saatchi & saatchi

Saatchi & Saatchi at 50: Five decades of troublemaking and genius

They’ve dominated the ad world for a generation - but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing

What were they thinking? There they were, Charles and Maurice Saatchi, kings of the ad world, trying to buy a bank. A bank! What did they know about high street banking? The two brothers had set up one of the most successful ad agencies in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, slurping up talent and rivals like a whale would plankton, striking deals with British Airways, Silk Cut and Toyota. And then, come 1987, they want to buy Midland Bank, the fourth largest in Britain.

Maurice apparently saw both ad agencies and banks as business services, so one could easily take over the other. Midland did not see it that way, turning down the bid on the grounds that it lacked “commercial or strategic logic”. Oof, what a blow. The words “nothing is impossible” were carved into stone on the doorstep of the Saatchi headquarters on 80 Charlotte Street, and now the brothers were having to eat them. The City’s response to the bid started to ruffle shareholder feathers, especially when newspapers quoted experts calling the brothers “amateurish”, “totally bizarre” and “highly questionable”. This was the moment that the Saatchis’ luck started to run out, leading to their boardroom ousting by 1994.

This month, their company celebrated its 50th anniversary (while they mark the 25th birthday of their successor operation, M&C Saatchi). It’s worth reflecting on the successful and scandalous journey Maurice and Charles have gone on during that time, having launched themselves into the British establishment from their origins as the children of wealthy Iraqi Jewish immigrants.

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Neither brother is a fan of the limelight (unless it is strictly under their control). Charles, 77, is an art mogul – he has a gallery in Chelsea, with an equally impressive collection of canvases and lurid headlines to his name. Maurice, 74, or Baron Saatchi to you, is now a Conservative peer – no doubt helped by one of his old ad campaigns. In 1978, S&S ran up a Tory advert that showed a snaking dole queue under the words: “LABOUR ISN’T WORKING”. It was rated best poster of the century by Campaign magazine, a trade publication for the ad industry.

labour isnt working ad

The two spent decades crafting ad magic with a team of 1970s and 80s mad men. There was the ad for the Family Planning Association showing a pregnant man above the words, “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” Then there was Silk Cut’s stylish purple slash picture. And The Independent newspaper’s launch campaign: “It is. Are you?”

Their early history is also filled with satisfying tales of reversing corporate decline with the kind of ingenuity you don’t hear about today. Take their campaign for British Airways in 1991, which had suffered a 30 per cent drop in airline passenger numbers after the Gulf War. S&S masterminded ads to drop simultaneously around 70 countries to promote a giveaway of 50,000 free seats. To stop the newspapers writing about the campaign before they went to press, S&S had supplied them with dummy adverts and switched them out at the last minute. “WORLD’S BIGGEST OFFER” ads dropped on April 23, spurring 5.7 million people to enter the ballot for a free flight, and passenger numbers shot up back to normal within 120 days.

This is the kind of S&S mountain-moving that underlings Nick Darke, Richard Myers and Simon Goode recall in their memoir Chutzpah & Chutzpah: Saatchi & Saatchi: The Insiders’ Stories. They write about how the two brothers fostered an unmatched dedication to pitching that would make Don Draper seem like an intern, even though it didn’t always work. There was the time Schweppes was taking pitches for a new soft drink called The Raging Hog (with a name like that, no wonder you can’t buy it anymore), so S&S went to work hiring a pig for the meeting – it left hoof marks and turds over the floor, and didn’t win them the pitch. They also installed Toyota cars in the lobby of their office in time for a meeting, and one of their employees by chance foiled an armed robbery of a McDonald’s outlet, chasing down the thief on foot, winning the respect and business of the fast food giant.

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