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Public revelations

In Advertising, Communicate, Dubai, Published journalism, Q&A on November 23, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Saatchi’s outspoken CEO Kevin Roberts tells Communicate that the time for analysis is over. Advertising is going to get ugly

Originally published in Communicate, June 2009

Saatchi & Saatchi global CEO Kevin Roberts was back in town recently to check up on the new regional management at the agency. A year after he created controversy across the Middle East by calling the region’s creative output “awful,” and the quality of work “crap,” Roberts’ agency is hoping to reinvent itself with a restructure.

Saatchi Dubai has lost CEO Steve Anastasiadis and chief creative director Ed Jones. It now has a new regional CEO in Elias Ashkar, who will oversee all Saatchi offices in the region. Like Roberts, Ashkar worked at Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, and the two are old friends. Danny Higgins is the new regional chief creative director, and Joseph Atallah has become the agency’s first regional chief strategic officer.

We sidestepped (most) management issues, though, and began by asking Roberts whether he had revised his opinion of the region’s advertising industry since the start of last summer.

When you were here last year, you said creativity in the Middle East hasn’t moved much beyond the Eighties. How does it look now?

I think the Lynx was very close to a mortal blow for creativity in this region, and if we have escaped by the skin of our teeth, major action needs to be taken and I would not be giving the agency [FP7 Doha] a pass. I understand that Lynx has said all is forgiven, take action internally and come back next year. I would have red-carded them, not yellow-carded them.
It is corruption. I found it unethical, corrupt, inexcusable, unjustifiable, and shameful. I think of great agencies like Leo Burnett here in the Middle East (who I know really well), and to see them compete in the show and be swamped by this kind of thing, I find really distasteful. It’s criminal really. The punishment for this should be much stronger than it has been so far.

What needs to change in the way we approach marketing today?
These are really tough times. So, you’d better strap on your bulletproof chest and your waterproof back, because shit is going to come at you for the next 12 months. There is going to be no good news heading your way. So, if you think this is going to be beautiful, if you think this is about Roger Federer, it’s not; it’s about Rafael Nadal. If you think this is about Brazil, it’s about Germany. This is about bad news coming at you, because we’re not in a credit crunch anymore; we’re in a confidence crunch, and that’s much harder to deal with. I want my people to get used to the idea that this is going to be ugly.

Recently you’ve been using the term, “Winning ugly together.” What does that mean?
As a beast, we [men] go to public schools; we play rugby, we’ve gone on cross-country runs, and we get up early, OK? There is nothing deeper in the spirit of man than lying on the field of the battle, bloodied, bruised, his arms around his mate, victorious. Nothing quite beats that.
The ugly part is unleashing that spirit and recognizing it. It means being very decisive, focusing on what’s core and what’s not – and focusing absolutely on what’s core, reinventing the core, transforming it, and eliminating ruthlessly everything that’s not core.
And the winning part is pretty simple, right? The alternative is to lose. There’s going to be a lot of losers in this. We’re not in a recession now, and we’re not in a depression. We’re in a catastrophe.
We’re going to hit the bottom sometime this year and it’s going to level out and we’re going to certainly have to pay for what we consume. It’s a brand new idea for your generation. And it’s a scary idea. There’s going to be winners and losers in this economy. The next 24 months, no matter what business you’re in, is all about simplicity, consolidation, and gaining market share at the expense of a competitor.
This is not one of these nice, beautiful win-win things that the media likes to talk about. This isn’t going to happen, baby. You’re going to have to win because, if not, you’re going to lose.

Have you seen a change in how agencies are run?
I’ve been running Saatchi for 11 years and I’ve seen the spectrum move. When I first came in here, information was king and the Internet was just open. And then information rapidly became a table stake because of course the beauty of the Internet is that it’s open to everyone, and that’s its beauty.
Then the name of the game became knowledge. You remember we moved into the age of knowledge. It was about hiring really bright people, hiring MBAs. Harvard had a professor of knowledge management and all this kind of crap. And we found out pretty soon that smart people with smart training programs got you pretty much to parity. There was no great differentiator.
The great differentiator was a positioning. So Saatchi had a position that was Lovemarks, TBWA had a positioning that was Disruption (which is a very good kind of positioning), and those were the things that became decisive.
And then the buzzword became insight. From information to knowledge, you developed insight, clients developed insights.
The one common factor I found in this fetish for insight is that all insights were non-insightful. Because all they are when you look at them is an agglomeration of data, accumulation of data or a justification for going into a position. That’s what they are, that’s what insights are.

Is that why you have appointed Joseph Atallah as chief strategy officer for the region?
What we’ve said is, forget insight. What we need from Joe are revelations. So you, Joe, are not the head of planning; you’re the head of revelations. We need you to explore a consumer’s feelings, not what she says or what she does. Come up with a bloody revelation, surprise us with the obvious, deliver the revelation to our creative department, and from that revelation will become a stunning piece of work across every touch point. That’s the idea.
Consumers are not driven by analysis, research or numbers. And all numbers do is show success models. The iPod could never have been developed without a revelation. The revelation was: People want personalized free music on the go. But that wasn’t an insight; that was an unbelievable revelation. Sony just said, “The numbers say you’re stupid, you’re wrong, the Walkman is fine. Nobody wants 12,000 songs.”

Are you going to be opening Saatchi S [the division of the agency that deals with sustainability] here?
I think first we’re going to open Saatchi and Saatchi X [the agency’s shopper marketing arm] in a big way, because I think there’s an enormous potential for us to get involved at point of sale. If you look at the supermarkets around here, it’s still below-the-line. It’s still sales promotions, that classic thing. With Saatchi X, we work for Wal-Mart, we work for Carrefour, we work for P&G in Wal-Mart, and we work for Frito Lay in the US.
The whole focus now of Saatchi X is not to turn shoppers into buyers, which is what it used to be, but to improve the life of shoppers in the store. So, how do you do that? That is a real challenge, given the retail environment. Saatchi X will be the first priority [and should be arriving imminently this year]. Then I think sustainability will probably be something we look at in 2010 and 2011.

Have you switched those expansion plans since last year?
Yeah, because the spending from clients has moved from the long term to the short term and moved from strategy to execution, and budgets have switched really to below-the-line and in-store. So we think there’s an awesome opportunity now to build in-store capability. Not the old-school below-the-line promotion, but through Saatchi & Saatchi X.

Do you think above-the-line is on the way out?
There will be no line. There will be big ideas companies. It will be those people that come up with revelations. We live in the age of the idea. There will be creative shops. Hence my wake-up call to the Middle East, that if you don’t get creative here, you won’t exist. Because ideas, not processes, not functionality, not systems, are driving consumer choice in this new age.

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