Saatchi & Saatchi’s Robert Senior on the advertising business

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Robert Senior

Robert Senior’s memorable ad campaigns have included drumming gorillas, bouncing balls and cars made from cakes. Here the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide chief executive talks conflict, Gordon Brown and why you should use judo rather than boxing

My first foray into business was reselling Frisbees and yo-yos. I attended an international school in Frankfurt, where I noticed US students yearning for Americana. I borrowed money from my parents, bought 30-40 yo-yos and Frisbees from department stores, then resold them. It was the first time I spotted a gap in the market.

Perspiration trumps inspiration. I learnt the hard way in my first job. I didn’t graft at first, nearly paying the price. I was told, ‘You’re not terribly good but you’ve got potential.’ It flicked a switch.

At DMB&B [ad agency], I asked for every February off unpaid so I could improve my German as a ski instructor. Unbelievably, they agreed. I did it for three years! I soon realised I enjoyed teaching people how to snowplough, more than the lifestyle.

The campaign I’m proudest of is the Sony Bravia ‘Balls’ [2005]. It happened at Fallon London [agency Senior co-founded in 1998]. It was the brutal simplicity of celebrating colour in an imaginative manner.

In crises, apply ‘judo’ not boxing. Fifteen million people saw bits of that ad before it was even edited. We had a call from the production team at San Francisco airport saying, ‘It’s a disaster! The film’s online!’ Of course, if you chuck 250,000 bouncy balls down a hill in one of the world’s most connected cities, that will happen. We thought, ‘Go with the force.’ It made us realise the shift from paid-for to earned media. Five years later, if you googled ‘advert’, the top link was Sony Bravia.

Inspiration often comes from client problems. When we did Skoda’s ‘Cake’ ad [2007], we had a tech specs briefing about Skoda being best in class. But the core idea came from them telling us, ‘We have kids crying in showrooms when their parents test-drive Skodas’. That was the answer [rather than aggrandising the product]. The ad, with its ‘It’s a Skoda, honest’ line, played on the idea that the smart money is on Skoda.

When turning around a company, you learn what accountability means. I joined Saatchi & Saatchi London when it wasn’t in good nick [by 2007, it had slipped from Campaign’s top 10 creative agencies]. There was an outrageous absence of accountability. I also learned if you allow clients to bully, they will.

Nothing is impossible. These words are inlaid into S&S HQ’s office steps. I discovered its truth during my first month. People said we’d lost our mojo and were Thatcher’s boys [S&S made the famous 1979 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster]. So we connected ourselves to New Labour and came up with the ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ campaign. It was brilliant signalling.

The financial crisis was a tough time for the industry. Everywhere you turned, somebody was writing advertising’s obituary. But the world carries on, people still need to communicate their wares – advertising’s been around since the town crier. We [had to ensure] we didn’t get derailed.

At university, I was intimidated by fellow students entering the City. It didn’t appeal at all – I didn’t think I could survive it. It was a relief to happen upon a profession [advertising] that I had an effortless affinity with. Advertising isn’t just storytelling – it’s storytelling with a point to elicit a reaction and an action. Storytelling has been a huge part of my make-up.

At Saatchi & Saatchi, we have unusual ways of recruiting. We ran a competition for candidates to create Facebook groups. One ended up getting a million ‘likes’ for her Secret London page, sharing lesser-known places in the capital. She withdrew her candidacy, setting up her own business. I take great pride from us spawning a start-up before she’d even joined.

All talent is on loan. You don’t own anyone and it would be preposterous for me to think that.

Create conflict. Steve Jobs said business magic starts by serendipity. He placed the loos in Pixar so engineers would walk past the designers. That’s how you create an interesting team – put light and shade in the same room, and see what happens.

The Cadbury gorilla [successful 2007 Fallon ad] could never have come from an algorithm or big data. It was a visceral, primal expression of a company truth of generosity. Cadbury had the Bournville tradition of looking after staff and putting more milk into their chocolate. But that wasn’t compelling advertising, so we focused on the unbridled joy of chocolate. Cadbury had a nine per cent sales uplift.

I value EQ enormously. I like people to be themselves, not behave according to job title. I’ve no time for acronyms or jargon.

What ambition would I like to achieve? I’d echo Nelson Mandela. On his 90th birthday, he said, ‘We all climb a higher mountain’. Whatever you do, there will always be a next thing to keep you going.

Robert Senior will be in conversation with the IoD’s Christian May on 23 April at 116 Pall Mall. The event is free for both members and non-members. For more information, visit iod.com/dgevents

@saatchilondon
saatchi.com

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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