism is rewarding your undeserving placemen because

you have the power to do so. When it’s used to describe someone having

the good luck to be liked and trusted by serious people, it can only be

a good thing.’



Maurice answered almost every question I put to him openly and without

faltering. The only one he ducked was whether he thought those behind

his exit from Saatchi & Saatchi plc could in any way have been

right.



But he’s hardly going to say ’yes’, is he?



He talked of much more than we have room to include here - from Thatcher

and the Tories to Labour’s spin doctors, his admiration for Martin

Sorrell (’a good pupil’) and becoming good friends again with Tim Bell.

His ’dream’ is to keep the company private and create an Arthur

Andersen-type partnership.



Maurice has a lot to say, particularly about his theory of

’commoditisation’, which he describes as the real impact of the

internet, where ’robo-shoppers with digital intelligence are only

interested in price’. So, it’s maddening that he doesn’t articulate them

more often. Here is an articulate advocate for the ad industry, who

unquestionably still retains access to the top table, at a time when

advertising really needs one.



He doesn’t do it, he says, because he is faintly embarrassed to think

that it’s interesting or worthwhile to air one’s views in public. ’It is

just too personal. I don’t think my thoughts are the thing that has made

this place work.’



As is often the case with Maurice, one isn’t sure if it’s a double

bluff. Take his reply to ’what is the source of your motivation now?’:

’There isn’t one. It’s just very nice. It’s a happy ship, the happiest

working environment I’ve ever known.’



Just then the unmistakable figure of Charles Saatchi shuffles by on the

other side of the glass on his way to see Kershaw. Maurice nods

discreetly and smiles. Zen indeed.



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