Charles Saatchi answers back

Despite his high profile, Charles Saatchi famously refuses to be interviewed. But for his new book, he responds to questions about most aspects of his life. Here are some of his thoughts on advertising.

Q: Does anyone watch ads on TV any more? Doesn't everyone just Sky+ everything, and fast-forward during the commercial breaks? Are advertisers too stupid to know this?

A: Either I've changed or the advertising industry has, but I simply loathe commercials interrupting programmes. Of course, when I was making commercials, I always hated the silly way programmes kept interrupting our ads. But hand-on-heart, I do think ads today are corny, the ad breaks are interminably longer and more frequent than they used to be, and the broadcasters raise the volume to awesome levels during advertisements to arrest your attention.

All very irritating and self-destructive because, as you point out, many people now have the technology to zip past the commercial breaks, and so of course they do. And if they don't, the commercial breaks are now so lengthy, they have time to create a three-course meal rather than the traditional cup of tea. The stupidity of advertisers and broadcasters who take the public a) for granted and b) for mugs is bewildering. Being greedy and short-sighted is one thing. But pretending the internet isn't around and taking over your world is another.

Q: How did you and your brother manage to start your agency Saatchi & Saatchi when you were in your twenties and get it to number one so fast?

A: It's hard to imagine how any client could entrust their advertising account to two pushy youths with silly names, carrying-on with a burning righteousness that would have fooled nobody. Or so one would think. There is no answer or formula I can offer. We worked brutally hard, and got blindingly lucky.

Note: My brother did the client contact part, and we made sure he was so well briefed, so well versed, that whenever he attended a meeting with head people from prospective clients, he knew more about the client's problems and opportunities, and more about their competitors' prospects and weaknesses, than any other person in the room. Not much different to the Method School of Acting where you "become" the part you are playing, Stanislavski style. We adopted the Method approach so my brother could "become" a purposeful executive, vital and energetic, alert to new ways of improving your business model and building your brands, bursting with flair and optimism.

However laughable this must sound, for some reason it worked. Of course, it didn't hurt that my brother was well-endowed in the brains and charm department, certainly more than I was.

Q: I watched a Derren Brown programme where they had some advertising executives demonstrating how much advertising employs subliminal messages. Don't you think there is something horribly manipulative about this?

A: Everybody in advertising has heard talk of the "Golden Chalice of Subliminal Advertising". I can safely say I have never seen an example, though people tell me of tests in America in the 50s where they flashed super-quick images of an icy Coca-Cola on to the screen, apparently invisible to the eye, and saw sales of Coke in the cinema triple immediately. Of course, it could be that they also turned off the air conditioning when the tests took place in Arizona in mid-summer, to help pull off this masterstroke.

Subliminal advertising is an urban myth, and nowhere near as much fun as a commercial that makes you laugh, or think. That's not to say I wouldn't much prefer subliminal versions of the endless Churchill, GoCompare, Confused.com commercials that air pitilessly.

Q: Some of the best-loved ads have great songs. How important is music in advertising?

A: Levi's invented the golden oldie backdrop for their TV commercials, courtesy of John Hegarty at his BBH ad agency. John had, in fact, previously introduced pop music as a background to a jeans commercial, working on another manufacturer for my agency in the early 70s. He commissioned David Dundas to write something catchy, which turned out to be a little soft-rock number called Jeans On, that surprised everyone by going straight to the top of the charts.

Since then, commercials featuring pop backgrounds have been a useful way to promote new releases, revive forgotten hits, resurrect forgotten recording stars and, as you point out, make the ads memorable. In more innocent times, most music in commercials used to be those fabulously awful jingles still swirling inside our heads for decades.

Q: Do you think advertising and art are linked in the pivotal role they give to sex?

A: Sex plays a pivotal role in many aspects of life, but, personally, I don't see anything particularly erotic about Monet's Haystacks or Ford's television commercials.

I take your point, of course, but I don't think art and ads are any more sex-obsessed than newspapers, TV, magazines, movies, men, women, teenagers, dogs ...

Q: Which ad are you proudest of?

A: A haemorrhoid treatment with the headline: "How to lick your piles."

An early work, that possibly never ran, but I think it illustrates my refined taste quite elegantly.

Q: People always say sex sells, but what if you are plump and plain - surely you can't hope to buy into the projected glamour of, say, the Dolce & Gabbana perfume ad with the two beautiful models in the boat?

A: You're right, of course. But Messrs Dolce & Gabbana probably wouldn't want somebody plump and plain sitting on the boat in their ad. Their mistake. That picture would certainly stand out, get much favourable publicity - and even if it didn't shift much perfume, it would be a breakthrough that would enhance the brand, making it appear edgy and right-on.

Q: What was the secret of your ad agency's success?

A: We always believed in having an enormous lobby. I remember when we started out, our lobby was bigger than our offices, but we had such few staff, it didn't matter. We used to hire people off the street to man the typewriters and click away busily whenever a prospective client walked through, creating an atmosphere that was thrusting and vibrant. Embarrassing to admit this ridiculousness, but it was so long ago ...

Q: Which clients did you respect most at your ad agency?

