‘We are best as outsiders’: Saatchi & Saatchi’s plan to open up the agency and industry

The agency's leadership team aims to bring some 'chutzpah' to its talent recruitment and open the industry's doors to more diverse people.

‘We are best as outsiders’: Saatchi & Saatchi’s plan to open up the industry

In any other year, the 50th anniversary of the UK’s most famous ad agency might have been cause for a grand celebration, where industry elite would have rubbed shoulders at a London venue to toast the achievements of a half-century of advertising. 

But 2020 has brought a global pandemic, economic recession and the Black Lives Matter movement, with many of society’s inequities laid bare. No parties, champagne toasts or any other signs of excess that were traditionally associated with London’s advertising scene. For Saatchi & Saatchi, as with numerous other businesses, this year has prompted a period of soul-searching.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s anniversary also comes soon after the agency refreshed its leadership team. In July, it promoted Sam Hawkey from chief operating officer to chief executive. Sarah Jenkins joined as managing director at the end of 2019 and Guillermo Vega is in his second year as chief creative officer – working alongside longtime chairman and chief strategy officer Richard Huntington. 

The new cohort is keen to put their own stamp on the storied agency brand and give true meaning to its long-running motto, “Nothing is impossible”. To do this, it is shaking up business as usual with an unconventional approach to talent recruitment and retention.

“We’ve got to be louder and we've got to use the brand to do something,” Hawkey says. “We're duty bound to do something bigger with ‘Nothing's impossible’. Right now, more than ever, everyone can do with that belief.”

Returning to 'outsider' roots

To many ears, “Nothing is impossible” will sound like just another marketing platitude, so it is useful to unpick what the Saatchi leadership team means by those words. As they formed their vision for the future, they went back to the agency’s roots.  

In 1970, Charles and Maurice Saatchi, two Iraqi-Jewish brothers in their 20s, founded Saatchi & Saatchi with “an outsiders’ marauding attitude,” as Jeremy Sinclair, one of their business partners, said to Campaign in a September interview. The book published in 2017 about the pair’s success and unorthodox business approach is entitled Chutzpah & Chutzpah

Fifty years later, Hawkey would like the agency to reclaim that “chutzpah” attitude: “Chutzpah essentially means audacity and bravery, and it's a good word for what Saatchi at its best does. The fundamental way to position ourselves is our belief that you need creative ideas, and creative ideas should govern businesses, inspire them and take them to new places.”

Hawkey now describes the leadership team as having more of a “start-up mentality”, pointing out that he has never run an agency before and Jenkins and Vega are also fresh blood. To Huntington, adopting such a mentality means finally “understanding our legacy properly”.

“We’re founded by two Iraqi Jewish immigrant brothers with an odd name, who didn't really understand how British advertising was supposed to work – they broke it all apart. The thing I've always felt is that when we see ourselves as outsiders, we are at our very best,” Huntington says. “That's why you believe ‘nothing is impossible’ – because you don't really know what it’s supposed to be.”

It is notable that when discussing the agency’s heritage, the leaders focus on the founders’ “outsider” status. The brothers may have been so to begin with, but the business they built went on to become part of adland’s establishment. Removed from the startups that have shaken up the industry over the past decade – from Adam & Eve to Uncommon Creative Studio – Saatchi & Saatchi has sat beneath the Publicis Groupe umbrella since 2000, churning out solid work from its big Chancery Lane headquarters for the likes of BT, EE, Direct Line and Deutsche Telekom. 

Transforming culture

Over its long history, being part of the “establishment” has also had some impact on the agency’s culture. At its worst, copywriter Mary Wear, speaking to Campaign in a 2018 interview, described the Saatchis environment when she worked there in the 1990s as a “boys’ club”, “a machine” and “quite old-fashioned”.

When Jenkins was considering the job offer from Saatchis last year, remnants of this image still lingered and a few industry peers warned her against the company’s culture. While she says she has only found “generosity, support and energy” since arriving, part of her remit was “to help open up our agency and find a way to supercharge talent”.

“I reckon if you go back and look at this agency’s good and bad times, the bad times would have been when we didn't let people in, when we were a boys’ club, or when it was very white, posh and contrived. I bet when you go through all the good bits, it’s when it opened up and worked out how to get talent in and keep them in as well,” Jenkins says. “So we're creating a culture of belonging and trying to bring some of that ‘chutzpah’ to how we approach talent. There’s a lot to do.”

Jenkins says that Saatchis needs to help “make the industry more open”, too. Advertising is notorious for its elitism and lack of diversity. It is the sixth-most-elitist industry in the UK, according to Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s 2019 book The Class Ceiling. Meanwhile, the IPA Agency Census in April found that the number of employees from black, Asian and minority-ethnic backgrounds in UK agencies has fallen at each of the three most senior levels over the past year. 

