Close-Up: Profile - Saatchis London takes a leap into the unknown

A stranger to these shores, is Michael Rebelo fit to return Saatchi & Saatchi London to its former glory, Kunal Dutta asks.

When one of London's most flamboyant chief executives sets about hiring a managing director for the world's most famous advertising agency, the stage should be set for pyrotechnics (especially if you use the amount of industry speculation and gossip as a barometer for interest).

So you couldn't help feel a sense of anti-climax when Saatchi & Saatchi announced that the managing director of its London office, one of the most hotly anticipated hirings of recent times and six months in the making, was Michael Rebelo, the chief executive of Saatchis' Singapore office.

While Robert Senior, the chief executive of SSF Group, concedes the hiring took "a little longer than hoped", he is unapologetic about the name itself. "I could have pulled a famous name out of Pixar Productions or Dreamworks that would have crackled headlines all over the world," he reflects. "But this is not a time for experiments."

Instead, he points to Rebelo's highly respected reputation in Asia-Pacific, the critical importance of a cohesive management team, and network talent that understands the Saatchis brand without "being weighed down by London's baggage".

Since joining the Singapore office in 2005, Rebelo has been instrumental in reigniting the agency's reputation as an Asia- Pacific creative powerhouse.

Indeed, the agency's halcyon days had ended ever since Dave Droga, its star creative director, mirrored Rebelo's move from Saatchis Singapore to London, also as a little-known name, in 1999. In the five years that followed, the agency had been sailing on a relatively flat trajectory.

By the time Rebelo, an 11-year Saatchis veteran, arrived in Singapore from its Sydney office in 2005, the agency had dropped from being the biggest in the Asia-Pacific region to a dismal 14th position in billings, had lost its flagship HP account and was down to a handful of clients.

Three years under Rebelo and the transformation is clear. Today, the 110-strong agency has sharpened its offering across all media, winning a number of high-profile pitches including United Overseas Bank, Tiger Beer and ESPN.

The agency has also been able to attract talent from across the globe and has garnered a substantial amount of awards. Last year, it finished as the 13th most-awarded agency in The Gunn Report, the fourth-most awarded agency at Cannes and was awarded "Agency of the Year" by the magazines Campaign Brief Asia, Marketing (in Asia) and Ad Asia, and the region's trade body, the Institute of Advertising Singapore.

Senior is hopeful that this sort of turnaround is something that can be replicated on these shores - albeit on a bigger canvas, with almost three times the headcount and a historical legacy that holds its performance to account.

He stresses the importance of building a creative-driven management team, using the Publicis sister agency Fallon as a benchmark of the success that can follow if the combination is right.

"If you think about what's right for SSF, you want to feel like there's a similar gene pool of talent (to Fallon's) that is focused on the work," he says.

Rebelo completes a new Senior-styled team that includes Kate Stanners, Paul Silburn, her joint creative partner, and Richard Huntingdon (he was previously at United), who joined as the head of strategy last year.

The chemistry generated between the partners is something that has pushed Rebelo ahead of other candidates. "What unifies all of us is that we really want this to work," he says. "We want it to be the epicentre and inspiration for the network that attracts the best business globally."

But will the charismatic Australian be able to work his magic in London? Saatchis has been without a dedicated chief executive since Lee Daley left to join Manchester United last February.

Since then, its performance has been inconsistent. It has seen its grip on Toyota being loosened by CHI & Partners. It won a metaphorical battle by picking up the Labour Party account last summer, but had a bad start to 2008 by losing the £80 million Sony Ericsson account to McCann Erickson.

Rebelo is under no illusion about the challenges he faces. "Saatchis London was once the creative and thought-leadership centre that brewed magic and mystique that permeated across the network," he says. "But, of late, it hasn't delivered in any of those."

But he remains open-minded about how valuable his Saatchis heritage is, having worked in the network's Sydney, Vietnam and Wellington offices, before joining Singapore in 2005: "It's not like I have Saatchis tattooed on my right arm, but the fundamental belief and attitude in the brickwork at Charlotte Street still holds true."

And with creativity instrumental to Senior's vision of restoring Saatchis to full health, Rebelo's reputation for instilling that very culture in Singapore and putting creative work at the top of his management agenda is perhaps why Senior is making no secret of the fact that Rebelo could be a chief executive-in-waiting.

Steve Carlin, an art director who worked with him in Sydney, recalls: "Rebelo is one of these rare breeds of suits that creatives want on their side. He takes full ownership of ideas and is constantly thinking about new ways to sell unconventional creative work to the client."

And don't be fooled by the smiling shots of Rebelo that were splashed across the media - you don't get nicknamed The Wolf for nothing. Another creative who has worked with him warns of a "fiery Antipodean instinct" that comes to the surface when it needs to.

Despite this, Rebelo will not be ringing in the changes with bluster: "I'm going in with an open mind, devoid of conclusions or assumptions. My focus in the first three months is to spend time with the clients and the people and understand the issues behind why we're not delivering and then address that with the team going forward."

He adds: "I'm a firm believer that if we have the right people in the right positions focused on developing astonishing work, this should fast-track the change required."

He admits to being quietly optimistic about the role, despite London's reputation as a hostile environment: "I'm confident in my ethics and opinion. My style has worked so far, and that's why Robert's asked me to come on board in London. And if that's not enough, then we'll just have to see."


- Matthew Bull, global creative director, Lowe Worldwide

"London remains the most advanced market in the business. The downside is the bitchy nature of the industry. Keep your profile low and the work's profile high. People need to feel you're committed to the job at hand and won't head home at the drop of a hat. The best piece of advice I got was: 'If you can't change something, change your attitude.' You won't change London, but London will change you."

- Brett Gosper, chairman and president, McCann Erickson EMEA

"London is the hardest place to lead in because it's a pretty cynical and tough environment, where you can find yourself under far greater peer scrutiny than any other market. Creatives tend to have a lot more power in the UK market than others, and if you stumble in the way you manage them, you'll be finished."

- Hamish McLennan, chairman and chief executive, Young & Rubicam

"Coming in as an outsider at such a senior level, you're going to have to make tough decisions and people understand that. But, in some ways, it can be easier because you are not influenced by heritage and legacy and can be more dispassionate about it. There are three key pieces of advice: call those tough decisions confidently, trust your gut and hire well."

- Brendan Tansey, chief executive, Wunderman UK

"London has an interesting mixture of great brands, big budgets and the opportunity to do local and global work. On the surface of things, the UK and other markets are very similar. But don't be lulled into a false sense of security by veneers in familiarity, discover what's beneath that and then draw it into your work."