The fame game

The Saatchi brothers have made some great ads, but they're even better at advertising themselves. By Winston Fletcher; Commercial Break: The Inside Story of Saatchi & Saatchi by Alison Fendley Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Most business people - the Saatchi brothers, Branson and the late Cap'n Bob excluded - are equivocal about personal fame. Many go to great lengths to avoid it. They distrust journalists. They see risks but no benefits. Mars Confectionery, for example, is run by two brothers - but they shun personal publicity like poison. Charles and Maurice Saatchi, in contrast, have courted fame with the skill and flair of pop stars. After their ludicrous bid for the Midland Bank, one of their closest friends opined: "They never wanted to buy the Midland. They just wanted to see the headlines."

And the headlines have never stopped. Saatchi & Saatchi (renamed Cordiant plc) is quite a small company: the fifth largest agency group in the world, only two thirds the size of its arch-rival, WPP. When the chairman of so small a company is given the boot, one might expect it to merit a titchy item in the FT. Yet when Maurice was deposed earlier this year, it was a lead story in the tabloids and on television news.

How can one explain this bewildering phenomenon? Unquestionably Charles and Maurice have been astonishingly successful advertising men. In less than 20 years they built an agency group that was briefly the biggest in the world. And at first their agency created some knockout advertisements, particularly the "Pregnant Man", which must be one of the most famous ads in history. (Good parlour game: name the others.) Then came the Thatcher connection. Then Charles became a powerful, if somewhat sinister, force in contemporary art. Then their strange Iraqi name is - as they well know - so quirky, so memorable. Then Josephine Hart's steamy novels further fuelled hubby Maurice's celebrity. They have an instinct, a nose for fame. And from the start they have worked really hard at it.

Now their third biography in 10 years has been published: extraordinary, when you consider their combined ages do not yet total 100. There cannot be another businessman in the world - let alone a pair of businessmen - who can claim a similar biographical strike rate. It's just another way in which the Saatchi boys have proved themselves unique.

From the biographer's point of view, however, this creates certain difficulties - particularly if you are the third biographer in line, and in a hurry. First, everything they have done has already been written about, many times - they themselves have made sure of that. Second, because they have always been such adroit spin doctors in their own cause, it is frequently difficult to disentangle the spin from the reality. Sadly, Alison Fendley has fallen foul of both problems.

The two previous biographies having fulsomely covered Saatchi & Saatchi's early days, Fendley understandably decided to skip through them at a furious pace, covering the first 20 years in 90 pages. This has resulted in her recycling all the well-worn stories about Charles hitting Maurice with chairs and hiding from clients, and about the two of them "propelling Mrs Thatcher into office", as she puts it without critical re-appraisal. Though their PR has naturally claimed otherwise, the Saatchis most certainly did not propel Mrs Thatcher into office (she was miles ahead in the polls before they started to work for her). And many of the rose-tinted sagas of the agency's early days need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt (advertising people love to spin a good yarn).

The second half of the book concentrates, more fruitfully, on the brothers' downfall within Saatchi & Saatchi, and their re-emergence in their new agency. But even here, although there has been no previous book, the press coverage has been so exhaustive, and so exhausting, that Fendley finds herself endlessly quoting from published articles, and has unearthed no tasty new morsels with which to tickle our palates.

The publishers, and Fendley, understandably wanted to get the book out quickly, while the war between Saatchi & Saatchi and Saatchi and Saatchi was still raging. The result, I fear, has been more haste, less spice.