Robert Senior: Adland's golden boy banging the drum for Gordon

Having wowed us with a musical gorilla, a giant bunny made from Play-Doh and a car crafted from cake, Robert Senior, the hottest name in adland, is now turning his attention to improving the public image of the Prime Minister. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 17 December 2007 01:00

Though Robert Senior proudly poses for a photograph beneath the "Not flash, just Gordon" work that won the Labour Party's heart as the perfect kick-start for its new Prime Minister, there is another poster on the same wall of his office that blurts out what some would see as a timely message: "Labour Isn't Working".

It is not, of course, a statement on contemporary politics, but a seminal piece of work from Saatchi & Saatchi, the most famous advertising agency in the world; an iconic but now jaded feature of the British media landscape, which Senior will attempt to restore to former glories.

He is, without question, London adland's star performer of the past two years. Think of some of the best ads of recent times: the gorilla drumming along to Phil Collins for Cadbury's Dairy Milk, the Skoda Fabia made from tasty things from the bakers, the 128-strong Sony Walkman orchestra, each playing a single note, the Sony Bravia multi-coloured bouncing balls, the paint-dripping tower blocks, and the coloured bunnies in New York. All of these campaigns were produced by Fallon London, the agency Senior co-founded in 1998.

This week, Campaign, the advertising industry bible, crowned Fallon agency of the year, as well as placing Senior at No2 in its top 10 of advertising CEOs Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Nigel Bogle came in at No 1 while Cadbury's gorilla won campaign of the year.

It was in July of this year that Maurice Levy, the head of the giant French advertising empire Publicis Groupe, which owns both Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon, decided that Senior could somehow run both ventures, thinking he could bring some of the sparkle of his bijou agency to improve the lustre of the advertising institution that the Saatchi brothers, Maurice and Charles, founded in 1976.

One of the first things Senior did, after stepping across the threshold of Saatchi & Saatchi's 80 Charlotte Street headquarters, with its slogan of "Nothing is Impossible" inlaid on the doorstep, was to transform his office to reflect the agency's great legacy. "The office felt like a management consultancy, all chrome and bookshelves," he complains. "I said, 'if the agenda here is about the work then I want some of the finest work we have done to be hanging on the walls'."

So up went the famous 1986 "pregnant man" Health Education Council poster, imploring young men to use contraception, and up went the 1989 "Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary" newspaper ad for the Soviet-British space mission. And alongside those, the famous shot of a winding dole queue that helped to propel the Conservatives to 18 years of government in 1979.

Yet within weeks of taking the UK reins of the newly formed SSF Group (standing for Saatchi & Saatchi/Fallon), Senior had masterfully revitalised Margaret Thatcher's erstwhile favourite agency by marrying it to the Labour Party. At midnight on 5 September, Senior left a black-tie marketing event in central London and headed back to Charlotte Street, where the agency creatives were still working on their next day's pitch for the Labour account.

"I just rocked up and rolled up the sleeves; those hours were my favourite so far at Saatchis," says Senior, recalling how they worked into the small hours. "That was seminal for me and I think for them, too. I'm not sure that, culturally, that had been part of the agency for some years. For all its history and all its grandeur and brand polish, the nuts and bolts of this agency, the bit that matters, is the creative output." As Senior brainstormed the work with the creative team, the line "Not flash, just Gordon" was thought up.

The following day at an office near London's Victoria station, Robert Senior personally led the Saatchi pitch to Douglas Alexander, the Labour Party's general election co-ordinator, and the party's key strategist Lord Gould. Senior says he was determined not to be weighed down by political ideology.

"We stopped worrying about what we thought the Labour Party wanted, in terms of using the right vocabulary and having the right degree of knowledge about the Labour Party itself, in all its anatomical detail. We put that to one side and we just stuck to the thing we know about, which is what would stimulate a response in us as voters as well as practitioners in advertising, what would jolt us and make us more predisposed to Gordon Brown," he says.

"As a result, the meeting itself was very relaxed. The atmosphere in the room, the tone, was very colloquial. We were being ourselves. We had conviction about what we believed in and showed some work of which we were properly proud."

In all, Saatchis used nearly 30 posters in its pitch. "I would say half a dozen of those were as strong as that ["Not flash..."] one. When that particular poster was plucked out as the icon of the win, it felt almost random. They all carry the same tone. There are some crackers," says Senior, stressing the intention was to portray Gordon Brown as a "conviction politician" rather than one who relies on soundbites. "The creative work is designed to remind people in a way that voting is a binary moment with huge consequences, and running a country is quite a serious matter that requires not just intellectual ballast but moral ballast as well. And to try to capture all of that not in a po-faced manner, with a lightness of touch that perhaps people might not have expected from Gordon Brown."