Diversity was already a buzzword in advertising and Hawkey says that plans had been in the works to address this within Saatchis. Then this summer, the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests provided “a massive steroid injection,” Jenkins says. 

As the BLM movement exposed inequities across society and business, adland came under the spotlight, too. In June, more than 200 advertising and media leaders signed an open letter pledging to take action against racism and inequality. For some, it was an empty gesture: “I’d like to know why it has taken a man to die, a world to protest and an online movement telling you black lives matter for you to consider that black talent is worth investing in,” Shanice Mears, co-founder of The Elephant Room, wrote at the time. 

Since then, some agencies have made efforts to stay true to their pledge. After holding workshops with staff, Saatchis developed a three-part initiative to “attack systemic prejudice and racism,” Jenkins says. She is careful that there be “nothing floaty or stunted about what we're doing. It’s sustainable, it’s measurable and it's going to be open – we’ll be open about our success and failures.”

Improving diversity and social mobility

Saatchis’ reckoning is significant because, as the most famous UK agency brand – recognisable even to members of the general public – its actions may serve as a kind of benchmark for the rest of the industry. Once the establishment moves, it could have a ripple effect on how other businesses conduct themselves.

The agency’s plan is this. First, Saatchi Ignite is its new schools programme launching this year in which the company will partner Harris Academy Greenwich, part of the Harris Federation which is one of the largest academy networks in London, to develop a programme introducing students from years seven to 13 to careers in the creative industries. Saatchis’ seven-year commitment to the school will provide curriculum learning, digital and in-person resources, career information and mentoring. All materials will be available to other schools and students who want to learn from them. 

This programme was inspired by the fact that for many kids in the UK, “you don’t even know that [creative careers] are an option,” Huntington explains. “Our education system is all about giving the right answer in the right way – it's so structured. But ours is an entire industry where there aren’t qualifications, it’s a place for self-expression and individualism, and actually the people with the weird ideas are often the most successful.”

Second, Saatchi Open aims to offer more flexibility and autonomy to entry-level talent. Starting in 2021 and running for the next four years, the agency will recruit six creative entrepreneurs of any age each year and provide them with mentoring, business planning support, commercial backing and access to clients and their briefs. Candidates will then have the opportunity to build their own venture within the Saatchi network. 

“It recognises that not every entry-level talent wants to work in a big network agency for the next 20 years. We’ve got a generation of entrepreneurs and brilliant smart minds that might want to build their own thing,” Jenkins says.

Saatchi Open would mean “they come in for a year or two, we take them through foundational learning, then they can walk out and start Saatchi & Saatchi Peckham or Swansea. Our ambition is to grow them up, and then they can go off and do their own thing. That type of commitment with our name and brand is a really powerful thing,” Hawkey says. “We talk about being the biggest start-up in the world, and if we had all of these people in our network, we could end up with 24 mini-Saatchis all over the country.” 

Open will collaborate with organisations such as Brixton Finishing School and Commercial Break, as well as Publicis Groupe’s Open Apprenticeship scheme, to discover talent. Saatchi clients, including Direct Line, BT and EE, have already committed to supporting the candidates and giving them briefs each year. 

Finally, Saatchi Home is a partnership with the London Hostel Association to offer affordable accomodation in London zones one to three to interns, the Open participants and junior staff below a certain salary cap. Home has three tiers, with some interns receiving free rent and Open employees and junior staff getting subsidised or preferred rates on accommodation. It is aimed at ensuring that the high cost of accomodation in London is not a barrier to talent breaking into the industry. 

Along with these initiatives, Saatchis and the rest of Publicis Groupe UK are collecting ethnicity data across the group and plan to reveal its BAME pay gap later this year.

Laying foundations for the next 50 years

Vega says that these plans, which are aimed at improving diversity, are “absolutely key to tapping into talent and making it work for us… This should be normal behaviour.”

For a long time, however, such actions have not been normal within advertising, and along with fostering inequalities, it has also resulted in an industry that often fails to connect with the public. A recent study from Reach Solutions, The Aspiration Window, found that the ad industry is woefully out of step with some of the values and priorities of ordinary consumers.

Saatchis has woken up to that, and as Huntington puts it: “All of this is in pursuit of work that connects more effectively with the people we’re trying to serve.”

Hawkey adds: “This is good for us as a business and it is good for them [the talent]. This has to make us better, so we make better work and win more business – and it is also the right thing to do.”

Somewhere along the way, Saatchis had lost sight of this – as did the rest of the ad industry. But if the leadership team’s new vision goes according to plan, the results will be bigger than just one agency boosting its reputation, business and creativity. It will also prove that bringing in more diverse talent – and giving them a reason to stay – should have been core to the industry all along. 

Jenkins says: “We can’t celebrate the launch, we’ve got to celebrate the impact.”

(Photo credit: Matt Crossick)