Close-Up: Newsmaker - How will losing its star player affect Saatchis?

The agency must prepare for another change in management after Manchester United signs Lee Daley.

Lee Daley's advice to anyone thinking of starting a business is to look at religion or football because "you have a customer base who will believe in your proposition until the day they die".

It doesn't appear that the former Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive and chairman will be donning a dog collar any time soon. But with his new role as the global commercial director at Manchester United, Daley will be fully indoctrinated into the church of football.

As a United fan who, like most of his contemporaries, grew up at least 100 miles from Old Trafford (Grimsby, to be precise), he says he thinks the game has changed so much that the global commercial opportunities available make the offer "too good to turn down".

A couple of decades ago, the world of professional football - a working-class sport with an unsavoury reputation for terrace violence - was a million miles away from that bastion of Thatcherite capitalism, the advertising industry. But all that has changed, and the game is arguably now more about big business than sport.

"This is true, but it's still the fans who are important," Daley says. "It's about reaching the people who have this all-engulfing passion and letting them feel the power and the buzz that supporting Manchester United provides.

"Advertising has given me a unique understanding of emotional attachment, and I now have lots of ideas for pushing the club forward, from original content to online communities and mobile content."

Daley leaves Saatchis at a time when the agency is struggling to maintain the momentum that has kept it close to the top. Last week's report that it had dropped out of the advertising billings top ten, as measured by Nielsen Media Research, will have come as an blow. However, Richard Hytner, the deputy chairman of Saatchis Europe, says: "Billings are as outmoded as some creative awards. The margins we have now are much bigger than before Lee started, and we have a number of new revenue streams that are fattening the bottom line."

Daley's exit after just over two years in the role is the latest in a line of top-brass changes at Saatchis.

"There was a string of incoherent and almost inexplicable chief executive appointments that softened the agency and left it floundering without a direction or a plan," one former senior employee says.

Since Adam Crozier left to head the Football Association in 1999, the agency has employed four chief executives: Tamara Ingram, James Hall, Kevin Dundas and Daley.

Another former employee adds: "Before the sale, there was a magic feeling about Saatchis. There was a state of communist competitiveness that just isn't there any more."

However, the Saatchis global management is convinced this has changed. "Lee not only created an environment that feels like it did 17 years ago when I started, but he's created a blueprint for a successful creative agency that we'll be following around Europe with other Saatchis agencies," Hytner says.

Daley affirms this, but agrees that there were problems with the management set-up and the direction of the agency when he joined.

"It was living in the shadow of its own greatness. The agency wasn't looking at the future and was still linked to its glitzy past. The network management was looking for a solution, but had no idea what it was. There was also a lack of strong leadership. They had not pitched for about five years, so just didn't know how to do it. The staff needed empowering."

A big challenge for him was to get on pitchlists, but in 2005, he and his team pitched for six pieces of business and missed out on all of them. "I started to have a crisis of confidence because my personal strike-rate had always been so good. I was convinced it was me," Daley says.

As well as redirecting the UK agency, part of his remit was to push it in new directions, something he did with varying success.

In 2005, he launched industry@Saatchi, a strategic consultancy arm, and Gum, a branded content business. As a result, Daley faced criticism that he was focusing on side-projects and had taken his eye off the main agency, a factor which may have accounted for the low pitch strike-rate during his reign.

Daley thinks this is a little unfair: "I was charged with building a diverse agency - Gum and industry have totally unique business plans that needed creating from nothing. It wasn't that I had taken my eye off of the main agency, it was that we needed to get back into pitching - and we did that. We just struggled to convert."

However, late in 2006, Sony Ericsson handed the agency its £80 million account. "We turned a corner. Events like just missing out on the Post Office and Chiquita bananas was making me a bit mental, so that was a huge relief," he says.

This sort of passion for the industry has led to a huge polarising of opinion on Daley, and he's made friends and enemies in equal numbers throughout his career.

He started in advertising in 1986 at WCRS, then spent six years travelling around the industry before jetting off to New York in 1993 to work on global strategy at McCann Erickson. In 1994, he joined up with a group of creatives, including the Mother founding partner Mark Waites, to launch a McCann-backed hotshop, Amster Yard. He ran that for four years, building its billings to $300 million globally before moving back to Europe in 1999 to be the chief strategy officer for McCann. By 2001, he was set to join Leo Burnett as the head of Europe, but was convinced by Sir Martin Sorrell to bring some stability to WPP's Red Cell network.

For everyone who says he's an intelligent operator who gets the most out of people, there is someone else who will say how his boundless energy and ideas cause him to alienate people.

Andy Berlin, who worked with him at Red Cell, says: "He's extremely intelligent, energetic and passionate. I'd describe him as maniacally dedicated." However, a former employee of Daley's picks up on the "maniacally dedicated" as more of a drawback: "It's not that Lee is not dedicated - he's a real workaholic who can be extremely inspirational - but he was often very hard to get through to. He has a lot of energy that never seemed to be directed; this led to him making a lot of knee-jerk emotional reactions that caused problems."

Yet none of this stopped Kevin Roberts, Saatchis' worldwide chief executive, in his increasingly fervent attempts to hire Daley. On their first meeting, he called Bob Isherwood, the agency's international creative director, and told him to lock and bar the door so Daley couldn't leave the building until he'd signed the contract. "They then followed me to Rome with a contract. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the entire agency in Charlotte Street," he claims.

Daley is convinced his new role does not mean he will be leaving advertising: he fully intends to milk both his experience and his contacts from the industry to push United in new directions. However, with tough targets, a revenue-obsessed board and millions of fans to please, it may be a harder task than turning around Saatchi & Saatchi.

THE LOWDOWN

Career high: Running Amster Yard in New York. In my early thirties, running a baby operation in a brownstone in New York, surrounded by brilliant creative people, breaking all the rules, doing what we believed to be right and winning lots of business.

Most-admired creatives: Lee Clow and Mark Waites. Of those I have worked with, Jeff Weiss, Andy Berlin and Waites. Brilliant and unique talents creatively. But, I would add Sir Martin Sorrell and John Dooner as businessmen and leaders.

Biggest party animal: Guy Seese, the former executive creative director for Cole & Weber/Red Cell in Seattle.

Worst professional mistake: Turning down John Wren when I could have worked directly for him at Omnicom. Pathetically bad decision.

Arch-nemesis: No-one, really.