BA to provide ace in agency battle

London's advertising community is watching the battle between Maurice Saatchi's new ad agency and his old one as if it were a tennis match.

A bold, driving forehand from Maurice's New Saatchi agency, as it pinches most of the £40m Dixons electronics account, is met by Saatchi & Saatchi's diving backhand, scooping up a new client, Reckitt & Colman, the household products, pharmaceuticals and food company.

Between rallies, the players mutter at each other, deriding the other side's winners and shrugging off their own mis-hits. "Sometimes, it seems to be more about public relations than business," says one industry insider.

But it is public relations with a point. Maurice Saatchi is on a personal mission to best his former agency, some of whose shareholders ousted him in an acrimonious boardroom struggle late last year, in the only way he knows how: launch a competing firm and steal back as much business as he can from the agency that he and his brother, Charles, built. That would be justice for one of Britain's legends, a high-spending, warm and persuasive adman who typified both the extravagance and the inventiveness of the advertising business in the 1980s.

The question is: can he survive in the austere 1990s? Certainly New Saatchi is scoring points. In rapid succession, the fledgling agency won three former Saatchi & Saatchi accounts - the cigarette company Gallaher, Mirror Group, publisher of the Daily Mirror and, most recently, Dixons.

Maurice Saatchi now has his eye on an even bigger prize: British Airways, with annual billings of £80m and worth £4m a year to the winning agency. Saatchi & Saatchi is desperate to hold on to the high-profile and lucrative account. Maurice Saatchi, long associated with BA and its successful "World's Favourite Airline" campaign and a friend of BA's chairman, Sir Colin Marshall, is just as desperate to wrest it away. If he succeeds - he would also have tobetter J Walter Thompson and Bartle Bogle Hegarty - most observers say Maurice Saatchi would win the public relations battle hands down.

There is still no assurance, however, that he would win the wider battle of seeing off his much larger rival. Saatchi & Saatchi, part of the worldwide holding company Cordiant, has a staff of 500. By buying Laing & Henry, it brought back a Saatchi veteran, Jennifer Laing, and fresh business as well - enough, it is understood, to weather the departure of former clients to New Saatchi. Its executives, led by Charlie Scott, promise a new, accountable service to clients: value for money, not just bright concepts and brilliant campaigns.

New Saatchi has a staff of 40, although that will grow to 80 in August, when the creative side of the Dixons account moves formally to the new agency. Saatchi & Saatchi's Facilities Group will continue to work on production for the electronics chain, while a third agency, D'Arcy Masius Benton and Bowles will take on the media buying function.

It is thought that Dixons drove a hard bargain: margins on the creative work might be razor-thin.

New Saatchi said that winning the Dixons business would send annual billings to £75m, enough to achieve "critical mass", in the words of Nick Hurrell, joint chief executive.

To date, the battle looks like a draw. As a result, much hinges on the outcome of the British Airways pitch, due to wind up early next week.

WINNING AGENCIES

Large accounts won (since January 1995)

Saatchi & Saatchi New Saatchi

Reckitt & Colman Mirror Group

Carlsberg/Tetley's Gallaher

Sketchley's Dixons

Toyota

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