The challenge facing Mark Cochrane is in some ways mathematical. He’s entering a business that employed in excess of 150 people in its heyday but now sits at around 55.
Saatchi and Saatchi might still be the most famous name in New Zealand advertising pop culture, but the 2021 edition of Campaign Magazine’s much-maligned “Hot and Cold” chart showed the agency languishing in the middle of the pack when it comes to annual billings (under $50 million), well behind the creative top dogs DDB, FCB, Colenso BBDO and Stanley St (each more than $100m).
Beneath the simplicity of headcounts and billings lies a complex challenge of running a business whose legacy and tradition was built in an industry that has changed enormously.
The sea of staff, enormous salaries, even bigger egos, epic three-hour lunches and flash cars simply aren’t as common as they once were. Running a creative agency in 2020 requires a different mindset from what we saw during the 1970s, 80s or even early 90s.
A Kiwi who has been within the agency’s international fold for more than a decade, Cochrane is a self-described Saatchi history buff and is well aware of the weight of the legacy he inherits by taking over the reins at this stage.
“Working in the world of Saatchi for me isn’t pressure. It’s a privilege,” says Cochrane, who joined the local Saatchi office from Melbourne, taking over from former boss Paul Wilson.
“I’ve been with the company for 12 years now, and for me, it’s still exciting to walk into an office anywhere in the world and see those three words [in the slogan] ‘nothing is impossible’. It’s really clear what you are there to achieve for business, society and clients.”
Advertising is a notoriously cyclical industry; agencies rise to the top in one moment only to then have a few account losses swiftly bring them back to earth. That’s why you can always notice just a slightly nervous twitch in any agency boss, no matter how successful they might be.
These days, Saatchi continues to demand a respectable list of clients, including DB Breweries, Toyota, Sport NZ, My Food Bag, Nestle, The Arnott’s group and Paralympics New Zealand.
But two names would have made the client list and Saatchi’s bottom line look far better if they were still there.
The losses of the Spark and ASB accounts have left significant holes, which have not yet been filled by the agency.
Cochrane takes a pragmatic view and refuses to dwell on the ups and downs of the agency, reminding the Herald he’s looking ahead.
“This industry is always about moving forward,” he says.
“It’s all about the next idea and the next opportunity. We will always honour the past, but we do that through doing great work. That’s the ambition the company deserves.”
On the topic of great work, Saatchi, with the guidance of newly appointed chief creative officer Steve Cochran, has delivered one of the strongest campaigns of the year so far in the shape of hilariously scripted – or some might say “very serendipitous” – ad for the new Toyota Hilux.
The appointment of Cochran earlier this year (under the final stages of Wilson’s tenure) was a huge coup for the agency and a signal that standout creative work remained core of what Saatchi does.
This is the stuff Cochrane, the CEO rather than creative chief, wants to double down on as he looks to develop the agency in the coming years.
Cochrane doesn’t deny that Saatchi has been the “nearly-there” agency over the past few years, making its way into the final stages of a number of major pitches only to come a close second to the eventual winner.
“This is just the nature of pitches,” Cochrane says.
“Sometimes when you swing the bat, you miss and sometimes you hit it. That’s part of the way our industry is and that’s the fun of it. That’s the exciting part and I’ve got no problem with that.”
Cochrane puts the tough patch down to the fact Saatchi has undergone a major transformation in recent years within the context of its holding company.
“When you’re running an ad agency, you need to be really clear on what you do well. And you know, probably through a big transformation, it can become a bit distracting.”
Since he’s come into the agency, Cochrane says he has worked hard on developing a clear plan of what type of creative work the agency should be chasing culturally.
The incantation here of culture is imperative when it comes to Saatchi and its relevance to New Zealand, not only now but historically.
Local Saatchi legend Mike Hutcheson, who served as managing director at the agency between 1998 and 2003, tells the Herald the thing that gave Saatchi its fame historically wasn’t the fact it was the biggest agency (he estimates it employed about 150 people at its peak), but rather that it was producing work that was culturally relevant to the country.
Hutcheson points to Telecom’s “Spot the dog” ad and the two-minute “Lessons from geese” video as examples of work that burrowed their way into the New Zealand consciousness on the strength of their ideas.
Asked about the factors contributing to the contraction of Saatchi over the years, Hutcheson says deregulation in the telecommunications industry and the end of guaranteed media commissions conspired to create a number of challenges for the agency and the industry more broadly.
He says advertising has always been about attracting and retaining talent and this has become increasingly challenging with international tech companies, major corporates and other industries all competing for smart, creative thinkers.
Hutcheson does, however, note that agencies fluctuate in size and stature over time andthe cycle could swing back if any agency gets on a roll.
Off the back of the recent work from Saatchi and Cochran, we might just be seeing the start of some much-needed momentum.
Club and country
Beyond the account changes and ongoing creative challenge of always coming up with the next big idea, Saatchi has also recently gone through a structural shift in terms of its role within the Publicis Groupe holding company.
Historically, it was fair game between the agencies in a holding company. Competition was encouraged and the agencies even within the same group would fight it out for the best accounts in the country.
But this relationship has been changing in recent years. The holding companies now encourage greater collaboration between the various entities within the organisation – and the Publicis Groupe is no exception to this rule.
“It’s not really just about the Saatchi community any more,”Cochrane says.
“It’s also about the greater Publicis Groupe and how we contribute to that. There’s been a big transformation in terms of how we function as an organisation.
“The Publicis Groupe has gone through a huge shift in the last two or three years. We’ve essentially gone from a holding company model through to a connected platform.”
By this, he means various parts of the business are now encouraged to work together more closely to achieve objectives for clients.
“We’re now organised as a community of skills.”
Publicis has further augmented that community through the recent acquisitions of media agency MBM and customer experience shop Affinity ID.
Across all these skills, the Publicis Groupe could in theory manage all the demands of a client without having to call in outside experts. This can be a powerful advantage, but it also requires careful management to ensure that one group expertise doesn’t take over the entire process at the expense of another in an ongoing turf war.
“We look at this way,” says Cochrane when asked about the potential of cultural clashes, “you can play for your club or you can play for your country. And that’s the way that we really operate.
“There are two types of cultures within that. And that’s okay because you are part of that greater community and it is about respect. We have one P&L, and it’s a country P&L model, so we don’t have that tension about who’s doing what from a revenue point of view. It comes down to what the client needs. And that’s been incredibly liberating.
“We’ve been really successful with that in Australia over the last two to three years, where that transformation is really now complete. We have now also reached that point in New Zealand, but my role is really just to accelerate that.”
In addition to his role as the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand, Cochran also holds the title as the local chief growth officer for the Publicis Groupe.
The pressure will now be on not only to live up to the pressure of the Saatchi name but also to the imposing G-word in his other role.
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