For a man who has never even run an agency, Bob Seelert is sanguine
about his succession to Maurice Saatchi’s old throne. Can he stop
Cordiant being an also-ran?
As 1994 moved into 1995, a 52-year-old Connecticut businessman was in
London trying to pull off a deal which would acquire for the consortium
he led the worldwide Tetley tea and coffee business from Allied Domecq.
During this time the business press he consumed was filled daily with
the extraordinary travails of an adman named Maurice Saatchi as he tried
and failed to keep control of the company he had founded with his
Bob Seelert read the papers with incredulity - his natural inclination
was to sympathise with the brothers. He had spent 28 years as a client,
most notably at General Foods, where he controlled a dollars 2 billion
advertising budget, 60 brands including Maxwell House, Kenco and Jello,
and seven agencies. He knew of the Saatchis by reputation, if not in
person, and devoured the stories.
The Tetley bid failed and he returned to Connecticut, abandoning plans
for a mid-Atlantic lifestyle. Then he had a phone call from the Saatchi
and Saatchi holding company asking if he would be interested in
succeeding as chairman to the man he had been reading about.
Many would have turned the job down. Let’s be honest, the future looked
bleak. Some serious advertising talent had just walked out of the door
at the Saatchi agency network, followed by clients such as British
Airways and Mars, which quit both Saatchis and the second BSB network,
accounting for a total of 6 per cent of the group’s income.
The saga was in the papers every day as a result of some exemplary spin-
doctoring by two acknowledged masters of the craft, Maurice Saatchi and
his former employee, Sir Tim Bell. There were question marks over some
of the remaining clients and staff.
Seelert had been in similar situations before - although none with
anything like the public profile. Since leaving General Foods in 1989 he
had turned around two relatively small US companies; the Topco own-label
manufacturer and the Kayser-Roth hosiery company. He told friends who
said he was mad that he thought the Saatchis job would be ‘challenging,
invigorating and a bit of a hoot’.
‘Overpaid and over here’ read the Times leader headline about the
announcement. Seelert walked straight into the eye of a spin-doctored
storm about his pounds 503,000 salary - considerably more than the
ousted Maurice. Anticipating the storm he was very upfront about his
salary, although he admits now that back home, the press was puzzled as
to why he even mentioned it. Fat cats sup easily in the US. ‘It’s a
pittance, a mere bagatelle alongside Martin Sorrell’s,’ he quips.
It was just one of the many lessons that Seelert, who, like his
chairman, Charles Scott, had never worked in an ad agency, was forced to
absorb quickly. With every M&C Saatchi success being positioned as one
in the eye for the newly christened Cordiant, Seelert’s was a baptism of
A year and a bit later, Seelert has lost none of his optimism. Having
delivered a pounds 15.5 million half-year profit in August, and with
margins improving - albeit from a low base - he is able to joke about
changing all the red pens to black.
He gesticulates expansively as he laughs, and well he might, because
there’s plenty of room. We are chatting in the sixth floor suite of
rooms at Charlotte Street that Maurice and Charles re-created
painstakingly (with the aid of Polaroids) to look like their previous
Berkeley Square offices when they were forced reluctantly to ‘return
All is grey and white and serene. It is hard to say which is more
impressive, the art (Seelert doesn’t know what he’s got hanging on the
walls) or the magnificent plants. There’s a round table with awkwardly
cheaper-looking black chairs. This is Seelert’s only mark; he removed
the grandiose square table and huge chairs. Across the hallway is
Charles’s office - Scott, that is. It’s busier than it used to be here,
but we’re not talking about a hive of activity.
Seelert is praising the Saatchi brothers. Gesturing out of the window at
McCann-Erickson’s Howland Street offices across the road, he says: ‘If I
were to go downstairs in this building among the 450 staff, I bet I
couldn’t find ten who would want to work over there. That’s a tribute to
the Saatchi culture, and it explains why this place lives on although
the founders have gone.’
Raymond Rubicam and Leo Burnett have long since died, but their agencies
thrive in their likeness, Seelert argues, and the Saatchi and Saatchi
agency will do the same. The staff have been sprinkled with the
brothers’ magic dust. As long as it concentrates on the real battle, by
which Seelert means, to be one (or with Bates, two) of the dozen major
global players, and not be distracted by continuing comparisons with M&C
‘My view is different from everyone else’s,’ Seelert says. ‘I wasn’t a
part of what happened. There’s a big world out there - we dance on a
worldwide stage. M&C will probably have some significant success in the
UK, but it’s essentially a UK-based agency that happens to serve British
Airways on a worldwide basis. I never felt one’s success was intertwined
with the other’s failure. But that was the way they set it up.
