COULD THINK TANK BE NEXT FOR SAATCHI? SNUBBED AGENCY FOUNDER NEARS DECISION TIME

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Maurice Saatchi, arguably the adman with the biggest headache these days, is considering an innovative venture to cure marketers' miseries.

Saatchi watchers told Advertising Age the options Mr. Saatchi was mulling last week included creating a think tank-type communications company. Mr. Saatchi would use his connections and problem-solving abilities to deal with forward-looking issues for clients such as changing technology.

Ousted as Saatchi & Saatchi Co. chairman, Mr. Saatchi has a Jan. 3 deadline to decide whether to become chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide.

"He's very intrigued with this idea," said one observer of the think tank concept. "It's his first choice. He loves the idea of challenging the status quo, and he has been frustrated by the fact that the Saatchi agency has become conventional, part of the establishment and unable to take risks."

The new entity, which would also include Mr. Saatchi's brother Charles, would provide ideas that could be distributed globally by a larger agency network.

Maurice Saatchi has spent the last few weeks exploring all his options, including accepting the ad chairman's post; setting up a conventional agency; or becoming affiliated with another network. It wasn't clear how firm the Saatchi board was about the Jan. 3 deadline.

The board on Dec. 16 voted to strip him of a board post and the holding company chairmanship, and to strike his name from the holding company (AA, Dec. 19).

Mr. Saatchi's apparent belief is that the board's actions broke his three-year employment contract, thereby freeing him from any non-compete clauses.

While the new endeavor would take very little capital, it might not be as big a venture as Mr. Saatchi has always craved. On the other hand, the formation of small, creative-only agencies is getting a lot of attention and Mr. Saatchi could count on a lot of publicity if he makes such a move.

Mr. Saatchi "likes to play on a very big stage," the observer noted.

Such an entity could respond to the concerns of marketers like Procter & Gamble Co. (a major Saatchi network client), whose Chairman-CEO Edwin Artzt publicly blasted agencies' lack of speed in developing interactive capabilities at last year's American Association of Advertising Agencies annual meeting.

Intriguingly, there's a feeling that a number of high-level Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide managers have faith in Mr. Saatchi's idea-and they would rush to join him.

The industry observer reported knowledge of "some discussions about how to raise capital," indicating Mr. Saatchi's interest in starting a new venture. The brothers have failed in several quiet attempts to buy back the Saatchi ad network, with nearly $5 billion in worldwide billings. Apparently the siblings couldn't raise enough money for the purchase.

Mr. Saatchi has stayed in touch with clients since his ouster, canceling a trip to Asia to fly to New York and meet with Forrest Mars. The candy baron then quickly opened a review of the M&M/Mars account, including $350 million in spending at Saatchi's Bates Worldwide.

This could be seen as Mr. Saatchi using his leverage with Mars either to pressure Saatchi to make concessions to him or to secure some Mars business as a first account in a new venture.

In London, there were rumors Mr. Saatchi might set up a separate entity linked to an advertising group that would give him access to an international network. Young & Rubicam Inc. was mentioned, but the company denied speaking to Mr. Saatchi.

"It all comes down to money in the end," one industry observer said. "How badly do they not want Maurice to leave?"

At least one Saatchi executive wants him to stay.

"I really hope Maurice will join us," said Edward Wax, chairman-CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide. Mr. Wax said it was his idea that he would remain CEO with the chairman's title offered to Mr. Saatchi.

One thing is certain: Mr. Saatchi will need to bring in a salary.

"The brothers have never had much personal money they haven't spent," said a London adman familiar with both. "They've both been worth a lot at various times but they've never had oodles of money."

If Mr. Saatchi leaves, Mars is expected to move at least part of its account from Bates; even if he stays, a chunk of Mars business could switch networks with him from Bates. Mars' other two agencies, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and Grey Advertising, have been asked to pitch. In addition, Y&R and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, both New York, have been contacted by Mars executives, although Y&R has conflicting Kraft Jacobs Suchard business.

British Airways has expressed displeasure at Mr. Saatchi's treatment. But its strong relationship with other Saatchi executives and satisfaction with the work on its $135 million account mean the airline is extremely unlikely to move.

P&G isn't threatening to leave. But it was relying on Mr. Saatchi to help resolve a dispute over third network Campbell Mithun Esty's handling of DowBrands, perceived by P&G as a conflict.

So far, the board's action has had little impact on Saatchi stock. In London, the share price had dropped 5.2% to 145 pence late last week. At the same time, the stock in the U.S. dipped 5.2% to 67/8. That's probably cold comfort to the Saatchis: Massive share issues to reduce debt have cut their stake in the company to about 1%.

In fact, Charles Saatchi-who only holds the title of honorary president-hasn't been publicly involved in agency operations for years.

Since founding Saatchi in 1970, the brothers' impact on the ad industry has always come from grandiose acts and dreams rather than their personal equity. In hindsight, many of their inspirations-like one-stop shopping and expanding into other service industries such as banking and consulting-were disastrous.

But very briefly, they made Saatchi the world's largest advertising group. (For 1993, Advertising Age ranked Saatchi & Saatchi Co. the world's No. 5 ad organization, with worldwide gross income of nearly $1.4 billion.)

During the heady '80s, Saatchi's mergers and acquisitions hit team roamed the world, snapping up companies at almost any price. That strategy helped spur BBDO Worldwide, Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper Worldwide to form the Omnicom Group in a defensive measure in 1986.

After the '87 stock market dive dried up London's stock exchange as an easy means of raising money for deals, the company borrowed to the hilt to keep growing by acquisition. On the verge of bankruptcy, the company brought in Robert Louis-Dreyfus as chief executive in 1990 to mastermind a rescue. He dismantled the consulting division and his successor, Charles Scott, has continued paring.

But for several years, the brothers' salaries and perks stayed high. The final straw for Maurice Saatchi apparently came with a new stock option proposal based on his old $1 million annual salary instead of his current $300,000. He was apparently counting on allies like Sir Peter Walters, who as head of the remuneration committee recommended the package. But a group of largely U.S.-based institutional investors had had enough, and U.K. securities broker S.G. Warburg reportedly swayed the board by telling members there was strong shareholder support for ousting Mr. Saatchi.

Still, it may not be easy to eradicate the old order. Maurice Saatchi is so well-known that even average Londoners are defending him. Following the board meeting, one housewife proclaimed to a neighbor: "Maurice was ousted by those Americans."

But when U.K. TV quiz show "University Challenge" last week asked: "What company did two brothers named Charles and Maurice set up?" the contestants flubbed the answer.

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