Feature

Fear, loathing and inadequate toilet facilities: the birth of Zenith

It took two years of criticism and obstruction before John Perriss' memo to Maurice Saatchi, proposing a centralised, global media-buying operation, was finally acted on and changed adland forever.

Fear, loathing and inadequate toilet facilities: the birth of Zenith

Monday 10 October 1988 wasn’t the most auspicious opening day for Zenith Media. Its headquarters, dubbed "The shed in Paddington", seemed a summation of the indifference – and often downright hostility – that greeted the agency’s arrival.

Bridge House was low-rent by every definition. Harsh strip-lighting illuminated bare walls, there was no air conditioning, dust from building work covered the desks and the loo provision was totally inadequate for the 140 staff moving in.

To make matters worse, Paddington was far from the regenerated glass and stainless-steel business hub it is today. The area was rundown, with drug dealers and prostitutes doing business on its streets.

"On the first day, Maurice Saatchi and Bill Muirhead came over with cases of beer [for] a welcome drink – they never came back," Steve King, then Zenith group media head, now global chief executive of Publicis Media, later recalled. "That was indicative of what they thought of the place."

Nevertheless, it was a day John Perriss, one-time Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide media director, despaired might never come. While he wasn’t the father of the media agency concept, it was he who masterminded the first specialist media operation to be established by a traditional ad-agency holding company.

He’d concluded that the days of having media and creative under one roof were ending. The Saatchi group could either jump aboard the oncoming bandwagon or be crushed by it.

It was largely down to Perriss’ tenacity that Zenith – born out of the media departments of Saatchi & Saatchi and the Saatchi group-owned agencies Dorlands, KHBB and Ted Bates – saw the light of day.

Maurice – 'quickly bored by detail and process', according to Perriss – responded with: 'Marvellous, John. Let’s just do it'

In the UK, agency chiefs simply ignored his proposals. Their US counterparts intimated that he could shove his ideas where the sun didn’t shine. Carl Spielvogel, boss of Backer & Spielvogel, was bluntest of all. He told Perriss: "If you think it’s such a great idea, why not go fuck up in your own backyard first."

Charles Saatchi lost all interest on hearing Zenith wouldn’t be called Saatchi & Saatchi Media Buying.

Indeed, such was the procrastination Perriss encountered that he was forced to give his bosses an ultimatum. They could either trial his idea in the UK or accept his resignation.

Perriss began evolving his case for marcoms companies to establish their own media brands when he saw the breakneck speed at which his own group had grown. In 1985 it had acquired 13 companies. The following year there were 80 subsidiaries, with billings totalling $3.2bn. Yet there were no clear plans for integrating and managing these units to benefit clients.

Procter & Gamble, a major Saatchi group client, was among those advertisers questioning the need for networks to operate separately under a holding company umbrella if they weren’t going to work together to satisfy client needs.

It was against this backdrop that Perriss wrote a memo to Maurice, the then Saatchi group chairman, proposing "the consolidation of all the communications division’s media expenditure into one centralised media-buying operation worldwide or regionally".

He went on to list the potential advantages – from more media-buying clout to the chances of winning business from non-agency clients and having the resources to deal with changing and expanding media opportunities.

Maurice – "quickly bored by detail and process", according to Perriss – responded with: "Marvellous, John. Let’s just do it."

This was easier said than done. Perriss found himself having to win support for Zenith within a group that was beginning to implode and where morale was sinking.

He later recalled: "I was selling the idea to people who, although recently made multimillionaires by the Saatchis’ largesse with shareholders’ money, increasingly saw me and the plan as something else from these remote, aloof people who they never got to see or talk with."

Other problems compounded the challenge for Perriss. The profitability of many European agencies was down to the receipt of rebates and volume discounts not always disclosed to clients; in the US, any weakening of management’s control over accounts was anathema, and unbundled media became known as "the European disease".

As a result, it would be two years from when Perriss wrote his memo to Maurice that Roy Warman and Terry Bannister, joint chief executives of the communications division, told the London group agency heads that a centralised media operation would launch within three months.

The news provoked an avalanche of criticism from adland. Some branded it a con-trick. Mike Townsin, then GGK’s chairman, wrote in Campaign: "At best it will compromise the quality of advertising planning, at worst, it opens the door to media broking."

Senior managers in agency media departments were resistant to transfer to Zenith, fearful that their salaries and status would be affected.

Perriss thought the answer was to bring in outside leadership to avoid factional friction. The answer came in the person of Ray Morgan, who had set up a Zenith-like operation by rebranding the Benton & Bowles media department as Mercury Media Service.

Despite having a management style that sometimes bordered on the eccentric, Morgan was a key figure in moving media away from its laddish culture and wheeler-dealer reputation.

Appalled by the botched 1985 merger between B&B and D’Arcy McManus Masius, Morgan and his senior staff had quit to form Ray Morgan & Partners, taking £60m of billings with them.

In August 1988, RMP was acquired by the Saatchi group, allowing Morgan and his respected lieutenants, Christine Walker and Derrick Southon, to form the nucleus of the Zenith management.

Twelve years later, Zenith entered a new chapter when Saatchi & Saatchi was bought by Publicis Groupe and merged with Publicis-owned Optimedia under Perriss’ leadership. The marriage wasn’t entirely comfortable and Perriss left in 2004, having fallen out with Publicis boss Maurice Lévy.

His legacy, however, is assured. Not only did Zenith’s launch put media on an equal footing with creative but it was the catalyst to the unbundling of media and creative, which changed advertising fundamentally.

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