This is an energetic and contrarian book; fun to read, and yet frustrating to contemplate. It tells us much about the hedonism of 1980s advertising, while seeming incapable of admitting the reality of a changed world.
For example, the authors (agency alumni) recount the way Charles Saatchi once got a shadowy “friend” to agree to insure the creative department for £1 million, just to get column inches in The Sunday Times; and how the agency pulled people off the street to sit at desks and look busy on days a big potential client was due to visit.
While this kind of dealing delights on one level, it seems strange to trumpet it today, when there is so much concern about “fake news”, Trump’s “truths”, and Russian disinformation.
There are chapters on the power of illusion and hiring staff based on how well they could spin a yarn (one account woman was hired for her humour as she explained how she cheated in her third graduate trainee interview). Throughout, there are copious amounts of alcohol, cigarettes and swearing; and tales of verbal and physical fights between agency staff, including the Saatchis themselves (Charles once shouting: “Sometimes, Maurice, I can’t believe we came from the same womb!”)
And yet this book – based on 200 first-hand accounts – could have been so much more. On a commercial level, for example, the way in which the Saatchis took up the British Airways account and ran more than 10 years of superlative advertising to turn it into a global airline is untold. It takes more than chutzpah to sell millions of flights to travellers from around the world, especially in a decade when national airlines mattered to local consumers. What did selling British Airways to the Americans, French, Italians and Germans involve? How was this advertising planned, created and executed?
It would have been great to learn.
Meanwhile, on a political level, there is too little about the Conservatives. On the one hand, the authors are right to point to the spectacular success of the “Labour isn’t working” poster. It was supported by a small media budget, but complained about by Labour in the House of Commons; this meant the newspapers had to run a photo of it for context, generating huge amounts of “free” exposure. On the other hand, we don’t learn much about Thatcher’s interaction with the Saatchis. What did she think about the advertising ideas presented to her? Did everything get the nod? Did someone else liaise between her and the agency?
Tim Bell’s Right or Wrong (2014) is much more open (if controversial), as he tells us how his friendship with Thatcher (began during his time at Saatchi & Saatchi) opened business opportunities for him around the world.
Also, the authors might have reflected on today’s political advertising. The 2016 Brexit campaign, for example, ran a grassroots, largely digital campaign, a choice partly forced upon it, as no major advertising agency was willing to be associated with Brexit (which, from one point of view, is commercial nonsense – Leave, after all, was the majority choice – and an ominous illustration how big advertising runs the risk of becoming associated with the ‘global liberal elite’).
Read this book for its cultural interest, and then put it away to concentrate on today’s harder choices. After all, it will take more than chutzpah to get us through the next decade.