profile: Steel wrapped up in a giggle

Perhaps the most powerful woman in British advertising is back on her old Saatchi stamping ground. Paul Rodgers delves behind the easy charm
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ADVERTISING people do not lunch at the Stafford Hotel. So when two top adland executives wanted a discreet tte--tte, its rose-tinted Victorian dining-room in St James's Place was an ideal choice. To make the meeting even more secretive, Charles Scott, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Jennifer Laing, chairman of Laing Henry, booked table six, secluded behind a thick Ionic pillar where the only witness was the picture of Whisky the cat peering down from the ceiling.

The deal they struck three weeks ago brought an ironic touch to the acrimonious Saatchi civil war. When Ms Laing quit as joint chairman of the group's UK agency in 1987 to run her own firm, Charles Saatchi told her: "Go if you must, and then I'll buy the company." In a way his prophecy came true last week, though neither he nor his brother Maurice were there to see it, having left amid a crossfire of public accusations.

In order to win Ms Laing's services back, Saatchi, renamed Cordiant on Thursday, is paying £1.2m for her company; she will become chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, one of the main operating subsidiaries, on a £175,000 salary plus bonus, little more than she got there in the 1980s. And although in those days she hurtled around London in the company's fiery-red Ferrari 308 GTB, now she will drive a company Toyota. Ms Laing shrugs it off: "Money is not a great motivator. I'll still be able to buy lots of frocks."

Mr Scott can congratulate himself on the deal. The company he bought enjoys billings of £40m. Ms Laing, often referred to as "the most powerful woman in advertising", has had 17 years' experience with Saatchi, including work on high-profile corporate takeovers, such as the Guinness-Bells deal and Tesco's bid for Hillards. "People have said that I'm like a stick of rock - if you cut me open there's Saatchi & Saatchi written all the way through."

On leaving Saatchi she took over a company losing £1.5m a year on billings of £14m and with a name that sounded like a package tour operator - Aspect Hill Holliday. Purchased for £300,000 and renamed Laing Henry, it is one of a handful that claim to have made profits throughout the recession. But in reality it is still tiny, with profits of less than £100,000 on revenues of £2.6m.

Many of the campaigns Ms Laing has overseen at Laing Henry reflect her own interests. Several were government efforts to promote health, a field she once considered entering. One of the most heart-rending was the image of a little girl in hospital unwrapping an empty box that should have contained a transplant organ.

After being burgled six times, she was also an enthusiastic backer of the Bumblebee anti-theft campaign commissioned by the Metropolitan Police. On the quirky side, the agency also produced the surrealist Bitburger beer advertisements.

The question is why she wants to go back to Saatchi when she obviously thrives on being her own boss. Friends say she is jumping at the challenge of running a much bigger agency, even one riven by the high-profile departure of its founders. The last time she was there she was joint chairman, but the job was not as grand as the title. A long-running joke at Saatchi was that anyone not on the board should meet in the phone box on Charlotte Street. The new job gives her power over a UK agency with billings of almost £500m despite the defection by Mars, and the threatened loss of the British Airways account.

Ms Laing explains her move amid paeans of enthusiasm for the company. She is even diplomatic about the Saatchi brothers, saying how much she admires them. "What Charles and Maurice did, more than any other men in advertising, is create a strong, cohesive brand." When pressed, however, she agrees that the conflict arose because the brothers had not grasped that the flash days of the 1980s had passed. "The world changed and some people found it more difficult."

Those changes may lie behind her decision to sell up. Today's agencies need to be large, if only to pay for the market research required to target a campaign properly. Laing Henry had little chance of doing that on its own. Her first solution was to go hunting for smaller takeover targets. Ms Laing said she was in serious talks with three possible targets. Reversing into Saatchi gives her more control, more quickly.

Jennifer Laing is a compact bundle of giggling energy - all of it calculated to put one at ease. She charms with her warmth and frankness, then lets one in on little secrets. Her shifts from laughter to conspiratorial whisper to confident assertiveness are rapid and smooth. "I only have a happy face and a sad face, nothing in the middle," she said, after eloquently betraying a range of subtle emotions.

Age and appearance are a big concern for her. She claims she is 46, then admits that it is a fib, implicitly asking you to keep her secret. She is, in fact, much closer to 50, though she looks younger. This minor deception will probably be extended. "When I was younger all the men I went out with were plastic surgeons, so I'd happily have it done." But she's still planning to retire early, probably at 55. "I don't want to be a doddering old lady wandering around the advertising industry with an ear trumpet."

Former colleagues say such warmth can quickly turn to steel. One has described her as a "hard taskmistress". Another said she was "demanding". Her weaknesses at Saatchi included a shortage of imagination and a slight insecurity, said an old friend. But that was balanced by her ability to influence - some would say manipulate - her audience. "She makes personal contact fun," said one ex-colleague.

Ms Laing was raised in Salisbury and seemed from an early age to be headed for a medical career. Her father was a plastic surgeon, and so is her brother. "Inside I'm a frustrated doctor," she said. Poor marks in chemistry prompted her to shift gear into commerce. Her educational career was not quite Oxbridge. She went to Salisbury College of Technology,Bournemouth Municipal College and finally on a polytechnic business course in north- west London.

The next two years she spent in Spain, learning the language and watching bullfights. She still has a cottage there. "Don't call it a villa." Returning to Britain in 1969 at the age of 23, she started work as a graduate trainee at Garland-Compton, joining the operating board when it was merged with Saatchi & Saatchi in 1975. Four years later she left for a job as group account director at Leo Burnett, but returned in 1981 as management assistant to Tim Bell, then prime minister Thatcher's favourite adman.

Like many female executives, Ms Laing found family and career a difficult mix. She was married to John Henderson, now a television director, but had divorced by the time she was 30. For more than a decade she has been living with Tony Dalton, a fellow adman. Although she has no children, she says there are no regrets. "I've got a nephew, a godchild and adopted grandchildren. I'm just too selfish and career-obsessed to have children."

Obsessed perhaps, but Ms Laing insists she is not a workaholic. Her other interests include collecting pre-Second World War sculptures by the Hagenauer brothers of Austria and a dinner service known as "Orange" which depicts pomegranates. "I'm naturally a collector," she says. "For years I gathered cut-glass pots with silver lids. I had 100 of them."

She is also a horse-lover, though seldom rides any more. These days her interest is expressed by watching Western Legend, the 10-year-old gelding she owns with three partners. Like Ms Laing, it is making a comeback - after breaking a leg. Last autumn it won the Rainford Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Chase wearing her red and grey colours. "They look lovely in an autumn mist."

The new chairman of Saatchi will need that kind of luck. One of her first tasks will be to hang on to the lucrative British Airways account, a tough test of her skills. Unlike her competitors, who have lobbied for the account since the ousting of Charles Saatchi, she has never met the airline's bosses.