Close-Up: 'Big Brother is out of the question, even for me'

An advertising legend, art aficionado and very private man, Charles Saatchi offers a rare insight into his mind in a new book.

- What was your first break in advertising?

After being rejected for a copy test by J Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather, and failing at interviews, or to even get an interview at every other agency I could think of, I managed to wriggle my way into an appointment to see Jack Stanley, the creative director of Benton & Bowles.

God knows why he agreed to see me, or what he saw in this gormless youth sat in front of him, but he was American, noted that I seemed mad about all things American, knew a little about American ads, and could start immediately.

Literally immediately, because he promptly walked me down a corridor, told me he had hired another young trainee last week, and I was to work with him. Luckily for me, the trainee was John Hegarty, and we hit it off, and even better he was very talented and I would look good bathed in his afterglow.

- Before you went into advertising, what other career did you consider?

"Consider" isn't quite how it was. At 17 and with two O levels to show after a couple of attempts, a career path wasn't realistic, nor a chat with the Christ's College careers officer, who wouldn't have recognised me in any event as my absenteeism record was unrivalled.

I answered a situations vacant ad in the Evening Standard for a voucher clerk, paying £10 a week. It was in a tiny ad agency in Covent Garden, and a voucher clerk had to traipse round all the local newspaper offices in Fleet Street, of which there were hundreds at the time, and pick up back copies of papers in which the agency's clients had an ad appearing. The voucher clerk's role was to get the paper, find the ad, stick a sticker on it so the client could then verify its appearance, and the agency could get paid. Vital work, obviously.

One of the advantages of it being a tiny agency is that one day they got desperate when their creative department (one young man) was off sick, and they asked me if I could try and make up an ad for one of their clients, Thornber Chicks. This ad was to appear in Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine, and hoped to persuade farmers to choose Thornbers because their chicks would grow to provide many cheap, superior quality eggs and a fine return.

I didn't know how you write an ad, or indeed how to write anything much other than "I will not be late for assembly", for which I had been provided much practice. So I looked through copies of Farmer and Stockbreeder and Poultry World, chose some inspiring-sounding words and phrases, cobbled them together, stuck on a headline - I think I stole it from an old American advertisement - and produced "Ask the man who owns them" as a testimonial campaign featuring beaming Thornber farmers. The client bought it.

Everyone I know in advertising talks about the era of the Collett Dickenson Pearce agency in the late 60s as the 'golden years'. Is this old men just being nostalgic?

CDP was the world's cleverest and most provocative agency that specialised in ads that actually had the public looking forward to commercial breaks. I was very lucky to get into CDP in 1966, on the coat-tails of working with Ross Cramer as an art director/copywriter team.

CDP's creative director didn't really care about me, but he wanted Ross very much, and reluctantly ended up with young Saatchi as part of the package. The creative director was the dour and reticent Colin Millward, as close to an advertising genius that Britain would produce, and with a magnificent North Country accent. He dismissed my copywriting efforts as piss-poor, but patiently helped me get better, in what became a delightful relationship.

Fortunately for me, I also found an ally in David Puttnam, a young account manager who at the time was a super-cool Paul McCartney look-a-likee, who sold my campaigns to some high-profile clients, which did me no harm at all.

As David wrote in Colin Millward's obituary in 2004, all the best creative people in advertising learnt it all from Colin, and even learnt that if you didn't really have a decent idea, give the commercial to Ridley Scott and he would turn a brainless 30 seconds into something exotic and widely admired.

Colin also knew that if you wanted some gentle English humour and a nice play-on-words in the headline ("When it rains it shines," for Ford's new super-glossy paint finish), you would go to my next-door neighbour down CDP's corridor, Alan Parker.

And if you wanted something basic and crude, you would come to me and hope for the best.

- You created Saatchi & Saatchi, which grew to become the world's biggest ad agency in the 80s. Does Mad Men capture the world of advertising accurately?

What I adored most about my ad agency was the fanatical devotion to keeping our clients happy, our desperate longing to have our campaigns succeed for them, and to win as many big accounts as possible. We were maniacally driven to impress our clientele, and if all other businesses cared as much about providing satisfaction as ad agencies, we would have no need for automated customer service helplines everywhere.

I recommend advertising to all, especially if you have no apparent academic skills. It's easy money, and whatever small abilities you have can be put to good use somewhere in an ad agency, whether it's your charm and wit for client hand-holding, technical talents suited to the complex world of media buying, or, if you must, writing slogans and soundbites for power-hungry politicians.

Mad Men seems to move at a snail's pace but its evocation of the early 60s is very nicely done. It bears no resemblance to any second that I have ever spent in advertising.

- You famously created the slogan 'Labour isn't working'. Were you a Tory? Are you a Tory?

I once also threw myself into the Health Department's anti-smoking campaign, visited emphysema wards, studied pictures of cancerous lungs, and came up with the grisliest copy I could - puffing away happily as I wrote. How sweet of you to think that advertising copy is written from the heart.

- How much television do you watch? And do you prefer Big Brother or Newsnight?

I watch hours of television. My favourites are University Challenge and Match of the Day and almost anything on the ironically named Living channel. Big Brother is out of the question, even for me.

- What would you want on your epitaph? In what terms do you think of your legacy?

Just how dull do you think I am? What kind of twat is interested in epitaphs or legacies?

This is an extract from My Name Is Charles Saatchi And I Am An Artoholic, published by Phaidon Press at £5.95.