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The fixers: the 2012 story of how Saatchi & Saatchi emerged from its creative slump

Following on from Nicky Bell's recent resignation from Saatchi & Saatchi, we revisit Ben Fahy's 2012 story of how she helped to turn the agency around after picking up the reins.

January 26, 2016 | features

Ask any of the ‘normals’ out there in New Zealand to name an ad agency, and you’ll probably get one answer: Saatchi & Saatchi. In its halcyon days, its consistently brilliant work forged the agency a well-earned international reputation and helped position New Zealand as a hotbed of creative thinking. But the bigger they are, the harder they tend to fall and, for a variety of reasons, the creative empire that could once do no wrong gradually lost its mojo. 

Director of strategy Murray Streets, who has worked with the agency for almost eight years and is one of the longest serving members of the current team, has experienced some of those ups and downs and he openly admits “the agency wasn’t breathing in the right kind of air to fulfill the promise of the name on the door” in the past.

But with a flatter management structure, a new-found zeal among its staff, a rebalanced portfolio of clients, a few awards, an enhanced focus on internal culture, and new, progressive clients like ASB, Air New Zealand and some major Coca-Cola brands, there’s growing confidence—both inside and outside of the building—that it’s back on an upward trajectory. 

For whom the Bell tolls

Nicky Bell took over from Andrew Stone as the chief executive around two-and-a-half years ago and she admits she’s been pretty shy with the press in that time. And understandably so. Turning around the business was a huge challenge and it certainly hasn’t been the smoothest of rides, with the destabilising effect of executive creative director Dylan Harrison’s departure after only one year, the Abstain from the Game campaign media firestorm and the slap in the face that was the lucrative Cadbury account staying with DDB despite a global alignment to Saatchi. Humility is also very important to her, she says, but, as evidenced by the fact she agreed to sit down for an interview, she now believes there’s something positive to talk about. 

After spending over ten years working at the 2,200-strong Ogilvy & Mather office in New York as a senior director, Bell says she started looking around for roles at smaller agencies in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Australia. But when the Saatchi & Saatchi dons in New York suggested returning to the homeland to run—or more particularly fix—the New Zealand Saatchi office, she says it felt “familiar but like a new adventure” because she hadn’t lived here since she was ten. 

“It was too hard to resist. The brand, the name, the opportunity to be CEO. It was an agency steeped in creative history, really. And you get to a time in your career when you need to push yourself to reach your own ambitions … I worked with some amazing talent in New York, but there’s nothing like having a chance to lead the evolution of a great agency. ” 

When Bell took the job, however, some felt she had been given a hospital pass. So did she know what she was getting herself into?

“They were very honest [about the state of the agency]. But I’m a very optimistic person. I didn’t realise the extent of where the agency was at in its journey. But I looked at the brand and the legacy and everything that it was in this country and tried to look at in the same way as we do with our clients’ brands. What is the spirit, the magic, the DNA that we should hold dear and move forward with and what should we leave behind? So we’ve tried to strip back any of the arrogance or sense of entitlement it may have attracted over the years,  which was direct feedback from clients and the marketplace when I arrived, and get back the heart of the brand.” 

And for her, the heart of the brand is its “lovely maverick streak”, its cheeky, challenger brand disposition and the fact that, “at its best, it is a spirited, creative, highly innovative organisation”. The potential was all there, she says. “It just needed some more TLC.” 

Bleeding edge

Bell says her brief was not to stabilise the business. It was to re-imagine the business; to find out what a Saatchi agency of the future would feel like. Before she could think about that, there was plenty of work required to sort out the Saatchi of the present, but she’s now confident the foundations are strong enough to start “experimenting from the edge”, something she says is best evidenced by the opening of the Saatchi art gallery. 

Streets says they often talk about New Zealand as being “a bit of an R&D lab” for the rest of the network and one goal of the re-imagining is to find out if “the tale of the turnaround” can inspire other offices, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.  

“Saatchi & Saatchi Australia has been in a similar position and they’re making good headway,” he says. “They’ve had their line in the sand moment as well, and, like us, they’ve said ‘enough looking back. What do we want to be?’” 

