Saatchi CEO hits back at Unilever chairman

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BUDAPEST -- Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Worldwide Kevin Roberts has made an impassioned stand against Unilever Chairman Niall FitzGerald's famous accusation that ad agencies are fail- ing to keep up with companies' communications needs.

Mr. Roberts launched his aggressive defense at the annual conference of the European Advertising Agencies' Association annual conference in Budapest last week. It was the same platform Mr. FitzGerald had used a year earlier to deliver his attack.

As the CEO of a global Procter & Gamble agency, Mr. Roberts - in typically informal language - declared himself unconcerned that his speech was likely to send any chance of winning Unilever business "sub-zero."

Ad agencies' major contribution to a client's business is in "making magic" and in the simplicity of the consumer connections they create, Mr. Roberts said.

"We are, Mr. FitzGerald implied [in his speech last year], suffering the death of a thousand cuts delivered by management consultancies, design groups, direct marketing agencies, new media agencies and small marketing communication hot shops," Mr. Roberts said. "As I read the transcript...I found myself feeling more and more pissed off."

In fact, he declared, "the assumption that large agencies are stuck in a competitive time warp not knowing how to respond is wrong. The metaphor is wrong. We're not dinosaurs, we're Godzilla and we want it all: TV, print, bill- boards, infomercials, radio, pencils, skywriting, the Web. If it's the right medium to communicate, we'll embrace it and use it."

Mr. Roberts spelled out Saatchi's "digital smarts" - such as its ownership of new media shops and the spread of its interactive teams, its Web projects for Toyota, Hewlett Packard and General Mills, and its Web-based Innovation in Communication Award - and suggested most other agencies were just as advanced.

But, he said, new media were "not the main event" but tools to support the brand. "I'm relaxed about how to steer a large organization like Saatchi through the technology turmoil," he claimed. "The Web is only 1,500 days old... at this stage we don't have to respond to every eddy and swirl. In fact, we could tip over if we do."

The main things big business needs from its creative agencies are emotion, passion, ideas and simplicity, he said. No-one else was going to provide these essential elements for business success. "It's not their job, and besides, they're not crazies, they're not dreamers, they don't misbehave, they don't spend a lot of time looking out the window just wondering and imagineering." Creativity is a rare thing, he added. "Creative directors don't grow on trees like MBAs."

As a consumer, Mr. Roberts said what he wanted from a brand was "engagement," - dreams, memories, passion and laughter. "That's what great brands provide. And that's what the great agencies will bring to every medium and tool we touch, the Web included.

"I absolutely know I'm right about this," he concluded, should listening delegates be left in any doubt of his conviction. "I was the client for 30 years."

Copyright October 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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