A: Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Pampers, Head & Shoulders, Duracell, Oil of Olay, Max Factor, Tampax, Braun, Gillette, Crest, Fairy Liquid, Ariel, Tide, Mr. Clean, Vicks, Clairol, Pantene, Flash, Ivory, Lenor, Oral B, Bold, Daz, Pringles, Wella, Herbal Essences, etc etc, is the most fearsomely efficient consumer goods marketer in the world. P&G don't want advertising that anyone with creative ambition likes to work on; they rely on a well-tested, fairly straightforward and strictly adhered-to bible for agencies to fashion their ads, and P&G spend freely to make their simple and direct messages lodge in the memories of consumers.

Gallaher were the smartest of the tobacco companies, and their advertising for Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut made them a client every creative person in the agency dreamed of working on. Writers knew that the client was pushing the agency to break boundaries, rare in the advertising business, where it is generally the other way about.

When Lord King took over British Airways, it was a fairly instant turnaround of a dismal product to its favourite airline status. Sadly, this culture at BA is long gone and the airline isn't having an easy time these days.

I have a soft spot among the mega-clients for Mars, manufacturer of global brands such as Snickers, Bounty, Galaxy, Wrigley, Tunes, Minstrels, Maltesers, Milky Way, M&M's, Twix, Uncle Ben's Rice, Dolmio and pet foods including Whiskas, Pedigree Chum, Sheba and Pal. They are the largest privately owned business in the world, shared wholly between the Mars brothers, John and Forrest Jnr, and their sister Jacqueline. Their business headquarters is a low-slung nondescript two-storey building in McLean, Virginia, where the Mars brothers sit in a large open-plan office with well-worn brown wooden desks, among the identical ones of the rest of their staff. They live in two modest suburban houses. John and Forrest Jnr are conservatively worth $15 billion each. When they visited my brother's home in the country, they greatly admired the pretty house set in acres of picturesque rolling hills. My brother suggested that both of them could easily own better houses than this all over the world if they wanted, and with hardly a dent in their bank balances. They looked most surprised, and reminded him that they both had no actual money, they were merely managers of the business, in preparation for the next generation.

Of course, when Forrest Jnr wanted a divorce from his long-term wife, Virginia, he was somehow able to write a personal cheque for hundreds of millions as settlement. The Mars brothers may be different to you and I, but they are much, much brighter and run an organisation almost on a par with Procter & Gamble. If P&G/Mars ever merge, they would make excellent rulers of the planet, and everyone would be very clean and nicely fed, including all pets.

Q: Is it true that you dressed up as a cleaner, so that you could avoid meeting a client?

A: No. There was no dressing up. I was a touch shy in the early days about meeting clients, and did once use my hanky to clean the handrails, head down, giving them a thorough polish, to shrink from a client walking through. I regret it, obviously, because when that little tidbit of gossip circulated, my reputation as being somewhat creepy, possibly certifiable, became fixed solid. Happily, people quickly accepted that I was a back-room boy best kept far away from clients, which suited me just fine.

Q: My daughter wants to go into advertising. She is doing a maths degree at Manchester University. Apparently, many of her generation want to go into advertising, so any advice you can offer to give her a leg up?

A: Yes. Don't give up until you have got a place at a Top 20 agency in London or New York. Start off by finding out about each specialist department within an agency, because they each need differing skills, and personalities. Choose the bits that sound right for you and apply for a graduate traineeship. If you can't get one of those, take anything that will get you inside. Did I mention, don't give up until you have got a place at a Top 20 agency? It's a lovely life full of entertaining people and a thrill-a-minute atmosphere. And if you're good, the pay is high even while you're young enough to spend it madly.

Q: Do you believe in market research?

A: I have spent too long being able to manipulate the answers I want from market research, to rely upon its findings any more than I do weather forecasts.

Many of the great success stories in marketing only came about because someone at the top of an organisation wanted to ignore the research, and follow his own prejudices - on the basis that all his competitors would be carrying out the same research, receive back the same conclusions, follow them slavishly - and he would, therefore, be left with a unique proposition for his own product, which he in any event believed in.

We once bought a large US research company, whose specialist area was working for seven of the eight big Hollywood studios, pre-testing their films. The gentleman running this business was considered an all-powerful guru among the movie community, and his company would screen your movie at a preview stage, and have the audience score it before leaving the theatre. They would tick:

a) enjoyed thoroughly b) quite entertained c) rather bored etc etc, and also a) would see again b) would recommend c) would advise against etc etc.

They would get ratings for each actor, and often try out different endings, to see which performances could be cut, and which finale worked more favourably. The studios could then determine which movies would be worth supporting heavily with a big marketing budget, and which to quietly give up on.

I thought it would be illuminating to meet our guru running this company, and find out a little about how all the testing works. The thrust of my question to him was - if all of the studios produce 20 movies a year but only three of these make substantial profits, five of them do OK, and the others are financial flops, what useful guidelines did his research provide? Three out of 20 hits didn't appear to be a glittering track record for the benefits of pre-testing. He explained one thing very clearly: "Each Multiplex has screens allocated to each studio. The screens need filling. Studios have to create product to fill their screen, and the amount of good product is limited. So you have to go on creating films even if there is only mild enthusiasm for the project, in order to protect your Multiplex screen allocation moving over to a competitor studio."

It would be indiscreet for me to pass on other revelations he gave me about the dismal strike rate Hollywood achieves. But at least I now knew the answer to a question that had often puzzled me - how did that film ever get made?

Charles Saatchi: Question, by Charles Saatchi, is published by Phaidon Press (www.phaidon.co.uk/saatchi), priced £5.95.