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Are U.K's Tories dazzled by Maurice Saatchi's mystique?

By Published on .

To the English, there's a mystique about mystique, a cultural quirk that, to an American, can be as mystifying as bubble and squeak. Take the curious case of Maurice, Lord Saatchi, the new chairman of the ailing Conservative Party in Britain, where I am spending the week.

"The Tory Buddha," Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times called him this week; a "wise" figure with a "twinkle in his eyes," whose "phenomenal track record" and "organisational skills" are the talents needed by a party that's just replaced its leader for the fourth time in eight years. The evidence? Why, this is the man, reported The Times, who made Oil of Olay palatable to the youth market!

But a review of Lord Saatchi's magic reveals him to be more Professor Marvel than Wizard of Oz.

Let us recall that the history of the Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency is a classic case of two good ideas mismanaged in extremis. True, Maurice and his brother Charles constructed a solid midsize agency in the 1980s out of classically savvy creative work. Building on the legacy of the American Creative Revolution-the urbanity of Doyle Dane Bernbach and insouciance of Scali McCabe Sloves, filtered through great London agency Collett Dickenson Pearce-the Saatchis helped put a shine on the U.K.'s otherwise stodgy commercial culture. They produced a classic ad campaign for the Tories, who credited their work (bannered "Labour Isn't Working") with taking Margaret Thatcher to victory.

The brothers' modus operandi, though, was different from that of their forebears'. Earlier revolutionaries marketed their agencies overtly; the Saatchis did it covertly. Charles refused (and Maurice generally declined) to speak to the media, preferring to parcel out stories to favored trade reporters. Good idea No. 1.

Good idea No. 2 was understanding that the globalization of consumer-products companies was an inevitability, and provided a fine argument for ad-industry consolidation-at a scale not previously attempted.

The rest of the Saatchi saga, however, was a binge. The brothers acquired agencies hither and yon from mostly private owners seemingly far more interested in cashing out than in building enduring institutions. To support the unsustainable valuations they placed on these companies, the brothers took advantage of the London stock market's soft belly and disgorged rights issues, preference shares and buyout packages that could only be nourished by a pyramid of more and more and more acquisitions (including the purchase of a consulting firm that had nothing to do with their business and the attempted purchase of a bank).

In the absence of organic growth, with institutional investors finally realizing these emperors were naked, the hastily cobbled multinational empire staggered under financial pressures and ultimately was broken up. While the brothers' successor company, M&C Saatchi, is described by the Sunday Times as "a thriving new agency" that "has regained much of their former glory," in fact it is a fraction of the size of the Saatchi & Saatchi of yore.

Perhaps that is more in keeping with Lord Saatchi's "organisational skills." And perhaps, with a more anthill-sized business empire to run, he'll be able to help new Tory leader Michael Howard achieve victory against the riven Labour Party. But if I were Mr. Howard, I'd bank less on my mysterious "Buddha," and more on the bold, Thatcherite vision that last led the Conservatives to glory.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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