The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

The Fine Line Between Victory And Vulgarity …

Let me start by saying I have a lot of respect for Charles and Maurice Saatchi.

What they did … the legacy they created … is, even now, amazing.

Their agency was responsible for so many of the ads that went on to define my childhood – both in good and bad ways – however, as I got older and entered the industry, I started to understand just how audacious they were in terms of what they thought the ad industry could be. And do.

Back then, their mantra was ‘Nothing Is Impossible’.

And they certainly lived up to it.

But while this led to some truly incredible work, it also led to the brothers ultimate downfall when they tried – amazingly and brilliantly – to buy Midland Bank.

There have been many reasons written about why their plan didn’t work out … and what happened subsequently … but I have to say, I’d imagine working for them at the time – with their sheer confidence, swagger and ambition – would have felt pretty intoxicating.

However this post isn’t about that, it’s about what happens when, in your quest to keep moving forward, you lose your values or self awareness and end up being a caricature of what you once were.

I’ve seen it happen.

I once worked with an advertising great who ended up believing everything they did was great, simply because they did it.

It didn’t take long before they were phoning in their work.

Not caring about what was going on around them.

Saying whatever they wanted because they believed whatever they said was wanted.

It was pretty tragic and I remember a very horrible conversation between us, where I said he had become the beast he had been obsessed with slaying.

It didn’t go well for me.

And, within a year, it didn’t go well for him … when his deluded arrogance took a step too far and his actions and behaviors couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Nowadays I occasionally see him spouting racist shit about immigration and foreign workers, which I find even more shocking given he spent so many years living across the World, not to mention – if rumours are to be believed – doing unspeakable things with certain people when he was in Asia.

But this isn’t a post about an old, short-lived, delusional colleague – nor it is to suggest the Saatchi brothers are anything like my old, delusional colleague … however this is about the moment [at least for me] when the Saatchi brothers revealed they may have not grown with the times, but were lost in old times.


It was early Jan, 1990.

Saatchi was – I believe – the biggest agency in the World.

And the World was changing.

The party of the 80’s was over and everyone was trying to work out what the next decade had in store. One thing that had already started to happen was the fall of communism.

Protests had been happening throughout 1989 and they continued to gain momentum when, in November of that year, The Berlin Wall – a symbol of Communist/Western ideals – fell.

And it was on that wall Saatchi had placed that ad.

Not on the Western side, but the Eastern.

It wasn’t up for long, but they paid to have it there.

A way of showing their mantra.

An act of deliberate provocation for shock value.

An attempt to keep the spirit of 80’s excess alive.

A claim it was welcoming East German’s to independence and choice.

But the problem was, it wasn’t the 80’s anymore and so it came off as an act of commercial vulgarity. An act of cynical shamelessness to try and capture the headlines. And suddenly, the agency that could do no wrong suddenly went from being audacious to trying too hard.

Or said another way, Saatchi’s were trying to hold on to the past rather than lead the future.

Can you imagine an agency doing that now?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of them out there that have a complete lack of self awareness … not to mention another bunch whose entire business model appears to be ‘doing things first’ … regardless of its value to culture, creativity or commerce … however I doubt even those guys would think doing this would be a good idea today.

Or at least I hope not.

And that’s why I believe a positioning is not as good as a point of view.

Because positioning’s are set in stone.

They don’t move with the times … they stand firm, shouting their same tune regardless of what is going on. But a point of view is different. There’s flex in that. It lets you express what you believe, but how you express it is shaped by what is going on around it.

There’s longevity in a point of view.

There’s resonance in a point of view.

There’s less need to shock, because you always speak what others are trying to say.

Saatchi’s continue to do great work.

Saatchi’s continues to be filled with great people.

But I’ll always wonder what they could have been if they’d not crossed the line from audacious to caricature.

You can read the story of the Berlin Wall ad, here.

29 Comments so far
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Great post Robert. I agree with you that the Saatchi brothers were audacious to the core. Trying to buy a bank is a demonstration of that and would have been so interesting to watch had they succeeded. I’m not sure if the ad on the wall is the moment they lost their way. It does smack of 1980’s arrogance, but they went on to do great work post the event, so maybe more a misstep or a sign of things to come. The industry owes them a great debt for making advertising a force business dare not ignore and without them, we may not have had HHCL and CPB to name but two.

Comment by George

Greed is good = Shamelessness is good.

