Monday, January 19, 2004

The Saatchi way with words...

The Saatchi way with words

The universal rejoicing amongst Conservatives when Michael Howard assumed the leadership was almost immediately tempered, for some, when he announced that Maurice Saatchi was to be a joint Chairman of the Party. The fears that the arrival of Lord Saatchi, that most brilliant but flawed of communicators, would lead to a predilection for presentation over substance have all too soon been born out by the publication of the clearly Saatchi inspired “personal credo and core beliefs” issued by Michael Howard.

Students of the extraordinary story of how the two Saatchi brothers created and then destroyed the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising empire are referred to two authoritative works on the subject - Kevin Goldman’s “Conflicting Accounts” and Ivan Fallon’s earlier “The Brothers”. It is difficult to imagine how anyone who has read these books would want either of the Saatchis anywhere near any organisation which purports to be ruled by principle or moral values - but the Tories are not the first to succumb to Maurice Saatchi’s persuasive power.

In the 1990s I was working for the international oil company Shell at a time when there was growing internal concern about how the company was perceived around the world. There was criticism on many fronts of Shell’s apparently uncaring approach to business – not least to the environment with the Brent Spar disposal saga in the headlines. At the same time there was fierce criticism of Shell’s policies in Nigeria prompted by the then Nigerian’s regime’s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and by suggestions that Shell had been in some way an accomplice in shoring up that offensive regime. Many of us working in the company at the time thought that the way forward was to institute a properly funded and factual communications campaign (including corporate advertising) which would redress some of the criticism. We knew that (although some of this criticism was justified) Shell, in the main, ran its business in a proper and morally defensible way and that we should say so. But there seemed then little appetite amongst the technocrats who ran the Group for such a campaign and initially nothing happened.

In the autumn of 1997 I was working in the Middle East when I was asked, along with others in the advertising and communications business in Shell, to attend a meeting at which a new communications initiative would be revealed to us. None of those attending this meeting had been in any way involved in this initiative despite the fact that we were part of the relatively small group of communications professionals in Shell around the world. At the meeting we were presented as a fait accompli the basics of a corporate campaign that would be launched internationally early in 1998. This campaign theme was that Shell had a “Core purpose” and that this purpose was to “Help people build a better world”. The presented rational was that history teaches us that things get better over time and so “the future is a better place” and because of this Shell invests – the then Shell capital budget was more then any other company (not just oil company) in the world. This theme was supported by a three minute film featuring a baby (the “future”) against a film montage which depicted the changes of the twentieth century. As this presentation unfolded it became clear that not only had none of us who were Shell communications managers around the world been involved but also that Shell’s global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT) was also out of the loop. The film and the assorted ragbag of pretentious, boastful and implausible slogans and claims had been developed at the very top of Shell under its head Cor Herkstroter, a sensitive and rather Calvinist Dutchman, aided and abetted by Maurice Saatchi!

After his removal from Saatchi and Saatchi, Maurice had wasted little time in founding a new advertising agency called M&C Saatchi - and it was this agency which had found its way through to Herkstroter and the top management of Shell. Where Herkstroter met Maurice Saatchi (newly ennobled by John Major as “Lord Saatchi of Staplefield”) is not known – they would hardly normally move in the same circles. What is clear, however, is that Saatchi swiftly got himself into a position of influence which allowed him to bypass the established Shell communications structure (and JWT the established advertising agency) and get an assignment to develop a communications position for the Shell brand. This was the “core purpose” positioning referred to above and which was supported by the “baby” film.

Fortunately when Shell’s communications professionals saw the Saatchi campaign proposals a storm of protest gathered force not only because of its preposterous content but also because it had been put together completely separated from Shell’s other advertising and communications initiatives. Although it took a while the campaign was eventually dispensed with – as were M&C Saatchi - and Maurice Saatchi had no further involvement with Shell.

The learning point from the Shell story is that the new joint Chairman of the Conservative Party is one of the most skilled salesmen of the modern era. He and his brother built the world’s largest advertising agency based on their undoubted ability to sell to and for their clients. Their fall from these heights can be traced back to 1987 when the Saatchis decided that they wanted to buy a bank and launched an initiative to acquire the Midland Bank. Suddenly they were out of their depth and potentially in a business that they did not know. They failed in their then wish to be bankers, but in failing they seriously wounded their advertising agency whose shares collapsed. The Saatchis never really recovered form this debacle. The Shell story shows that for Maurice Saatchi the message is everything – even if that message lacks credibility or substance. To suggest that Shell’s core purpose was to “help people build a better world” was as facile as it was patently untrue. But Lord Saatchi was such a persuasive advocate of this positioning that he not only persuaded the top management of Shell but got them in principle to agree to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promulgate this message.

When I read the Saatchi inspired list of “beliefs” that he has clearly convinced Michael Howard to sign up to, I saw that this list was absolutely consistent with the style of messaging that Saatchi had wanted to force on Shell. If in Shell we had followed Saatchi’s recommendations we would have been a laughing stock - fortunately we just avoided this. Unfortunately for him the Leader of the Conservative Party has fallen into the trap that Shell avoided and he will no doubt spend months deep in the mire of these superficial, anodyne and bland statements that will be rightly derided as all gloss and no substance. No doubt following months of derision Mr. Howard will see that he can do without the shallow “ad speak” that Saatchi has persuaded him to espouse and he might then be forced to go back to the basics of policies rather than the gloss of words.