Jennifer Laing’s return to the hotseat – as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising London – eight years after she last occupied it has led to a mixture of back-handed compliments that have rarely been seen, even in the ad industry.
“Absolutely straight, hard working and talented,” says one agency head. Before adding that she is not as “dynamic and aggressive” as the job requires. “Tough, determined, buttoned down and detailed,” was the assessment of another who made an equally cutting sideways swipe at the new S&S chairman.
“She couldn’t be the toughest woman in advertising,” was the view of another. “If she were, then Laing Henry would be a much bigger agency.”
There is no doubt that the agency needed someone who could come in and stabilise the shell-shocked Charlotte Street after the departures of both clients and senior managers. Saatchi group chief executive officer Charles Scott and European chief executive Derek Bowden have spearheaded the search. In the end they arrived at two candidates – both ex-Saatchi and both with their names above the door of other agencies (MW February 17, 1995).
Laing replaces David Kershaw – one of the “Three Amigos” who quit to join Maurice Saatchi in January – and brings 40 staff, a handful of clients, and a 1994 post-tax profit of £98,000 with her. In return, Saatchi has a new chairman to fill an experience vacuum that had become more obvious in recent weeks.
This is Laing’s third period at the agency. She last left in 1987, when she was joint chairman with one of the “Amigos”, Bill Muirhead, to become chief executive of Aspect Hill Holiday Group. And then executed a management buyout to create Laing Henry in 1990.
Client reviews following the exodus of Maurice and the “Amigos” have been stemmed. New business from Toyota and Carlsberg has added £14m to billings for Saatchi. The agency predicts 1995 billings will hit £493m.
But there is still an underlying vulnerability about the Saatchi London office. Further client defections are expected and next month’s BA review will be an unwelcome distraction. Even after the group changes its name to Cordiant this week, it will inevitably be dragged into the legal and account battles with the New Saatchi Agency.
“The priority is to talk to existing clients from both agencies and find out what they want,” says Laing.
An equally significant priority will be to persuade people that the departures earlier this year and the creation of the new agency has not damaged Saatchi.
The absorption of Laing Henry into Charlotte Street will boost annual billings, although the £1.2m purchase of the agency could also cause some tension via staff duplications. But there are only minimal client conflicts. Above all, Laing will be expected to provide a £175,000 a year anchor for S&S.