HOMECOMING FOR LAING AT SAATCHI LONDON

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LONDON-It was like a clandestine affair. Jennifer Laing and Charlie Scott skulked behind a pillar at the restaurant of the Stafford Hotel for a lunch that had been arranged using code names.

That first, secret meeting a month ago between Mr. Scott, chief executive of Cordiant (as Saatchi & Saatchi Co. was renamed last week), and the chairman-CEO of Laing Henry led to Ms. Laing's appointment last week as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising's flagship office here. Her mission is to make sure clients choose to stay at Saatchi and ignore the siren song of founders and now-rivals Maurice and Charles Saatchi.

Vast media coverage has likened Ms. Laing's new job at Saatchi, where she spent 17 years before leaving in 1987 to head her own agency, to the return of the prodigal daughter.

"There's a feeling of coming home," Ms. Laing said.

Ms. Laing likes to point out that she ran Saatchi's London office more recently than the Saatchi brothers did. She was joint chairman of the London agency for seven months in 1987 with former Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising North America Chairman-CEO Bill Muirhead. She now replaces David Kershaw, former chairman-CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in London. Messrs. Muirhead and Kershaw both left in January to partner with the Saatchi brothers at the New Saatchi Agency.

The Saatchis "were a great and powerful inspiration, and they created a very enduring brand called Saatchi & Saatchi," Ms. Laing said. "But they didn't physically do it themselves; they did it behind good managers. Their physical presence was not that important."

In her climb from trainee to chairman, Ms. Laing was indoctrinated in the Saatchi philosophy, such as the brothers' catchphrase "Nothing is impossible," that she now has to perpetuate without them.

In some ways, the agency to which she returns is very different. When Ms. Laing decamped to Leo Burnett Co. as group account director in 1979 for two years, then-Saatchi Chairman Sir Tim Bell lured her back with a shiny red Ferrari. Sir Tim is now Maurice Saatchi's spokesman, and in these more austere times, Saatchi can only offer her a Toyota, a Saatchi client, and a not outrageous $280,000 salary.

The wooing of Ms. Laing was a long process because she was reluctant to leave her agency, Laing Henry. In the end, Saatchi had to buy it, for $1.8 million. Hard-working and skilled in client relationships, Ms. Laing is a popular choice for the chairman's job. The most negative comment about her has been that she's "a safe choice," a departure from the Saatchi propensity-at least under the brothers-to amaze and astound whenever possible.

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