The British ad men who made Mad Men look tame! Screaming rows. Dirty tricks. Backstabbing and booze galore. Just an ordinary day in the surreal world of the controversial Saatchi brothers, by LORD BELL
In yesterday's Daily Mail, advertising guru Tim Bell delivered waspish pen-portraits of the many international figures he has met. Today, in the final part of our serialisation of his gossipy memoirs, he tells how he fell in — and then fell out — with Charles and Maurice Saatchi . . .
One Monday morning, early on in my career as an advertising executive, the phone rang and a voice said: ‘Hello, my name’s Saatchi. We are thinking of starting an agency. Would you like to come round and have an interview?’
My meeting with Charles did not include any introductory pleasantries — he is constitutionally incapable of them. He told me he would pay me only half what I was already getting — although there might be a 4.5 per cent option on the equity.
I had not the faintest idea what that meant, but I agreed without thinking about it, because he was already an advertising legend and I really wanted to work with him.
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Saatchi and Saatchi: The brothers Maurice and Charles ran an agency?dramatically different from any Tim Bell had known. Saatchi & Saatchi was brutality from start to finish. It began with aggression, had aggression in the middle and had aggression at the end. Maurice had this saying that for us to win, others had to fail, and he was right. They made the characters in the TV drama Mad Men (inset) look tame
To this day, and for all the ups and downs, I believe that Charles is one of the greatest ever creative geniuses and Maurice is one of the cleverest people I will ever meet.
Certainly, they were dramatically different from any advertising people I’d ever known. Almost every day, Charles came in and said: ‘What accounts have you won? What have we got? What are we doing?’ He’d bellow at Maurice and Maurice would shout back and I would sit in the middle, with things flying past my head (a chair hit me once).
I suspect that Charles had always bashed Maurice up, since their childhood. He used to say to him: ‘I can’t believe you came from the same womb as me.’ Saatchi & Saatchi was brutality from start to finish. It began with aggression, had aggression in the middle and had aggression at the end. Maurice had this saying that for us to win, others had to fail, and he was right.
We started to attract clients quite quickly. Charles once knocked up a jeans ad for a new department store with a random picture of a romantic French couple and the lines: ‘Pour un homme et une femme.’ And lo and behold it got an award. Next, we got Avalon Promotions, run by a man called Alan Cluer (who set up the business after he won a lot of money on the football pools).
They ran these full-page ads offering bulk-buy scissors for under five shillings (25p). Then Cluer went bankrupt and left us to deal with a ￡1 million bad debt.
Charles was livid. That was probably the first time I saw his really violent streak. He got an iron bar, found out where Cluer had parked his Maserati and smashed it up.
Truth be known, in those early days, none of us really knew how to run the agency. Half the time, people in the company just made up their own titles, so after a while I made myself managing director. The Press started calling me ‘the third brother’: you can imagine how well that went down.
Maurice had his own articulation of advertising being when an idea that captures the imagination of the public makes them change the way they think, feel or behave.
Charles Saatchi would growl that the advertising industry was a waste of space and that clients would do better if they buried their money in a hole in the ground
Charles, meanwhile, would growl that the advertising industry was a waste of space and that clients would do better if they buried their money in a hole in the ground.
The way to make the agency famous, he decided, was to be in Campaign, the industry paper, every week. Fortunately, the publication had been started by Maurice, so we could always persuade the editor to run a story.
Charles would read about the launch of a new brand then call Campaign and make it sound as if we were about to win the account.
After a while, he got bored with ringing up under his real name, so he’d hold a handkerchief over his nose and tell them it was ‘Jack Robinson’. Most of his stories were calculated to destabilise clients or rival agencies to our advantage.
After a while, he had other directors at it, including me. So I’d phone Campaign from a call box, and claim to be ‘John Robinson’.
Charles was also preoccupied with the agency’s size. If we had a prospective client due in, he would get us to bulk up the office staff with ‘extras’ — friends, family members, people off the street — and plonk them down at a desk, telling them to pretend to be working. We’d give them a few quid just to sit there.
Eventually, the brothers decided to recruit more account directors. They dragged in ten candidates all at exactly the same time, and left them in reception, all in a row, avoiding eye contact with each other and not knowing what to say.
Charles walked into the reception area pretending to be casual, and then came back in and said that he liked the third one from the left.
We asked why, and he said it was because that person was the tallest. He had a view that account men should speak impeccable, received pronunciation English, be very tall and thin, wear a suit at all times and know the names of gentlemen’s clubs where they serve fine wine.
In fact he expected them not to know anything about advertising and thought it represented a nuisance if they did.
Maurice, meanwhile, was the brains behind the takeovers of a number of other ad agencies. The first, in 1975, was a firm called Compton-Garland. As a result, we suddenly had joint media directors, joint creative directors, joint managing directors, joint everything. Assimilating that lot was a fairly brutal process. Some people left; some just got obliterated; some got so humiliated that they had to flee; some were just cut off at the knees.
Everybody plotted against each other. On the second floor was a row of deputy chairmen, none of whom had any power or anything to do. It was known as ‘Death Row’.
Praise for anyone was always in short supply. I wanted the brothers to say: ‘Tim, you’re doing a bloody good job. Thank you.’ But that’s the one thing they’d never do. I think they feared that once you praise someone, he’ll just stop trying.