‘We had this hands-off agreement initially, and everyone here was
running around saying wait till January, more clients and staff will
leave. But while others had sleepless nights, I slept like a baby in
December. This is the most thoroughly reviewed and thought-about agency
in the world. Every client, every employee must have asked the question,
‘Will I stay?’ The die was cast.’
Seelert’s client experience has stood him in good stead over the past
year. He says he has been able to achieve ‘instant simpatico’ with key
clients, but has had to learn to adjust to a business where the assets
walk in through the door in the morning and walk out again at night.
Tellingly, he says he never thought about how agencies managed their
talent when he was a client. He just wanted people who could generate
ideas. Now he has some 10,300 staff in 336 offices around 87 countries.
He points out that of the 10,900 staff at the time of the Maurice
affair, only 90 walked out, and most of them were in London.
‘As an ex-client I was surprised clients left to the extent they did.
I’d have asked, ‘Who’s doing the work?’. Procter and Gamble stuck by
this company very strongly. Why? They knew the thousand people on their
business around the world. There was concern when the senior management
Seelert highlights the difference between perception in the UK and the
US. He ackowledges that the much talked-of Saatchi culture was slow to
grow in the merged agencies, Compton and Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, that
now form Saatchi and Saatchi and in the combined Backer Spielvogel and
‘Watching that as a client I thought: ‘That’s crazy, they’re different
cultures.’ But time heals all wounds. Clients bind you together. As
people like Bill Muirhead and Alan Bishop [the former and current ceo of
Saatchis’ US operation respectively] go to the US they expand the
culture. Over time it gets inculcated.’
Saatchis, according to Seelert, enjoys a 50-50 split between
international revenues from the likes of P&G, Toyota and Hewlett
Packard, and local revenues. He believes this is healthy for its
Bates, on the other hand, in the wake of its Mars loss, has only about
15 per cent international account revenue (BAT being the largest
client), although it is generally thought to have a fine collection of
individual agencies, such as Dorlands here, Delvico in Spain and
Patterson in Australia. It is hard to know what the Bates culture is. To
be honest, the Saatchi brothers never showed much interest in it.
For once Seelert lets his guard slip. ‘The Bates people saw their
treatment as not even-handed in the past, and it wasn’t,’ he says. ‘This
all stems from the name. It caused client consternation. When Bates won
Compaq in Europe the headline in the US was Saatchis wins Compaq. This
was news to Saatchis’ Hewlett Packard client.’
He avers he will not sell Bates. And, yes, Bates is a great new-business
opportunity - if there was any new business going. There has only been
one genuinely global pitch to date this year - Schick, and Bates was
beaten to that by Sorrell who offered to mix and match J. Walter
Thompson and Ogilvy and Mather offices around the world as appropriate.
Seelert stresses the need for patience, but admits he did look at
acquiring BDDP, pulling out because of client conflict and a failure to
see how the BDDP management could be accommodated within the Cordiant
set-up. Short term, new business will come from local wins.
What Cordiant really needs for both networks is more work from existing
clients such as its recent extra Tide business from P&G in North
America. It is the most realistic way Seelert can hope to improve
margins from the 6 per cent he inherited at Cordiant to the industry
average of almost 12 per cent.
As a former client he is exceptionally well placed to know how the
industry got itself into the margin conundrum: how to persuade clients
to pay agencies for services they have been accustomed to receiving for
free, and for which they pay the likes of management consultancies?
‘At General Foods, we’d have an NPD project, and it would be assigned to
one of the roster agencies. We’d say, ‘We’ve got a positioning and a
product; now we just need a name.’ The agency would come back with a
dozen which they’d whittled down from 500, out of which they’d present
their top three and we’d say thank you. If you called Siegal and Gale
[a Cordiant-owned design group] they’d say ‘fine...for dollars 200,000;
call McKinsey’s, and it’s fine...dollars 300,000’.’
The only way forward for agencies that Seelert can see is to set up
other companies. It will take some serious management talent to achieve.
Seelert has already had his fingers burned in that respect. In August
John Fitzgerald, brought in to succeed Ed Wax at the Saatchis network,
left after reading about his departure in the press, and just seven
months after joining. Apparently, the former McCanns man rubbed too many
Saatchis managers up the wrong way.
This affable American businessman relishes such challenges. One senses
he is not in advertising for the long term, but that he is treating
Cordiant as just another business problem waiting to be solved. Purists
may chafe, but the financial community - which is Scott’s and his
responsibility after all - appears relieved.
Cordiant is not going down the tubes. Buoyed by P&G, it is one of the
top five agency groups - but it is in danger of being what Saatchi and
Saatchi never was: an also-ran. Its agencies have big client holes to
fill, and it’s not clear where the new business will come from. One
can’t discount the possibility that Maurice and co will come back for
more one day - perhaps for the group itself. It is a situation that now
calls for a bit more than charm and a safe pair of hands. It is time to
see if Seelert is capable of sprinkling a little magic dust himself.