BROTHERS SAATCHI & `DEBT IS GOOD'

By Published on .

A dvertising Age's front page editorial, "Maurice Saatchi's Wrecking Ball" (AA, Jan. 23), put the Saatchi brothers' effect on the advertising industry in proper perspective.

Yes, there were some good things about the '80s. But the recent fall of Maurice and Charles Saatchi reminds us that lots of things turned wrong, as well, in that period, earning it the pejorative "excessive." That particularly applied to the overuse and ultimately the abuse of debt.

In the '80s financial world of the Michael Milkens, the infamous Ivan Boesky credo, "debt is good," led to many thunderous downfalls. In that climate, the "ins," at least in cafe society, seemed to be led by flamboyant debt-worshipers like Henry Kravis, Jimmy Robinson, "The "Donald," John Reed and T. Boone "aw shucks" Pickens.

London's Charles and Maurice Saatchi, paralleling this in the advertising world, combined debt practices with going public. Their upstart agency was soon perceived as sticking it in the eye of Madison Avenue. "Charles came up with striking images and clever slogans; Maurice (London School of Economics background) schmoozed with the world's biggest companies," as the Economist magazine recently observed. Key clients included Forrest Mars (Mars candies), Sir Colin Campbell (chairman, British Airways) and Jeremy Hanley (chairman of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party).

Masterminding all of this was Martin Sorrell, the Saatchis green eyeshade. His schemes successfully dangled personal financial fortunes in front of the partners of some of the world's finest independent advertising agencies as well as the principals of totally unrelated consulting services. For a time during the '80s, Saatchi became the world's largest advertising agency.

About that time, Mr. Sorrell departed and proceeded to leverage a hostile takeover of the prestigious J. Walter Thompson Co., using the Saatchi gobbling formula to create his own rival advertising agency, which ultimately surpassed Saatchi & Saatchi in size.

I've always felt Saatchi's unraveling began with their cocky promulgation of what turned out to be two myths: Global Advertising-Sales-Marketing and One Stop-One Shop Universal Services.

In the end, as the Economist editorialized: To the Saatchis, "advertising was just another business, the job of an advertising firm is to make its owners rich. [But] for the past seven years, Saatchi & Saatchi has done just the opposite. Anyone who bought a share at more than 50 pounds in 1987 now has around 1 pound-50 pence to show for it." That's a 97% drop, with the parent company carrying $780 million in debt.

Not so long ago successful conglomerateur J.B. Fuqua decided to retire and sell his company, Fuqua Industries. The company then came upon hard times and a concerned Fuqua paid his successors $1 million to get his name back and off the floundering company.

The Saatchis took many fine, even legendary names off of ad agency doors. Maybe there are still some of those former principals around, perhaps now tired of Hawaii and Florida, who could use some of the dough they got for selling out to the Saatchis to buy their names back for a song.

Mr. Hartman was chairman-CEO of Bill Communications until its sale in 1989. A past international president of the Young Presidents organization, today he is an author and writer of magazine and newspaper columns at Ocean Reef Club, Key Largo, Fla.

Most Popular
In this article: