Advertising is a fickle business. Its stars tend to move around, jumping from agency to agency and often only settling when their name is on the door of their own shop. Jeremy Sinclair’s career therefore seems an anomaly. Of his 40 years in the industry, he has worked at only two agencies, both of which bear the most famous name in advertising: Saatchi.
Sinclair began working with Charles Saatchi fresh out of the advertising course at Watford Art School. “I left there clutching my portfolio and my diploma in advertising writing and got a job with Charles,” he says. “He ran a creative consultancy called Cramersaatchi, with his art director, Ross Cramer. In 1970, Ross went off to become a commercials director. Charles brought Maurice in from Haymarket, and Cramersaatchi became Saatchi & Saatchi.”
From the very beginning the agency wanted to be different. “We wanted to do good work,” he says. “Charles had been at CDP, and he came with a fiery, red-hot reputation. Our ambition was to see if it was possible to be big, and good – because all the good work in those days was done by smaller shops – people like PKL or BMP, which was minute at that time. The big agencies, like O&M, JWT, Burnetts, they were all doing boring work. It’s not the same now. But in those days they were seriously dull, profoundly dull, maybe deliberately so. But we thought, let’s see if we can be big, and be good.”
No gentlemen’s club
“We were insatiably ambitious,” Sinclair continues. “All of us were. It was an interesting combination – though I’m a writer by background, I’m fairly numerate and interested in business. In order to pay my way through art school I had played the stock market, so I was reasonably au fait with the way business worked. This was never going to be a gentlemen’s club, stopping for sherry at 12 o’clock. This was going to be an advertising business, hopefully the biggest in the country. Nobody else was either that ego-centric or that ambitious. Or that naïve. But that was the aim.”
Such focus was indeed unusual at the time, when lengthy, boozy lunches were the industry norm. Saatchi & Saatchi wanted to shake up the business in other ways too, to break with the traditional structures that were proving stifling to creatives even in 1970. “The original plan was to have no account men,” Sinclair says, “so there wasn’t a suit in sight. Maurice was the nearest we got to a suit. But that was soon found to be impractical, because there were so many things the creative department just never got around to doing. Contact reports, repeat fees and similar details, these were things we couldn’t be troubled with. So after a year or so we got in suits, which were desperately needed. My partner, Bill Muirhead joined on that wave. We needed someone to hold things together and go to the meetings and all the rest of it.”
A more successful innovation was Charles Saatchi’s early recognition of the power of another seemingly modern concept: PR. While still at Cramersaatchi, Sinclair created a piece of advertising that remains world-famous. The Pregnant Man poster was made for the Family Planning Association as an advertisement for doctors’ waiting rooms, but it became known around the world due to Charles Saatchi’s canny knack for PR. “He sussed getting PR through advertising,” says Sinclair. “The Pregnant Man became famous not for being an ad, it became famous by getting editorial. Charles worked that out early on. By getting it into Time magazine it (and we) became famous.”
The agency’s plans for growth developed nicely, in part through acquisition, and by 1978 it was among the biggest shops in the country, if not the biggest. At this point they began working with the Conservative Party, an account that would seal their reputation and would change political advertising 2 3 in the UK forever. The agency is credited for introducing ‘negative advertising’ to the UK political sphere – a practice that was used in the US at the time, but deemed too cut-throat for Britain. Their first piece of work for the Tories was the iconic Labour Isn’t Working poster, which proved devastatingly effective. “We approached it determined to make it stand out,” Sinclair explains. “No one had ever done anything quite like Labour Isn’t Working. Until then, political advertising was inoffensively boring. We thought it could be the most interesting stuff in the world.
“The prime minister at the time was James Callaghan, and it is said the arrival of this poster forced him to delay calling the election until the following summer. During that winter, people were striking like mad – it was Labour’s infamous ‘winter of discontent’ – you had dustbin workers on strike, you had graveyard workers on strike, miners on strike. If he’d called the election in the autumn he might have had a chance. When he did call it, Mrs Thatcher won it by a country mile.”
Sinclair describes Thatcher as a “great client”, though even she didn’t fully grasp the concept of using advertising to bait your opponent at the start. “When she first saw the Labour Isn’t Working poster, she said ‘why is the biggest thing on this poster the word Labour? We’re Conservative.’ We said it doesn’t quite work like that…. And she bought it. That was the start of a 30-year relationship.
“One reason Labour were in trouble was because they didn’t pick an agency,” he continues. “They relied on groups of volunteers. Well that’s not really how you do it. Mrs Thatcher had the nous to appoint someone. So we weren’t just a group of friends helping out, we were employed to do a job. Which means you do it in a slightly more professional manner.”
eighties life Thatcher, the Conservative Party, and Saatchi & Saatchi became intrinsically linked, with the agency appearing to represent much of entrepreneurial drive, and the ensuing excess, of the 1980s. Tales of the agency in this period are legend, though Sinclair paints a slightly different picture from the usual grandiose image of the era. “There was a certain showmanship,” he admits. “Our managing director at the time was Tim Bell, and he was very good at talking. He had the gift of the gab and was a larger-than-life character. If I look back at it now, do I think it was a period of extravagance? Maybe compared to these straitened times, but it didn’t feel like it at the time, it just felt like we worked pretty hard. Maybe people did drugs, and got drunk and the rest of it, but I didn’t. And my department as far as I knew didn’t. We worked whatever hours were required. So we were in some ways running too fast to get into this wonderful, slick Mad Men image that you see. It wasn’t like that.