Bell says the structure of the company “wasn’t of the times”, which she tried to rectify in her first few months by flattening management and removing silos like Saatchi DGS. She then spent the rest of the year talking to clients to see how they were feeling, working with staff to see what would motivate them and putting things in place to try and improve
the culture. 

So had these things been neglected? Bell didn’t want to talk about the past, aside from saying she believes “it was a very different style and a very different time”.  Plenty of good stuff happened too, she says. But new leadership brings different perspectives and often leads to re-evaluation. 

“I hope being part of a healthier organisation is about listening and understanding. I don’t believe in command and control, especially in an agency. When you want people to reimagine and reinvent, you can’t be directive and tell them what to do. You need to inspire and empower and let them use their brains to come to different solutions. And they need to feel courageous and supported enough to do that … I know very few companies in this era that say, ‘here’s the t-shirt, here’s what you should feel, now off you go’.”

A redemption tale

Streets says the current Saatchi incarnation is a very different beast to what’s gone before. Most obviously, the almost exclusively alpha-male leaders of the past have been replaced by a woman and a Venezuelan—executive creative director Antonio Navas. But there’s also a more sustainable approach to growth, a much more creative culture, more of a meritocracy than a hierarchy, a belief in “hands-on planning” from conception to delivery and “a quieter dedication to doing the right thing” that doesn’t involve any posturing or ego.

 

“I think that’s where Saatchi made mistakes in the past because we grew new business aggressively but didn’t build a sustainable culture underneath it, so you burnt people out, great people moved on, you were always recruiting down in terms of talent and, after three or four years of doing that, you’ve got a pretty underpowered offering ... I don’t think there was a passion or a real confidence to do things differently in the past and say ‘the world around us has changed so we need to stop justifying what we’ve always done and embrace new ways of doing it’.

Advertising is cyclical, of course. And Streets says there will always be an element of rise and fall, but they have very worked hard on finding a way to avoid “those crashing peaks and troughs that agencies seem to keep falling into”. And he thinks the key to that is culture, because, as Bell says, doing it that way around is more sustainable and “breeds a different kind of momentum”.

“I think clients are liking the way we’re behaving,” Bell says. “… If we get the talent right then they deliver and everything else falls into place.” 

The Art of commerce

Of course, an agency positioning itself around creativity is common. But actively taking steps to foster it isn’t, says Streets. 

When Navas first arrived in New Zealand in 2011 after stints at Ogilvy and Mather New York, Goodby Silverstein and BBDO New York, he says “it was like being in Willy Wonka’s factory” due to the roster of brave clients wanting to do great work. But take a tour around the office and you might be forgiven for thinking he’s taken that description literally (see gallery). Navas is a man of the arts and, along with Bell and Streets, he has tried to inspire the staff and give them a wider view on creativity and the world by, for example, getting different artists to leave their mark on the walls or displaying pieces of art that make the place more interesting. 

Bell says there was ‘80s floral carpet being held together with duct tape in the creative department when she turned up, which is perhaps a good metaphor for the state of the agency when she took over. But now, on the mission to increase what Streets calls the “diversity of perspective”, the art gallery has held a host of exhibitions, launches and a speaking series called ‘What were you thinking’ (with the gallery full of artists, clients, art critics and media for the Dick and Otis Frizzell show, Bell says she looked around the room and felt a palpable sense of pride among the staff as they puffed their chests out a bit). 

“A good creative director should always be open to the magic,” says Navas. “I love when I see work and I say ‘where did it come from, what were you thinking? It is so obvious and yet so out of left field’. So I encourage creatives to be themselves and to bring their own styles to work.”

That thinking feeling

Some painted walls and a few zany sculptures in the waiting room may seem inconsequential, but Streets says the changes to the physical space are the most tangible example of a bigger metamorphosis. 

