Mortimer’s restaurant, on New York’s Lexington Avenue and East 75th Street, no longer exists. Once the personification of cool, it fell victim to the fickle tastes and deep insincerity of Manhattan’s in-crowd. Maybe they tired of its dimly lit interior, larks’ tongues in aspic and other less-than-spectacular food.
Mortimer’s, though, is a place I’ll never forget, because it was a dinner there on 7 December 1994 that helped determine not only my own fate but also that of my friend and mentor, Maurice Saatchi. What’s more, it helped precipitate one of the biggest account moves in the history of advertising.
In one of the restaurant’s private rooms, more than 20 senior Saatchi & Saatchi Group executives and heads of its group agencies – including me, as the New York-based chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide – took our places against a turbulent backdrop. David Herro, a Chicago fund manager, who had built a significant stake in us, had no idea how important Maurice was to our success but seemed obsessed by what he considered his profligate style. There was to be a meeting of Saatchi & Saatchi shareholders the following morning and there was a real danger that Maurice wouldn’t survive it.
It seemed nothing would satisfy Herro. Jeremy Sinclair, a Saatchi & Saatchi board member and deputy chairman, had been to see him in Chicago to ask what it would take to keep Maurice in place. Having returned to London with several conditions to which Maurice agreed, Herro went on to make even more demands. This was the last straw for Jeremy.
In my office on his way back to London, Jeremy told me he was going to leave. He wasn’t prepared to spend the next few years fixing a mistake he had told the board not to make. We decided to revive an idea we had seriously considered some years earlier – to start our own agency.
That was in 1985 when Saatchi & Saatchi acquired Grandfield Rork Collins. GRC was run by a good friend, Jeff Fergus, and had the Cadbury business. We were the Rowntree agency so, because of the conflict issue, we felt we had a good chance of winning Cadbury for our new agency. In the end it never happened, because neither Jeremy nor I wanted to damage the agency we had joined when it started – or, in Jeremy’s case, even earlier, when it was a creative consultancy.
Maurice arrived at Mortimer’s tired and late, having just returned from Burger King’s headquarters in Miami where he’d been pitching for the account. It made me think how stupid it would have been if his relentless new-business drive were to be lost to us. Nobody knew this better than Maurice, who delivered a funny, self-deprecating speech in which he described himself as "the Willy Loman of advertising", a reference to the tragic hero of the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman.
Maurice left early. Others followed. But before the evening broke up, Tom Russell and Clive Gibson, two of the non-executive directors, invited me and Michael Bungey, the head of Bates Worldwide (the other international agency group in the Saatchi & Saatchi empire), to their end of the table to join Ted Levitt, other non-execs and Charlie Scott, the relatively new group chief executive. To my complete amazement, Russell said: "Why don’t you guys come and tell us what will happen when we fire Maurice?"
Despite being aware of the appalling games being played, I was shocked by what Russell had said. Not least because the Saatchi & Saatchi agency was performing well. I was even more surprised when Bungey said it would be good if Maurice was fired. I interrupted him. If Maurice left, Mars, Bates’ biggest global client, would fire the agency, I warned. Bungey claimed Mars, a Bates client for almost 40 years, would succeed only in damaging its own business if it did so. Mars, he added, wouldn’t be so stupid.
I was stunned. I knew Maurice had been very good to Bungey by giving him the Bates network to run and helping him get an apartment in New York’s exclusive Dakota Building. Now he was sticking the knife in.
I also had a copy of a letter from Forrest and John Mars about some of the business being switched from Bates to Saatchi & Saatchi. The letter made no threats about what would happen if Maurice were fired, but the language was strong enough to have been a warning light to Bates. And the Mars brothers didn’t often write letters.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by such complacency. I’d already spoken with British Airways chairman Sir Colin Marshall, who told me that he’d written to the Saatchi board, pointing out how much he valued Maurice’s involvement with BA, but he hadn’t even had the courtesy of a reply. He told me he "couldn’t understand it when a company like yours doesn’t listen to its customers". That was appalling and stupid. My mind was starting to be made up.
Having heard the conflicting views about Maurice, Gibson said to me: "Don’t worry, Bill, we won’t do anything until we speak to you again." That was the last I ever heard from him.
The following day I sat with Bungey in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station awaiting news from the shareholder meeting. Nothing happened but the battle had turned even more political with negative stories emerging about Maurice’s endearing habit of sending flowers to clients on their birthdays. I couldn’t understand why that was bad; our clients loved it.
I flew back to London for Christmas. After an evening at the opera, my wife and I were collected by Arthur, a Cockney and long-term Saatchi driver, known affectionately as "Mouth of the South" owing to all the gossip he collected from his passengers. As we got into the car, he said: "They’ve done it, Bill, they’ve topped him. They’ve fired Maurice."
I rang Maurice. He sounded understandably upset. It didn’t seem the right time (and certainly not in front of Arthur) to tell him that Jeremy and I were planning a start-up. Back in the Charlotte Street office the next day, Jeremy, David Kershaw and I set to work composing messages to staff and clients. I had previously told David, chief executive of the UK agency, about our plans and he said he wanted to be part of them.
We were still writing an all-staff memo when the phone rang. It was Maurice. He asked what we planned to do and we told him. "Very interesting," he declared. "I’ll call you back." Five minutes later he said he and Charles wanted in. We were delighted. It was the first step in the creation of The New Saatchi Agency (as we called ourselves at the launch) or M&C Saatchi as we became. We decided to hold off announcing our departures until the new year.
There is a delightful irony in the story because Herro had insisted that Maurice scrap his two-year rolling contract. The minute he was fired, he was free to start again, unlike the rest of us who had to serve out six months of "gardening leave".
Sadly, my warning at Mortimer’s about what would happen if Maurice were fired proved accurate – and had devastating consequences. Fourteen days later Mars fired Bates, ripping out $400m of business.
It was the account that held Bates together – and it never recovered from the loss.
Bill Muirhead was the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide and is currently the executive director of M&C Saatchi