Q&A: SSF’s Senior

CHICAGO As one of the five partners who founded Fallon’s London office in 1998, Robert Senior has presided over the agency as it grew from a startup to one of London’s hottest shops.

The 160-person shop has produced award-winning work for Sony and the Tate Modern museum and won a range of clients, from the BBC to Orange telecom to Wal-Mart property Asda.

Last week, Publicis Groupe aligned Fallon with sister agency Saatchi & Saatchi under a new entity called SSF Group and put Senior, who has also worked at DMB&B and Simons Palmer in London, in charge as U.K. CEO.

The 42-year-old Brit last week talked to senior reporter Aaron Baar about his new gig, “the odd lucky bounce” and what went wrong at Fallon here and Saatchi in London.

Q: Why has Fallon London been so successful the past 18 months?
A: The industry works in biorhythms. We didn’t change our structure or our approach about new business or creative work. It was the odd lucky bounce, where in the past we had the odd unlucky bounce. With a bit of luck and fortune, you have a bit more chutzpa and spring in your step. Confidence is infectious and you get into a virtuous circle. Invariably that comes to an end and then the commentators remark on the agency falling off a cliff.

What are the qualities that Fallon London has taken from Fallon—the man and the agency—and how have you applied them?
They don’t make particularly exciting reading. They’re things like: Do the right thing. Treat everyone as you’d like to be treated. Embracing risk … and being particularly careful about your clients and partners who share your beliefs and will take the leap of faith with you. If I look at the Fallon London client list, you couldn’t really say there are any commonalities. They’re stakeholders who genuinely believe that the creative thinking an agency can bring can make a difference to their business.

How do you apply those principles to Saatchi London?
It’s going on the premise that nothing’s impossible. That’s still there etched in the stones. We need to focus that mantra against the creative work, and focus on what they used to do, which was extraordinary creative work. And to challenge something you have to do things differently. You need to go to the places where you least expect it. It’s rekindling that and reclaiming the birthright of that champion creativity and the nothing’s impossible guide.

Why do you think Fallon here and Saatchi London have struggled?
You just need two or three bits of bad luck that are out of your control, and suddenly the negative momentum is created. They’ve both had their share of coming in second on a number of pitches. I think David Lubars was a very powerful figure and there was a leadership gap after he left. And similarly at Saatchi & Saatchi London, a true north and sense of moral compass has been lost. A lack of leadership and a bit of bad luck in the area of new business sets up momentum that’s hard to reverse.

How will you regain the momentum for Saatchi London?
Genuinely come in and not be overwhelmed by the Mark Twain obituaries. I’m old-fashioned. I believe in brands. This is a brand that in its DNA [does] amazing work. I’m going to stare at that and that alone and see what happens. What’s the worst that could happen?

How will you manage your time between the two agencies?
Judiciously. I’ll apply my efforts and passion where they’re most required. If Lawrence Green and Richard Flintham and the team here in London call out and say, “Robert, we need you to do this thing and it’s a three-day thing,” I will do that three-day thing. But in general terms, I’ll keep a desk in both offices, and I will make sure that in every meeting I’m in I can add as much value as possible while I’m in it. I’m only as good as the teams around me. If they’re as good as I’m hoping, I won’t have to do so much work.

How will you be able to maintain distinct cultures between the two agencies?
I think it’s easy. It’s separate buildings, separate people. It’s separate everything. At Fallon London, you can feel it in the air. It’s in every frame of every film we produce. [It’s the same] at Saatchi & Saatchi. The differences are palpable.

Yet you’re directly responsible for creating the culture at Fallon London.
I’m part of a team that created it and I expect to be part of a team at Saatchi that will go with the forces and shine a light on its DNA and build on that, and lift its profile and put creative back up on a pedestal. I singlehandedly have never done any of that, and doubt I ever will.

How are the cultures similar?
Ambition, a belief that you can make a difference. In today’s world, agency and client alike are immaculately trained at reasons to say no. We’re magnificent at articulating strategic data, insight, you name it, and the answer’s no. The thing the agencies have in common is taking the no’s on. In having the power of one’s convictions.

How are they different?
If you look at the [Fallon] work, it’s very intuitive. It’s about collective people and it’s not about process. I think Saatchi, because it’s larger and it works with a client base that needs more process and metrics and viewpoints, is probably slightly higher on process. I think both have their strengths and weaknesses. But once you start to do genetic engineering, you’re in danger. I’m a great believer in going with existing forces and going with the strengths, while mitigating the weaknesses. I think trying to create a utopia is folly. I think what makes people interesting are their flaws.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
Renovating a French farmhouse in the French Alps. The value increase has been more than exponential.

What’s your most regrettable business decision?
Pitching some stuff that we should never have pitched for. We should have stuck true to our values. It’s less the out-of-pocket cost and the time costs, but the cost on people’s emotions and confidence.

Who has had the most influence on your career?
Carl Johnson, whom I worked with at Simons Palmer, and Pat Fallon. Pat in spirit and values and being able to smile in the face of adversity. And Carl in a dogged pursuit of excellence and that good is simply not good enough.

Why is this setup the right move for both agencies?
Because it gives a platform for Fallon to continue its growth. In some regards, if I’m not there, it creates space for people to fill that gap and further their careers. It allows some clients and services and stuff that they didn’t have. Whether that’s a retail outfit with Saatchi X or a network that we can call upon or use, it allows us to offer a bit of breadth and depth to client relationships. It may well help us for pitching. That’s from a Fallon standpoint. From a Saatchi standpoint, it’s a breath of fresh air and a bit of objectivity and someone coming in who believes it’s possible again. This time next year, you’ll be reporting whether that theory is accurate or not.

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