Creative: Changing Orbit

Tod Seisser Brings A Warmer, More Emotional Edge To Saatchi & Saatchi
Early one October morning, Tod Seisser, in London for the production of Saatchi & Saatchi’s first campaign for Beck’s beer, received an excited phone call. Richard Pels, an executive creative director on the New York agency’s Delta Air Lines account, had an idea for a spot celebrating John Glenn in orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Seisser, the agency’s chief creative officer, appreciated Pels’ enthusiasm. After all, he knew what it was like to be seized by creative inspiration. Still, it was 2:30 a.m. back home, an hour when even the most wired New Yorkers are asleep, so Seisser told Pels to go back to bed and call him later. One problem: Pels was already at the production house.
The 30-second Delta spot was produced in three days and aired just two hours after Glenn, the astronaut turned senator turned astronaut again, returned to Earth. The effort generated terrific publicity for Delta and fit snugly into its “On top of the world” campaign. More importantly, it showed that a creative department known for sturdy, if predictable, work for Procter & Gamble, was still fast on its feet.
“You’ve got to have morale high enough to do that,” says Seisser, who has found a home at 375 Hudson St., the largest office in Saatchi’s $7.4 billion global network. “People [need] to feel supported.”
After nearly a year on the job, Seisser says he’s pleased with the ads his 70-plus creative staff has produced–whether for cereal, aspirin or beer–and he boasts of an agency without “creative ghettos” that aspires to award-winning work.
“I’m amazed and proud of how far we’ve come,” says Seisser. “To be honest, I didn’t think we’d have a reel this good to show for at least two years. The work has gotten braver and the production values better.”
On Seisser’s watch, Saatchi has produced more than 80 new spots for Delta, General Mills and P&G, as well as new campaigns for PaineWebber and Beck’s. The latter, a sexy, high-profile campaign, “isn’t what you’d expect from us,” says Jennifer Laing, Saatchi chairman and CEO of North America. Sporting a humorous twist, it contrasts the shortcomings of Germans (“Germans don’t do romance”) with their reputations as master brewers. The tagline: “Beck’s–the best of what Germans do best.”
The work, directed by Tarsem and developed by the team of Kevin Weidenbacher and Augusten Burroughs, jumps off the reel. The lighting is stark, the colors ultra-rich and the approach decidedly tongue-in-cheek. “It’s great to have an opportunity to present something quirky,” adds Laing.
In fact, though Saatchi’s meal ticket continues to be written by P&G, Johnson & Johnson and General Mills, their brands have adopted a more homespun, storytelling ad approach, allowing staffers to push the creative envelope.
For instance, a matronly grandma in a bathing suit stars in an ad for arthritis-strength Tylenol, nontraditional families appear in a series of spots for Tide and a rebellious teenager shares the breakfast table with her straight-laced father in an ad for Honey Nut Chex. In a Cheerios spot, a mother quizzes her son about state capitals while the voiceover mentions the benefits of a “smart breakfast.” After reeling off correct answers, the boy struggles with Vermont, until his little sister chimes in, “Montpelier.”
“Tod has brought strong emotional advertising to the brand,” says Mark Addicks, a marketing director at General Mills’ Cheerios. “He’s been a major proponent of really tightening our positioning, breaking through to consumers and touching their hearts.”
Overall, some observers think Saatchi’s advertising has gotten “warmer” and “edgier.” Most, however, believe it’s too early to tell, especially at a $1.6 billion office. Still, they admire Seisser’s desire to raise the bar, even if it’s an inch at a time. “Anybody who takes on such an overwhelming job [is] courageous and audacious,” says Bill Oberlander, executive creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. “It takes at least three years to turn a battleship like Saatchi.”
Serious and sarcastic, Seisser, 41, has a reputation for smart, stylish, character-driven work. He went to the School of Visual Arts because “I thought I wanted work in comic books. Then I discovered I couldn’t draw.” Undaunted, he turned to advertising and, during a 20-year career that spanned from Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver to J. Walter Thompson, he helped create ads that illustrated the precision of Citizen watches, the speed of UPS and the unspoken embarrassment behind Phillips Milk of Magnesia.
En route, Seisser collected a Bronze Lion for Phillips and nearly a dozen One Shows and Clios for Citizen, Kronenbourg beer and New York Air.
Of course, Seisser’s honors weren’t the only thing that caught Saatchi’s eye. He was comfortable around clients and, though trained as an art director, knew how to write. (UPS’ “Moving at the speed of business” tagline is his.) He also had experience working at large New York agencies–Ammirati Puris Lintas and JWT–and a knack for breathing life into packaged-goods ads.
In short, Saatchi wasn’t his sole option. Before its downward spiral, Wells BDDP had talked to him about running its creative department. A smaller shop, with billings of $300 million and a strong creative reputation, also called. But in the end, chemistry won the day. Seisser had a good feeling about Laing, one of a handful of executives left from the days of Maurice and Charles. The deal was sealed during their second meeting–a dinner, during which she plucked French fries from his plate.
Today, they describe themselves as “partners” and clearly enjoy each other’s company. British-born Laing has even picked up Yiddish phrases from the Jewish Seisser, who is never at a loss for wisecracks. Staffers value his frankness and willingness to let others create.
Seisser himself credits his management success to Paul Schulman, the former general manager at Wells BDDP, who joined Saatchi in April as manager of creative resources, tackling production budgets, recruitment and scheduling.
“Seisser manages by giving direction and not by sitting through every last detail. He doesn’t look over your shoulder,” says executive creative director Roger Rowe, a 10-year Saatchi vet partnered with Pels, an award-winning copywriter and key Seisser hire, on the $100 million Delta account. Indeed, thanks to the Rowe-Pels alliance, the agency has produced five Delta spots–some, like Glenn, with a short shelf life–while developing the next phase of the campaign, due to break this spring. The new ads will retain the familiar chorus of “Adiemus,” Christine Lahti’s voiceover and the “On top of the world” tagline, sources say, but their focus is still being hashed out.
From his first day at Saatchi, Seisser has encouraged open dialogue among staffers. He has instituted regular meetings of his creative directors and production heads. His predecessor, Stanley Becker, had tried this tack, but with creative teams scattered throughout the building, it proved impossible. By the time Seisser arrived, Laing had assembled the creatives on the 18th floor.
Seisser’s macro touch, coupled with Schulman’s managing the less glamorous aspects of the job, has enabled him to get closer to clients and push for more entertaining advertising. Even conservative clients are listening, owing to Seisser’s frank but accessible approach. Yet a key question remains: How much can one man influence a behemoth like Saatchi?
Last January, Seisser said he was there for the “long haul.” A year later, he feels the same way: “I want the buzz on the street to build. I want this to be a place people who aren’t here want to work at, and people who are here want to stay at.”