Saatchi tale is myths, not maths

Alison Fendley’s new book on the Saatchi empire, Commercial Break, provides a greater insight into the brothers themselves than into the industry they had such an effect on, says Paul Twivy.Paul Twivy is chief executive of Bates Dorland

They say “you should never judge a book by its cover” but I would beg to differ in the case of Alison Fendley’s book on the rise and fall of the Saatchi empire.

The cover is not, as you might expect, one of those rare and telling photographs of Charles and Maurice, or of any of their famous ads such as “Pregnant Man” but rather of an all purpose yuppie adman complete with designer suit and glasses.

Is this rather odd cover the result of Hamish Hamilton getting the book out opportunistically fast? Probably.

It also possibly signals a confusion within the book. Although it is basically a very well-written and highly readable account of the world’s most famous admen, it also unwisely attempts to discuss the nature and trends of the whole advertising industry.

The inside cover claims that “it will change the way you think about the world of advertising”, an ambition more suited to a book by David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach, and one which the book fails to deliver.

Fendley rather clumsily and perfunctorily raises everything in her final chapter from Adrian Holmes’ debate on the morality of recent ads, to the trend towards Tony Kaye-style surrealism to P&G’s return to programming, without in any way trying to synthesise or understand them.

Instead the book rather unconvincingly closes with the assertion that “New Saatchi” is almost bound to be radically different from “Old Saatchi” because of these new trends.

This book is best when it sticks by its knitting, as per one of its chapter headings, and focuses on the human drama surrounding the brothers Saatchi.

A lot of the book’s value in this regard lies in gathering some beautifully eloquent quotes.

These range from comments about the Saatchis – “there was no periphery involved, nothing distracted him”, John Hegarty on Charles Saatchi – to comments by the Saatchis themselves: “One is wonderful. Two can be terrific. Three is threatened. Four is fatal.”

Advertising has inherited the power of the phrase or slogan to move people, a power which stretches from Confucius to Churchill. Nobody understands this better than Maurice and Charles.

The book also raises some complex truths and contradictions underneath the usual simplistic fables we are peddled.

Thus we have Tim Bell’s quote about himself that, “the whole third-brother thing was a media myth”.

We have the somewhat contradictory statement from the Saatchi & Saatchi 1977 Annual Report that, “we have never been believers in small advertising agencies which are dependent on the style of one or two top men”.

We have Paul Bainsfair’s interesting view that “Garland’s work was actually better than Saatchi’s” , not the usual view of small hotshop backing into a boring giant.

Yet, we never really get a resolution or sharpened focus on these paradoxes.

Hegarty again notes that “the Saatchi & Saatchi letterhead was designed to look like a bank” and yet the very choice of the name was rationalised by Charles as “so bizarre no-one will forget it in a hurry”.

Fendley does not, for example, point out the irony that Cramer Saatchi and Charles Saatchi first came to prominence due to an anti-smoking campaign, but that Charles’ favourite account was subsequently Silk Cut.

In describing the human drama of the boardroom battles, the writing sometimes strains into tabloid faction – “it was midwinter and London had a hushed, emptied-out feeling” – but is nevertheless often intelligent and memorable: “Trial by shareholders is a ritual with its own tokens.”

Inevitably, a book on this subject will raise issues of bias, on which as an insider on the “inside story”, I could be expected to comment.

While the book is reasonably balanced, it does uncritically push the myth of Maurice and Josephine Hart as latter-day Astors with “Hall Place” as their “Cliveden”.

There are also glaring omissions. For example, to simply state of the British Airways Stage 2 pitch that, “the presentation at Charlotte Street did not go well” ignores the fact that Sir Colin Marshall turned up 15-20 minutes late for a time-slot of only an hour, a simple act of rudeness.

There is barely a mention of the Bates network and Maurice’s coldness toward it despite the creative flair of Bates, and despite the fact, for example, that Rosser Reeves’ campaign for Eisenhower while at Bates was the forerunner to Saatchi’s campaigns for Thatcher.

There is scarcely a mention of Martin Sorrell’s financial genius, something vital to the success of the Saatchi empire. While the motivations of David Herro are only given “pop psychology” explanations.

We can all rightly laugh at the debunking humour of Private Eye – “Man in Glasses Leaves Job” – we all need heroes and fables, and this book yields to that need.

The Saatchi brothers know the value of scarcity and eloquence and poise better than anyone; the prime qualities for being a legend. Perhaps not enough attention, however, is paid to their Greek hero-style flaws.

On a personal note, I am pleased that Jeremy Sinclair emerges honourably. His lack of egotism, his balanced perspective that charismatic account men and creatives must live in harmony with gifted financial brains, shows a great deal of wisdom

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