Three top men quit Saatchi in protest

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The Independent Online
Three top executives resigned from Saatchi & Saatchi yesterday in protest over the recent ousting of its chairman, Maurice Saatchi. Their abrupt departure immediately raised questions in the City about the ability of the advertising company to re tain lucrative, high-profile clients like Mars, British Airways and the Conservative party.

The three who have resigned are Jeremy Sinclair, the £350,000-a-year acting chairman and chief creative director for Saatchi worldwide, Bill Muirhead, head of the North American operations, and David Kershaw, who fronts the UK business.

Mr Sinclair has only ever worked at Saatchi, and was a co-founder of the agency in 1970 with Maurice and his brother Charles. Mr Muirhead is responsible for the Conservative party and British Airways accounts, while Mr Kershaw has worked for the company for 13 years and is actively involved with all UK clients.

All three signed resignation letters attacking the incumbent management in one of the most open and acrimonious boardroom rows seen in recent years.

The row was sparked last year after shareholders controlling more than40 per cent of Saatchi demanded that Maurice Saatchi resign over a share option plan that could have given him a £5m profit.

Big clients of Saatchi recently wrote to the company complaining of the move.

A spokeswoman for British Airways, one of Saatchi's biggest clients, said yesterday: "It is too early to know what impact this will have on our business with Saatchi, but we will continue to watch developments."

Questions were also raised yesterday over why it took more than four hours for the company formally to confirm the resignations. Saatchi's shares dropped 16p to 124p as rumours about the resignations, which were tendered at noon, spread in afternoon dealings on the stock market. Official confirmation was made one minute before the market closed.

The Stock Exchange declined to comment on whether it would launch an investigation, although the listing rules stipulate that a company must "notify without delay" the removal or resignation of a director. Almost 7 million Saatchi shares were traded.

A spokesman for the company said he thought it had acted quickly, despite it being abundantly clear from inquiries made to Saatchi that the rumours were not without foundation. Callers were told as early as 3pm that a company statement was pending.

Media analysts took a bleak view of the latest calamity at Saatchi. Robert Jollis at Hoare Govett, the stockbroker, said: "This is a pretty serious blow for the company. It could destabilise client relations."

Several analysts believed there could be further repercussions. One analyst said: "Your guess is as good as mine as to what it might mean in terms of motivation for other staff."

While the company declined to discuss the departures in detail, it was clear that the three resignations have inflicted a deep wound. Charles Scott, chief executive, said: "I am very disappointed to learn of their decision to leave the company. Individually, they have contributed greatly to the Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising network."

Staff, including Mr Muirhead's secretary at his office in New York, were stunned by the latest fallout from the quarrel between institutional shareholders and the company, which started late last year The shareholder rebellion has been led by David Herro, a fund manager at Harris Associates, based in Chicago, who speaks for a little over 30 per cent of the shares. Mr Herro was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Speculation that Maurice Saatchi might start over again in the advertising world intensified yesterday, with long-time observers of the company not prepaired to bet against him recruiting Messrs Sinclair, Kershaw and Muirhead. Any such plans, however, would have to wait until the expiry of the restrictive one-year covenants in their contracts with Saatchi relating to clients and staff.

All three yesterday openly expressed their contempt of what has been happening at the company. Mr Muirhead said: "I no longer feel that the people who control our company understand what we really do."

He added: "I warned you [Mr Scott] and the board, and anyone else who would listen to me, of the damage Maurice's removal would cause the company. I now feel totally compromised by Mr Herro and the board's decision, particularly as it was against the express wishes of several of our most important clients, including a number I am personally close to."

His most damming remarks, and open comments about the company's struggle to recover from the recession, particularly in the US, were saved until the end of his resignation letter.

"What Mr Herro and the board don't seem to realise is that we have worked long and hard to win and keep our clients in the agency. As far as I am concerned, when you don't listen to your clients you've lost the plot.

"We have achieved many things in North America in the past nine months, but there is still much to be done. I am sorry to be leaving this job unfinished."

Outlook, page 27.

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