Following a fruitless search to replace Saatchi & Saatchi London chairman and chief executive Lee Daley, who stepped down earlier this year, Publicis Groupe is taking a novel approach to trying to save the once-mighty agency. A week after Saatchi lost the bulk of its UK Toyota business to CHI & Partners (MW July 12), it emerged that it was being aligned with sister agency Fallon in the latest bid to halt its decline. The new holding company – to be called Saatchi & Saatchi-Fallon – will be run by Fallon London founding partner Robert Senior, who has turned down the top job at Saatchi London in the past.
The move to align the two agencies was unforeseen, according to insiders, with rumours of a Publicis-Fallon merger quashed only weeks ago. But what did not surprise the advertising industry was the appointment of Senior to the role of chief executive of the new group. Speculation has been rife since last summer that he has been looking for a new challenge following the end of his lucrative earn-out deal at Fallon.
The Saatchi challenge
Many believe Senior will relish the task of turning around Saatchi London, which is no longer a top-ten agency in the UK. Its 2006 billings were down 17% to £174m, having been £212m in 2005, and it fell from ninth to 11th in the billings table.
Observers say Senior’s “supreme self-awareness” is popular with clients and peers alike and Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO chairman Cilla Snowball adds: “It is very rare to get a chief executive with star quality who also has the ability to get business done.” The AAR’s director of advertising Martin Jones believes Senior has “a bit of Sir Martin Sorrell about him, demanding and giving absolute loyalty”.
Hugh Burkitt, who gave Senior his first job at Burkitt Weinreich Bryant in 1987, says that he has a skill for picking the right agencies but adds: “When he first started I remember him as someone who did not take to advertising like a duck to water. He would sit there looking quite aghast.” Senior then went onto DMB&B in 1989, before leaving to join Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow. He founded Fallon London in 1998.
Senior the ‘straight talker’
Senior is well known for his straight talking, which some believe will put him at odds with his new boss Kevin Roberts, the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, and his “Lovemarks” philosophy. One insider says: “Senior’s forte is not kowtowing to the corporate gobbledygook, and he is being brought in to clarify the agency proposition and direction. He will smoke out the company bullshit immediately and won’t be a mouthpiece for Roberts like Richard Hytner.”
However, others argue that Senior will have his work cut out trying to fix Saatchi. They believe he must improve the agency’s new business performance, creative work and domestic reputation and one source adds: “This will mean that he will be away from Fallon for most of the time and, with Michael Wall leaving, the agency could experience a lull in its creative and new business performance.”
Another thinks that juggling a client list that includes potential conflicts such as T-Mobile (Saatchi) and Orange (Fallon) will be an “onerous task even for a talented virtuoso like Senior”.
Saatchi and Fallon have steadfastly refused to comment on their plans – a strategy criticised by many as naïve. The “drip-feed” nature of the news has led one source to suggest that the move has been “post-rationalised after news about a possible tie-up between the two agencies hit the streets”.
A brief is already out for someone to run Saatchi London on a day-to-day basis and many believe Senior’s success or failure rests on whom he can tempt to join the rebuilding task. But with little more than its history to boast of, others question whether Senior or anyone else can do anything about a once-great ship that seems to be sinking fast.