“I think we need to remind people that creativity isn’t just craft, it’s also about creative thinking. That’s my personal passion. And the thing I’m enjoying about working with Nicky and Antonio is there’s a complementarity there in that creativity in all its forms has to be what we foster here as a culture … It’s easy to say—everyone says it—but how do you genuinely inspire people? You don’t just feed off advertising and look at what your competitors are doing. It’s about looking at culture as a whole and that was the mechanism of the gallery. You need to inspire yourself beyond the trade.”  

Beyond the definition the ad industry often puts around creativity, Streets says there’s a lot of robust thinking from the likes of Jonah Lehrer and Steven Johnson about how to improve the quality of your creative output. And it’s not about being cleverer or “sucking in more of Wikipedia”. It’s based around behaviorial techniques and tips; “the way you intentionally go about helping people try to think differently”.

And Bell agrees: “I think creativity can give businesses an unfair advantage. But if you subscribe to that belief you need to have an environment where it’s okay for your people to think differently without being chastised for it … You really have to have optimism in this business. And you can get to a point where the staff self-regulate it.” 

Optimism ahoy

Streets says he noticed a switch being flicked about six months ago. And while FCB won the bulk of the Air New Zealand business, taking a slice of such a progressive client was a big catalyst for that. He was working remotely in the US after Christmas but, even on email and Skype, he could see the demeanour was different and he remembers remarking to Bell that he thought “something had just tipped in 2012”. 

For him, Bell’s philosophies and leadership style have been instrumental in the agency’s resurgence.

“It’s a lot of the art of what she does as a leader. It’s never prescription, it’s ‘here’s an issue, I trust you guys to solve this issue, so how are we going to do it? 

And the fact that he’s still there says it all. 

“If she hadn’t been leading that change and very quickly signalling there was a different set of values and behaviours at work from a leadership point of view, then I would’ve just left the agency. I said I wanted a true partnership between [Antonio, Nicky and myself], because great agencies the world over have that balance and that mutual respect and it’s modelled so the rest of the agency understands that’s how things are done.”

Abstain removal 

While the worm certainly appears to be turning, it hasn’t all been beer and skittles. In an era of continuous marketing, Bell talks about the importance of embracing a Beta mindset. Big ideas are still important, she says, but you can’t just do a TV ad and watch things spike any more. You need to experiment, tweak and monitor to see what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes the experiments pay off, sometimes they don’t, and at the top of the ‘don’t’ category would have to be Telecom’s Abstain from the Game campaign, which was leaked to the media before launch. 

“It was really, really unfortunate because the thinking behind it was actually really good,” Bell says. “But there’s no point saying that now because no-one has ever seen the campaign and they’re not likely to. It lost all context, it lost all timing for any comedy we were hoping to have. But I’ve always said the agency has nothing to be ashamed of about that work. Nobody did anything wrong.” 

Streets admits it was hard for the agency—but particularly for the people who spent months working on the project, who took it very personally. 

“They felt like they had been portrayed as not understanding the soul of the RWC and were essentially accused of being unpatriotic … But what was interesting for us was the number of people who came to us directly and said ‘I know you’re copping a lot of flak, I know people want to have a beat-up on you, but we really admire what you were trying to do because you weren’t just trying to do another forgettable RWC campaign’.” 

The media had a field day with Sean Fitzpatrick in his pink fist and plenty of anonymous commentators took the opportunity to stick the boot in. Some felt the grief it received was justified and the idea was unlikely to resonate with New Zealanders, but Streets believes there is still a bit of a Saatchi-bashing mentality in New Zealand. And part of that stems from the expectation the agency’s legacy sets. 

“I think there’s a lot less of it than there was three years ago,” he says. “But some are motivated to measure to the past and say ‘it’s not as good as…’ We’ve had as many comments from people directly to our face—both from clients and competitors—who say it’s great what you’ve been doing because a strong Saatchi & Saatchi is good for everyone. It’s good for the clients, for the staff, for the industry, and maybe for New Zealand again. And I put more value on the people who speak directly to us than those who comment anonymously on a blog.”

Blessing in disguise

Saying goodbye to Harrison, who left for a role at DDB in Sydney, was also a big blow, because, as Streets says, “senior leadership breeds confidence in the culture”. 

