LBB’s Laura Swinton catches up with the outgoing CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi to talk creative bravery, frustrations with the industry and the excitement of not knowing what’s next
“I really enjoy the art of smuggling a strategy into a living room. It’s like a brilliant card trick,” says Robert Senior, the outgoing CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. He may be stepping into what he calls a ‘void of discovery’ to explore the world beyond, but his passion for the industry and great work is as strong as ever.
We’re sitting on the cosy side of a rain-lashed window in Kinsale, a village on the southern tip of Ireland. Robert’s here to judge the inaugural ‘Creative Bravery’ award at the Sharks Festival and he’s just delivered a talk around the topic to a rapt audience. While we both agree that the term bravery is chucked around a bit too loosely these days, Robert’s career has been characterised by more than a few moments of boldness and ballsiness.
I ask what he considers to be the bravest things he’s done. “One was leaving a good job at TBWA to do a startup at the age of 33. That felt quite brave; my wife had just given birth to a second baby,” he says of becoming a founding partner of Fallon London in 1998.
“And just as brave, it felt, was resigning from Saatchi & Saatchi as Worldwide CEO with no plan after that. To step into the void of discovery. I feel blessed that I can. I have been lucky to work with some amazing people but after 30 years in advertising one has to ask what’s outside of that. Are the skills transferrable or not? In my case they might not be but if ever there was a time to experiment, it’s now.”
If you’re comfortable with the use of the word ‘bravery’ in the context of the advertising industry (in his talk, Robert included a quote from Nils Leonard that read, “You don’t get to talk about bravery. Firemen get to talk about bravery. You c**t.”), one could definitely apply the word to the Fallon London heyday of the mid-noughties. Skoda Cake. Sony Balls. Cadbury’s Gorilla. Work that came out of a collective sense of determination and work that would not have been realised without courage. If ‘creative bravery’ is about having the guts to back a great idea, even if it could get you fired… then Gorilla is the epitome of that. The film was so out there that their client dropped the agency – it was only rehired when the Cadbury CEO showed it to his university student daughter.
The great work that came out of the agency at that time was not, Robert says, the result of ‘a magic spell’. Instead it was down to simple dogged belief. The backbone to protect and push an idea you wholeheartedly believe in.
“It was a gang and gangs do look after each other,” recalls Robert. “You’re either going to succeed together or fail together, but whatever we do, we’ll do it together.”
That grit has driven his career – though as he assesses the state of the industry now, true passion seems to be all too rare. He recalls the moment he first met a creative director. He was a job-hunting graduate trying to figure out what to do with his life and suddenly the chaos and cleverness of advertising just clicked with him. He found his passion and it was advertising – he’s sceptical whether the bulk of young recruits are similarly passionate.
“There are loads of people who join advertising for the wrong reasons. You’d like to think that people join it because they like to be close to ideas… and people say they do. They’re not malicious people but they don’t give a fuck about it. They’re not interested in it and they prioritise other things very quickly,” he says. If agencies are producing work that’s just ‘quite good’ and not great, he worries that it sets a standard and attracts people who don’t have the passion, commitment or belligerence needed to push for excellence.
What’s also happening, he posits, is that clients are now attracting the ‘smartest people’, not agencies, and, in turn, agencies are losing their self-confidence. As someone who deeply loves advertising at its cleverest, Robert will defend the industry against the naysayers, those who try desperately not to describe what they do as advertising, those who say that it is dead. He describes advertising as one of humanity’s oldest professions and believes that it will exist, in some form or another, until the end of the world.
“To say ‘advertising is dead’ is just desperately lame. It’s just so lame. It presents an industry that has lost its sense of self-respect and its purpose and its belief in itself. And as soon as you do that you’ve invited everyone in to eat your lunch.”
As our conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Robert loves the industry but is also pretty frustrated with it. With the prevalent fearfulness. With clients who see fit to drive down agency margins to nearly nothing and choose to motivate creatives with threats. With the way that the industry spends more and more of its time on unimportant distractions. But a person can only experience such frustration if they genuinely care.
Perhaps, then, it’s the ideal time to take a step into the unknown. Robert mentions that people can’t quite believe that he doesn’t have another advertising job lined up – but he’s genuinely enjoying the experience of being open to whatever the universe throws up for him. It’s all quite exciting and he’s already got some unusual projects on the go.
“What’s lovely is how unexpected things come by and you get involved,” he says. The Victoria & Albert Museum has asked him to join the advisory board, he’s on the advisory board for the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and his alma mater, Durham University, has asked him to help with their strategy. He’s also working with startups, investing in some, advising with others. "Coming to speak at Kinsale – if I had been invited while I was in full time employment I would have been far too busy being far too busy, and terribly serious,” he says. “A bit of perspective and oxygen is a wonderful thing.”