“All we were interested in was, did you have interesting ideas?,” he continues. “If you do, you’re a hero, if you don’t, pick another agency or another job. A lot of the time we were running quite fast just to keep up. Business was pouring in.”
The agency ended the decade badly, however, with profits falling for the first time. Redundancies followed, and by 1994, tensions with shareholders, particularly Chicago-based fund manager David Herro, had reached crisis point. “Herro had this idea that Maurice was too extravagant,” Sinclair says.
“We’d had a terrible, terrible year – there was a recession and we were ill-prepared for it. But oddly enough we’d turned a corner – for the first time in ages the numbers that were coming back from the various divisions were ahead of the budget. Then Herro got it into his head that he wanted Maurice out, at any price, despite the fact that I’d been over to Chicago previously to see him and done a deal to keep Maurice,” Sinclair alleges.
Maurice Saatchi eventually resigned, a move that led to the resignation of several top Saatchi executives, including Sinclair, who felt that he could no longer stay at the agency. “I, together with Bill Muirhead and David Kershaw, thought we’re not prepared to spend the next few years sticking back together something that we’d told people not to break,” says Sinclair. “I told the board, I told anyone who was interested that removing Maurice was not a good move. There were huge clients like BA and Mars who said we don’t recommend this. Clients don’t normally say these kinds of things, but if they do, you don’t even dream of going against them. The client is the boss. So to go ahead with it was just an act of stupidity. It wasn’t to say that we hadn’t grown excessively, or we hadn’t bought too many companies, I’m not denying any of those things. The company could have been better run. But was that the right time and the right thing to do? No.”
Famously, Sinclair, alongside Muirhead, Kershaw, and the Saatchi brothers, formed a new agency, M&C Saatchi. A number of large clients, including Dixons and British Airways, moved with them. Rather than put their names on the door, and ensure lasting personal fame within the industry, Sinclair, Muirhead and Kershaw decided to capitalise on the notoriety of the Saatchi name in the new enterprise. “Had Maurice and Charles not joined us we probably would have put our names on the door, but then I thought it better to call it Saatchi than Muirhead Kershaw Sinclair,” says Sinclair. “We thought why not begin with the terrific head start of having Maurice and Charles, their presence and their name.”
The team learnt from the mistakes made at Saatchi & Saatchi, and took a different tack with the new company. “The strategy for this company is, in one important way, the opposite of the old one,” says Sinclair. “There we grew hugely by acquisition. Here we’ve grown hugely organically. We’ve grown by finding good people and backing them, which was the opposite of how we grew last time.”
Vote for change
Sinclair still works at the agency, but leaves the running of the creative department to M&C’s executive creative director, Graham Fink. He did return to work on the recent Conservative Party campaign, however, a job he clearly relished. For a period, the agency didn’t work with the Tories, due to a clash with the Transport for London account while Ken Livingstone was Mayor. So the Tories began the election campaign with a different agency, though after a shaky start – including the David Cameron airbrushed photograph debacle – they returned to the team they knew best. The resulting M&C Saatchi campaign included a series of posters featuring a smiling Gordon Brown next to damning accusations of his time in government.
Amusingly, the campaign saw Sinclair in direct competition with his old agency, as Saatchi & Saatchi took on Labour’s campaign. While this battle made for good headlines, the once-deep rift between the two agencies is now largely healed, as evinced by the joint party thrown by the two agencies for the 40th birthday.
Curiously, despite his strong links to the Conservative Party, one of Sinclair’s extracurricular activities is as a trustee of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation. This conjures a surprising image, the creator of the infamous Demon Eyes poster working alongside the former prime minister. Of Blair, Sinclair comments: “In terms of being a presenter – I don’t mean to be rude – but he could easily have been in advertising. The Faith Foundation is something that I feel is a good thing. I’m in favour of faith and that’s what the Foundation supports. He needed trustees but the main direction of it, day to day, is run by himself and the chief executive.”
Looking at the current advertising industry from his 40 years of experience, Sinclair acknowledges that much has changed over the decades. The client relationship is more collaborative now, while audiences are more media savvy. “You can now do group research and you’ll find people in the focus group saying ‘I think this is off message’ or ‘what’s your brand image?’,” he says. “You hear a vocabulary that 20 years ago they wouldn’t have dreamt of using.”
Sinclair has worked with some of the most famous people in advertising – Paul Arden, Martin Sorrell and John Hegarty all passed through Saatchi & Saatchi’s doors – and when questioned whether talent of this calibre is entering the industry now, he is reflective. “There are more spheres now in which you can be creative than there were,” he says. “We all stormed into advertising because it was one of the few ways in which you could, outside the movies and TV, really make an impression on a big scale. Now there’s lots of ways. So you may not get people standing out quite so much, because the whole world is more creative than it was.”
stay original While some things change, others stay the same, and despite the shifting mediums that advertising has to work within now, Sinclair believes the basic tenets of creating great ads remain the same now as they ever did. “You’ve got to love words,” he says. “Because words are gods, they have the power to make people do things. So you’ve got to love them. And then, when you’ve got them on side, you’ve got to love pictures, you’ve got to love type. You’ve got to like design, you’ve got to like playing with things. The hunger to do what hasn’t been done is still crucial, and the opportunities for originality are great.”