Comment by Pete

Fair. And maybe there were other signs for people who were working at the agency at the time. Or maybe they were all consumed with the boldness that embodied the agency. But from my perspective – as an outsider – I saw the self publicity with the wall as the first truly crass thing they’d done. And that’s including working for Maggie – even though I begrudgingly admit the work was excellent. Damnit. Ha.

Comment by Rob

maurice and charles were successful because it was always about them. they had fuckloads of talent and could spot it in others but the thing that drove their success was the cult of their fucking personality and a work ethic that put every other fucker to shame. the moment it stopped being about what they wanted to do was the moment they lost interest in what they were doing.

Comment by andy@cynic

That’s a brilliant review of them.

Comment by DH

That’s fantastic Andy.

Someone wrote this about them too:

“They used to say we need to be in Campaign every week of the year and we don’t care if the story is good or bad. They never took no for an answer turning many pitch losses into wins. Yes- some of the bravado was poorly timed, but today the industry could use an agency who isn’t afraid of self promotion. Most big CEOS knew Saatchi- I doubt many today can even name an agency.”

Another time. But maybe there’s elements of it we could absolutely do with now. In fact, need now.

Comment by Rob

BTW, I assume the ex-colleague who is now a delusional racist is the alleged camera happy gentleman?

Comment by George

Ooolala? If it isn’t, it should be.

Comment by Pete

Yep. The one and only. (Thank god)

Comment by Rob

This explains a lot.

Comment by John

He was a prick.

Comment by Bazza

he had talent. but he preferred revelling in being the self appointed outspoken fucking misfit who said he had all the answers and just told it as it is. he was trump before fucking trump. better writer but just as fucking dangerous.

Comment by andy@cynic

You are writing really good posts at the moment Robert. This is another of them. I worked for Saatchi shortly after the brothers had been expelled and I remember the sense the great adventure was over. Of course M&C came from out the ashes and while it had an excellent, PR managed start, it never hit the audacious heights of their first child and neither have since. They were a force that, in the early days, couldn’t be reckoned with.

Comment by Pete

To be fair, there are few who are as bold and intriguing as the best, British agencies of the 80’s. Hell, there’s hardly any of the 80’s giants still left – either bought out or merged to oblivion. But there are some and a new breed emerging – and given the conditions they face versus their 80’s counterparts – they should be a beacon for all of us.

Comment by Rob

Yes and you have worked (and are about to work) for many of them.

Comment by Pete

The thing is agency leaders back then had a seat at the boardroom table and were pushing real creative standards. It seems to me that most agency leaders today have neither.

Comment by Pete

The agency leadership scene today is all about having more money but less credibility and creativity. The alarming fact is that I think many agency leaders will be fine with that deal.

Comment by Bazza

That is so true Pete and Baz.

Comment by Rob

This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the release of greatest album of the 1990’s, Morning Glory.

This post in many ways shows the trajectory of another pair of swaggering brothers..

with Be Here Now being their Berlin Wall moment.

Timely and I am sure much appreciated by a certain drummer in a certain band, if you’d make mention of that anniversary (not to suck up or anything, just because it is the right thing to do)

Comment by niko

Good to have you back Niko. You have been missed. In relation to this post, at least the Saatchi brothers still talk to each other. Or so I believe.

Comment by Bazza

Niko!!! So great to have you pop in here.

And yes, 25 years since the brothers got on long enough to make a decent album. Whether it was the best album of the 90’s is open to debate, but it’s their best.

Comment by Rob

I did not know about the Berlin Wall stunt. Your description of it as crass is the perfect description. However as you also mention, if it had happened a few years earlier, then it would likely have been regarded as a pragmatic move by an ambitious company. The times move faster than the public realise.

Excellent post Robert.

Comment by Lee Hill

Moving into the 90s, fcuk was certainly victorious, but was it vulgar?

Comment by John

If I remember correctly, the FCUK expressions were focused on laughing at the ‘rules’ of the 80’s rather than reflecting them. But that could be my memory.

Comment by Rob

all I see in that photo are the fucking ties.

Comment by andy@cynic

I didn’t know they did that, but I’m also not that surprised. You make a good point about being stuck in the times which is funny given you still wear the fashion from 1984.

Comment by DH


Comment by Bazza

Assholes. But fair.

Comment by Rob

It was the first agency I worked for and I remember being a university student and being ecstatic because of all the past work they did…unfortunately that quickly diminished when I realized that the culture there (hopefully that’s changed) was all about resting on their laurel’s and Lovemarks, whatever the fuck that was…

Comment by DLIN

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