As pieces of old Saatchi empire find buyers, the lessons remain

By Published on .

And then there were none. Uh, three. I mean two. Maybe one.

I'm talking about the Saatchis, of course.

The lack of comment around the ultimate demise of Saatchi & Saatchi is remarkable. Perhaps, like Francisco Franco's, the death throes have been so protracted that the end--the acquisition of the original agency by Publicis--is worth little more than a joke.

Perhaps it's the confusion surrounding the denouement of the agency that changed advertising. There are enough remnants of the old Saatchi empire to fill a Carpet Warehouse. There's the Saatchi & Saatchi that Publicis bought. There's Cordiant, the residue of the old Ted Bates agency, publicly put on the block by its CEO. Then there's M&C Saatchi, the startup to which the brothers and British Airways retired.

If Saatchi fatigue is understandable, the occasion still warrants a reminder of what Maurice and Charles wrought and what it still means to Madison Avenue. For if you take two steps back, you will see an inescapable truth about the industry: It can still be revolutionized by a Harold Hill from the hinterlands with the chutzpah to take on the town fathers.

Which leads me to the first lesson from the Saatchi insurgency:

Think big. The Saatchis weren't the first to grasp that advertising, as a branch of the entertainment business, was susceptible to the braggadocio of impresarios. But unlike their equally flamboyant forebears, Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy, the brothers refused to nod, except obliquely, in the fuddy-duddy direction of client service and marketing partnerships. Instead, they were defiantly in it for themselves, and made no bones about the fact they were out to build a kingdom. They were advertising's first true moguls.

If you can't cultivate the media, manipulate them. Like all great moguls, the Saatchis understood the press was the conduit to the audiences they needed most--investors and the ad industry itself. They crafted an aura of genius and mystery, and used an aggressively competitive trade press, first in the U.K., later in the U.S., to wrap themselves in it. They favored some reporters over others, beguiled selected securities analysts, traded freely in off-the-record gossip, leaked campaign information, and transformed themselves, two outlanders, into celebrities. Just as haute designers want to drape their newest fashions on the shoulders of starlets, investors were happy to throw money at the brothers to help them work their magic.

The market is an idiot. The Saatchis exploited arcane differences between U.S. and U.K. accounting rules and business culture to finance their buying spree. In the end, public investors gave hundreds of millions of pounds to a couple of brash creatives and fast-talking account men, few of whom really had the wherewithal to run a multinational public company. If you want to know where dot-com madness derives from, look no further than the Saatchi story.

Greed is the underpinning of the agency business. It's a loaded word, to be sure, but it was introduced into the Saatchi debate by then-American Association of Advertising Agencies chief Len Matthews, who, assaying the $110 million profit taken by Bob Jacoby from his sellout to the Brits, called the Bates chieftain a huckster. Yet all Jacoby and the Saatchis did was reveal to the world knowledge that had been hoarded by a handful of top advertising executives: The agency business is remarkably profitable.

The brothers provided a new way for owners to cash out. In doing so, they also helped underlings begin to realize the value of their own work. The consequent rise in salaries has been important to the industry: Only by paying more will it attract the talent it needs in the burgeoning marketing services marketplace.

Bad management will kill a good agency. In the end, Maurice and Charles Saatchi were undone by their inability to manage the empire they created. They'd built and acquired great agencies, some of them run by seasoned professionals. But the brothers remained aloof, and for a critical period of time handed the reins to some globe-trotting buffoons. Such arrogant mismanagement doomed the British brothers to their current fate: ownership of their name by the French. Ooh la la.

Copyright July 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

Most Popular
In this article: