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Will the real Charles Saatchi please stand up?

imagesThose of us who knew Charles Saatchi (or Charlie before he became important) in a previous life to a greater or lesser degree (lesser, in my case) must be completely mystified by the latest turn of events – Charlie on the front pages with public revelations of his relationships, which he always used to keep obsessively quiet.

As he did just about everything else, apart from the fame of his company of course.

What on earth has happened?  We all do odd things as we get older of course, but this one takes the biscuit.

I first met Charlie when I was news editor of Campaign. At the time Saatchi & Saatchi was well on the path to world domination (as the Saatchi brothers saw it) and so provided endless good copy for Campaign, then the all-conquering UK trade magazine.

Charlie had always sought a close relationship with the magazine: he would provide lots of stories (he used to convene a Wednesday morning meeting at the agency to demand the latest gossip) hoping that Campaign would big up stories about his agency accordingly. At the time this was quite radical; now it happens all over the place from political parties to big corporations. If you’re a proper journalist you take it all with a pinch of salt.

He chose me because, as I recall, he didn’t particularly get on with the editor at the time, Michael Chamberlain I think, who went on to be one of the founders of Marketing Week. Anyway, I was quite flattered to be invited to break bread, wine (I remember him leaping to the floor armed with a cascade of salt on one occasion when I spilt some on his pristine white carpet) and, occasionally, play Scrabble.

But that was that. He was charming, funny and never moaned too much when his machinations failed to produce the required results. And, in adverts, he was a legend. He was the brilliant CDP copywriter who went on to start Cramer Saatchi, a consultancy which used to charge stratospheric rates for doing other agency’s ads and pitches for them, and then S&S, with brother Maurice who had toiled briefly at Campaign (before my time) as promotions manager.

I then went on to become news editor and then editor of Marketing Week, when we were off Saatchi’s radar as we were with just about every other trendy creative agency in town. But I did get two calls from Charlie. The first was to tell me about the supposedly colourful private life of Tim Bell, who had then just left to team up with Frank Lowe in the short-lived Lowe Howard-Spink and Bell. I said it wasn’t a story for us and, anyway, it was all in Private Eye.

The second was when he demanded I sack columnist Howard Sharman for something he’d written; to do with the car company British Leyland I think, although I can’t remember the details. I declined.

And that was that. Except when I started a monthly magazine, Commercials, we introduced a feature called ‘My Top Ten,’ (much like our Desert Island Ads – you can only have so many ideas). I sent a note to Charlie asking him to contribute. He declined, graciously, wishing us all the best with the new magazine. And that was that (for the last time).

Lots of things have happened in the interim, of course, including the spectacular defenestration of the Saatchi brothers from the agency they founded, the emergence of M&C Saatchi and Charlie’s subsequent career as art collector, investor and gallery owner – all of which seems to have delivered him untold riches. There are lots of conspiracy theories about this but Charlie has always had good taste, a sense of adventure and an innate ability to see where the money lies.

But he was never front of house: that was the point. All the more baffling to see him, suddenly and in his sixties, emerge as a London Evening Standard columnist, author, provider of bon mots to all and sundry and, latterly, seemingly enthusiastic tour guide to his marriage to Nigella Lawson and  their peculiar and (to most ordinary mortals) profligate way with household management. Plus lots of picture opportunities at Scott’s.

Maybe it’s like Andy Warhol said: nobody is immune to the attraction of fifteen minutes of fame (although Charlie was famous enough to satisfy most people before).

So now he’s depicted as a horrible control freak (he’s always been the latter although not the former) trying to destroy other people’s lives. Even to the extent of employing a distinctly dodgy PR man. Whatever else you criticise Charlie for, he always used to employ the best. It’s hard to make it all add up.

Maybe he should have stayed in ads where you can exorcise your demons (and chuck chairs at your brother, from time to time) and remain under the radar.

 

 

 

 

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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