One day, I was shown the original draft of The Brothers, a book about the Saatchis, in which the author had called me ‘the only really nice person in their story’. But Charles had copy approval, so he had that taken out. It was the Saatchi way.
We were soon the fifth largest agency in the UK, with more than 100 staff. By this time I’d got myself a chauffeur, because I had to go out to lunch and drink a lot while entertaining clients. In fact, sometimes I could hardly speak after lunch.
Maurice Saatchi shares a drink with Ffion Hague, the wife of William Hague, and Baroness Buscombe (right)
The industry imposes enormously on your private life, so you’ve got to make it palatable.
By the same token, I tried to make life easy for the Saatchi staff. The company paid for everything — mortgages, debts, all sorts. Our view was that if you get up in the morning worrying over the bills, you’re going to produce c*** work.
In many ways, I was running the place — and the Saatchis were happy for me to, because they were more interested in plotting their next corporate takeover.
Charles’s great line was: ‘Why tell the truth when a good lie will do?’ I’m not sure he wanted to have any connection with reality, partly because it was too boring and partly because it required you to do things.
He hardly ever attended presentations to clients; instead, he’d sit in a projection box and spy on us. It was horrible — you were always aware of his eyes looking at you.
On one occasion, we were doing a presentation for a man from Campbell’s soups, when he said Charles’s ideas were too soft and he needed something more like a hard sell.
At which point, I heard this noise and Charles stormed into the room, and came right up to the guy’s face. ‘You want a hard sell, do you? Well, here it is.’ And he banged his fist on all the work, shouting: ‘Hard sell, hard sell, hard sell, soft sell, mid sell, hard sell — there you go, take your pick.’
Then there was the issue of Charles’s modern art, which I hated. So he put a sign on my door, which read: ‘Phil E. Stein.’
Painting of Margaret and Denis Thatcher by Stella Vine. Charles Saatchi bought it for ￡2,200
He’d hung a work by artist Julian Schnabel on my wall — a large rectangular thing made of mud with a tin lid stuck in it, plus half a Coke can and some footprints. One day, he came at me, and I went flying against the wall, landing on the painting.
He shouted: ‘You’re destroying the f***ing painting. It’s worth ￡100,000 more than you. For God’s sake, stand up straight and stop falling on my things.’
Despite all these quirks, we were the pioneers of the UK advertising industry and we were making loads of money. I’d walked out of my marriage when I was 28. Afterwards, I bought a stream of Ferraris and Maseratis, and once even gave a girlfriend a Porsche for her birthday.
HOW MARGARET THATCHER STOPPED CHARLES SAATCHI SHAFTING ME
When I finally left Saatchi & Saatchi, the brothers didn’t want me anywhere near the Conservative Party account. But everyone had reckoned without Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, who said that they’d become too ‘gimmicky’ and negative.
I brought in my new agency, Lowe Howard-Spink & Bell. We came up with a dozen or so examples of what the Government was doing well and added the line: ‘Life’s better with the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it.’ Margaret took one look and immediately said: ‘That’s it! At last.’
Charles Saatchi wanted revenge. So they mounted an all-out attack. Rumours started about my private life. Then they launched what’s known as a bear raid on the share price of my new agency — which caused ￡12 million to be wiped off our share price on one Wednesday alone. Shortly afterwards, Margaret rang me at home and said: ‘I understand that those brothers are trying to damage your company. Tell me what I can do to help.’
I replied: ‘Margaret, please don’t. You’ve got a f***ing country to run. I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
She said: ‘I know. But all of us need our friends. I’ll speak to James Hanson.’
James Hanson: He helped Tim Bell at Mrs Thatcher's asking
Hanson, then one of Britain’s leading industrialists, was a strong Conservative supporter who had Saatchi & Saatchi working on his brands. The next thing I knew, I’d been summoned to a meeting in his office, to which Maurice and Charles had also been invited.
Maurice then rambled on about how much they hated me, adding that I was a disgusting person. To which Hanson told him: ‘If you don’t stop your activity, I am going to mount a bear raid to destroy your share price. In the meantime, I’m going to invest a quarter of a million pounds in Lowes in order to return their share price to the correct level — and you will stop this nonsense.’
Thus my agency’s share price went back to where it had been before. Soon after, Margaret asked me round for a drink at Downing Street. ‘I believe James has sorted it out,’ she said.
I said: ‘Yes, it’s absolutely fine.’
She continued: ‘Those people (the Saatchis) are not the kind you can do business with.
‘I understand they want to buy the Midland Bank. Well, I’ve spoken to the Governor [of the Bank of England] and they won’t.’
And sure enough, the bid was killed.
I was also the guy who’d be sitting in the bar at 4am, talking to the barman. Weekends were irrelevant because we worked all the time. But you paid a price: you lost friends, ate the wrong food, drank too much.
Eventually, somebody offered something to help you get through the night, and like a fool, you took it.
By 1984, I’d had enough. But when I told Charles I was thinking of moving to another agency, he said: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t leave. You can’t afford to.’ He told the Press my future was no longer with Saatchi & Saatchi. It allowed him to make it sound as though he’d got rid of me — though I’d already resigned.
Some time later, a writer on the Financial Times told me that she’d written a rather flattering eulogy of my time at the agency. Unfortunately, Charles found out. If it was printed, he told her, he’d personally make sure she never worked again.
- Right Or Wrong by Tim Bell will be published by Bloomsbury on October 9 at ￡25. Order at mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0808 272 0808. P&P is free for a limited time.
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