“But what was so fantastic about that time was how supportive the clients were,” Bell says. “We’d got to know them just enough and we’d put customised teams together for them and they were very good about it. I personally met with them all and overwhelmingly they said ‘we like what you’re doing so far, so we trust you’ll choose well for us’.”

And in some ways it was for the best, because she believes Navas “is the ECD that Saatchi New Zealand should have” and he has had a huge influence on what’s happening with the agency—and with the bunch of 100 or so “like-minded misfits” working there (“north of ten” will be joining as a result of  the ASB win). In her opinion, he has a different outlook, he has very good taste, he gives very clear feedback, he has high integrity, he’s very much about inspiring people and he’s very calm and grown-up. And Streets agrees, saying he brings a maturity and expertise he hasn’t seen before at Saatchis. 

“It’s really impressive. His perspective is global so he hopefully brings a bit of the best of the world into New Zealand. But what I love about him is that he’s from an unlikely source. He’s not your classic Brit who’s come out here for the lifestyle. We looked the wrong way and went across the Pacific. So he has a very different set of cultural references. And again, that’s a different type of oxygen for the agency.”

As a kid growing up in Venezuela, Navas says New Zealand was always a mysterious and exotic place that “only existed in maps”. He says he doesn’t believe in coincidences, so he knew taking the job was the right thing to do when Bell, who he worked with at Ogilvy in New York, mentioned the job. 

“We found our love for advertising and the creative process was exactly the same: to do great things and have fun in the process,” Navas says. “Nicky is an amazing leader and a great partner. She has a keen sense for business and the clients’ problems but also an amazing sense of humour.” 

Bank on it

ASB obviously felt that way when it moved from Droga5 to Saatchi & Saatchi recently and, to the surprise of many, it happened without a pitch. 

“I knew a little of Roger [Beaumont] and Barbara  [Chapman] beforehand and had met them a couple of times,” Bell says. “We did a small credentials meeting and we talked about the kind of things we wanted to do as an agency and they took a very fast decision to appoint us.” 

ASB’s chief executive Barbara Chapman has openly discussed her concern about the gender pay gap and the high level of male-only boards in New Zealand (at 65 percent it’s twice the rate of Australia). And Bell is “being as involved and supportive as possible” to try and change that.  

In New York, she worked for Shelly Lazarus at Ogilvy and she was a huge inspiration for her because even though she regularly featured in the ‘most powerful’ lists, she was still very much herself, she had a very lively sense of humour and she was married with three children. 

“I’ve had men and women supporting my career, but a lot of the speaking engagements I do are because I think it’s important to support, mentor and set a really good example for women. I was at a speaking event recently and I said ‘there’s a lot of senior women in the room today, so if you’re going home at six to see your children, can you just tell everyone that’s what you’re doing’. Times have changed. And some of the younger women in the industry are still not aware of how we do things. I regularly tell the men to go home and see their kids as well… But I hope in the future there’ll be a time when I don’t get phonecalls from people saying ‘we’ve got this speaking engagement with all these great CEOs and we’ve suddenly realised don’t have any women’.”

Future proof

As for the future, Bell, who sits on the CAANZ and Kiwi Expats Abroad boards, hopes the agency can once again become internationally regarded and be seen as a flagship office in the network. But the main focus for her is sustainable growth, maintaining the culture and meeting existing and new clients’ needs—without breaking their people in the process. 

As for Streets, he’s hoping the agency can earn a reputation for genuine creative thinking among clients, “from the relationship as a marketing advisor through to comms and strategic development and then ultimately the creative product”. 

Both Bell and Navas say they’re loving life here in New Zealand—Bell with her twin six-year old girls and Australian husband, and Navas with his wife—and wouldn’t be anywhere else. And the old Saatchi campaigner Streets says it’s a really exciting time for him as well. 

“I’m conscious that I’m the guy that’s hung on in there, but I’ve never been happier working here.”

  • This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 edition of NZ Marketing.

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