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
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
’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
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
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
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
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
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.