Though he did not flag up the agency's previous relationship with the Tories, he acknowledges it was a minor factor in his favour. "It wasn't lost on anyone that there might be an added benefit on the short-term PR front because it makes for an interesting headline. But we never discussed it in the meeting and I certainly never mentioned it as part of the presentation because I think it would be a little fatuous."

Lord Gould acknowledges the importance of Senior's leadership role in the successful pitch. "He's got enormous enthusiasm, completely infectious enthusiasm and determination. He has a relentless desire to get things moving and get things done and that's what won through in the end."

This is what he will try to bring to Saatchi. "I will be there, be right in the thick of it. Be there at 3am the night before the pitch, front the work at key client meetings, show an interest and value it," he says, throwing his hands up for emphasis.

Senior has, the day before, celebrated his 43rd birthday, part spent ice skating with his six-year-old daughter. The following day he will fly to Salzburg to celebrate an outstanding year with his Fallon team. A passionate skier and a triathlete, his ideal day would be spent on the slopes at Val d'Isre; he has been said to invite clients to use his chauffeur-driven limousine while he walks ahead.

His office overlooks a yard that contains the Saatchi & Saatchi private pub, to which he instantly restored its original name of The Pregnant Man as part of his drive to get staff to value the agency's legacy. Senior's predecessor Lee Daley had renamed the pub the "Gum Factory", after Gum, the agency's "branded content unit", which had its own girl band to promote brands to young people. Senior has scrapped Gum altogether.

He agrees that much of his work will be to "de-clutter" Saatchi of ideas and "wisdoms" that might get in the way of the basic task of making good advertising. Senior wants the creative department, which has enjoyed some recent success with its "Carlsberg Don't Do... " campaign, to be "unshackled from yesteryear processes and fog and treacle".

Saatchi has lost Carlsberg's global business and much of its Toyota account. It has also slipped out of the top 10 in the prestigious Nielsen ratings, though Senior points out that since these are based on a client's spend on television, a "diminishing" platform for advertisers, he is not bothered.

Already some Saatchi clients, he says, have been inquiring about the possible benefits of some Fallon creative glitter, under the new SSF arrangement. But what of Fallon? Known for its independent and iconoclastic attitude, will it not be damaged by being bonded to the aristocracy of adland? Senior says not. "It has an entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit and an iconoclastic DNA. The best thing that any holding company can do is encourage it and profit from that and I think that's what Publicis Groupe has done. That is what the SSF Group is further encouraging."

What Publicis would also like is if Fallon London's success could be transferred to the original Fallon agency, based in Minneapolis. Senior crossed the Atlantic earlier this year to deliver a pep talk in which he showed American colleagues the Cadbury gorilla ad just before it was due to go on air.

Having told his audience of the long history of Cadbury's Dairy Milk, he introduced the film by saying: "This is Fallon at its absolute best and potentially worst," knowing that there was still a chance that the ad might badly misfire.

"We can't help ourselves, we produce work that sails so close to the wind. There's a frontier between genius and abject folly and sometimes we cross it without realising we've crossed it and we pay the consequences. Other times you land it just the right side of that frontier and you reap the rewards," he says. "You know what? For better, for worse that's what Fallon does and thank the good Lord because it makes life more interesting and it gets you out of bed with a spring in your step."

The work was received by the American audience with a standing ovation. It has gone on to become the most popular piece of viral advertising yet, with 89 different edits on YouTube at the last count. Australia's Channel Nine ran a news item on "the world's most famous advertising", screening the gorilla spot at its full 90-second length. "That was nuts it had only been on the air for two weeks in London," says Senior. Most importantly of all, the gorilla delivered the client an unprecedented 9 per cent uplift in sales, he adds.

Fallon will benefit from its alliance with Saatchi and the fact that the larger agency has offices in places such as Dsseldorf and Kazakhstan, says its co-founder.

Strangely, Senior did not take to advertising when he first joined the industry. He had toyed with the idea of opening a ski school (he currently runs a mountain chalet business) and he wasn't comfortable with the Eighties adland obsessions with Ferraris, long lunches and Montblanc pens. After a year he began to understand advertising's role in business and he says that the importance of good creative work is now recognised across the financial sector. He has found his vocation and he is proud of it.

"Of course, there are tons of examples where it's working badly or where it's behaving badly, where the work is shit or a pointless exercise this is an over-supplied marketplace with far too many players. Bring on Darwin and the survival of the fittest.

"When advertising is done well I can't think of a better business. And I quite enjoy the slightly maverick stance of taking on the nay-sayers, the tutters, who say 'You can't do gorilla drummers.' Well, tut away my friend. Tut away at 9 per cent increase in volume."

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