THE MONDAY INTERVIEW : Taking into account the rough with the smooth;

As her company's truce with the founding brothers comes to an end, Saatchi & Saatchi's chief prepares for the reconstruction
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At one of the many pre-Christmas bashes for which the advertising industry is justly infamous, Jennifer Laing and Maurice Saatchi literally collided. "How's it going?" Mr Saatchi, Britain's best-known advertising man, asked breezily. Ms Laing, chairman of the London-based Saatchi & Saatchi agency, part of Maurice's former ad empire, was blunt: "You know exactly how things are going."

The comment is revealing, for it shows to what degree Ms Laing's business has been conducted, however unwillingly, in the open: through the press, in gossip sessions around Soho, and even in the stacked pages of lawsuits flying between Mr Saatchi's new agency and the firm that forced him out.

Ms Laing, forthright but with a quick smile and calming line in chat, has spent eight months in the top job at Saatchi & Saatchi, the UK agency that makes up just one part of giant Cordiant, the holding company founded and nurtured by Maurice and Charles Saatchi. It has been an "exhausting" baptism at the head of the Charlotte Street agency.

It was made all the more fraught because of the enduring hostility between the Saatchi brothers and Cordiant, which has been simmering ever since Maurice was forced to step aside in December 1994, following a shareholder revolt. His departure gave rise not only to suits and counter-suits but a constant barrage of bad publicity, engineered in part by a coterie of PR men and "friends of Maurice and Charles". It was in this climate that Maurice and Saatchi set up a new agency, now called M&C Saatchi, and quickly poached high-level staff and clients from the hapless Cordiant. Three senior executives led the exodus, and clients like Dixons, British Airways and Gallaher shifted business worth pounds 90m a year to the fledgling competitor.

For its part Cordiant, which includes three global advertising networks including Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, struggled to keep afloat, aware that public perceptions are nearly as important as clients in the cut- throat advertising industry.

Looking back on last year's battle, Ms Laing expresses not rage but exasperation. "Their attiude is sad for us and sad for them. I am, to be truthful, a little tired of all the mis-information. It's the sort of thing I haven't come across before. These are, after all, my ex-colleagues, my friends."

She dismisses talk that M&C Saatchi will move to poach more Cordiant clients, following the expiry on 1 January of a truce between the two sides reached last May. The agreement prevented M&C Saatchi from approaching Cordiant's clients and staff.

"It's really easy to be myopic but you must remember that our business is global," she says. "We are a global brand competing with a small local agency called M&C Saatchi. Everyone poaches from everyone else - that's the business. But we are so much bigger."

Nor will she let go of the name "Saatchi", despite suggestions that Maurice would like to have it to himself. "They don't own that name," she insists. "They sold it to shareholders, and became hugely rich as a consequence."

Ms Laing, who looks a tad younger even than the 46 years she admits to lying about, is particularly indignant about what she calls the "most utterly ridiculous misinformation of all": the rumour that she was considering jumping ship herself to join Maurice and Charles. "When I first heard the rumours, I broke out in spontaneous laughter, nearly fell off my chair. It was mischievous, and it certainly started with M&C Saatchi." To many industry observers, the rumours made some sense. Ms Laing started her advertising career in 1969 as a graduate trainee at Saatchi, rising through the ranks with her work on such accounts as Schweppes.

A two-year stint at Leo Burnett was cut short in 1981, when the then- chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, legendary spin doctor Tim Bell, lured her back with a red Ferrari. She decamped again in 1987 to start her own agency. But when, in March, she agreed to rejoin Saatchi, she said that she was like a piece of Brighton Rock: "Cut me open, and you'd see the words Saatchi & Saatchi."

So why not rejoin Maurice? "Just think about it a minute," she says. "I am chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi [she insists on the 'chairman']. What kind of senior position could Maurice offer me?"

Her new job pays a less-than-extravagant pounds 175,000 a year, although she is believed to be in line for performance-related bonuses - promising enough, it is said, to keep her tied to Charlotte Street.

The past year was difficult by any definition. Cost-cutting led to redundancies and a first-half loss after restructuring expenses. The defections of the first half of 1995 also took their toll on staff morale. But Ms Laing insists that the mood and the performance took a decided turn for the better toward the end of the year.

"The company is filled with young, confident people, with passion and belief." She adds that debt reduction and a rights issue have given the holding company a stable foundation.

Account wins also helped to boost spirits, with fresh business coming from long-time client Procter & Gamble as well as first-time accounts from Norwich Union Direct and the Playboy Channel. Cordiant as a whole says new business nearly outweighed the losses on an annualised basis, and looks forward to a better return in 1996.

The company calls for revenue growth of about 7.5 per cent in the year, roughly in line with the expected growth of the advertising market. That compares with about 8.5 per cent this past year, when revenues reached pounds 775m. Margins are set to improve.

"It will be a so-so year," Ms Laing says. "There is still a lack of real confidence in the market." And her favourite Saatchi catchline for 1995? The Tetley beer slogan, of course. "Take the rough with the smooth": as good a summary of Ms Laing's year as any.

Mathew Horsman

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