Saatchi’s New CEO Doesn’t Want to Pick Apart the Past

But Robert Senior faces issues that date back years

Robert Senior doesn’t like to dwell on the past, yet many of the challenges he’ll face as Saatchi & Saatchi’s next global CEO date back several years.

The churn in the New York office’s top ranks, for example, began in 2010 and continued this year. Likewise, the shop’s shortcomings in big pitches has recurred since 2009. Inconsistency in the agency’s reel is another chronic problem, though certainly that’s common among most global shops.

In his first interview since Publicis Groupe named him to succeed Kevin Roberts starting Jan. 1, Senior acknowledged those hurdles and said he was prepared to make changes when the time was right. “The market has changed visibly, palpably in the last 12 to 15 months,” Senior said. “So, you’ve got to remain nimble, you’ve got to remain agile in your mind. What was it that General Eisenhower said? ‘Plans are useless. Planning is everything.’”

There’s a lot to process: Saatchi New York has had three CEOs in two years (Mary Baglivo, Durk Barnhill, Brent Smart) and three creative chiefs in the past four (Gerry Graf, Con Williamson, Jay Benjamin), though Baglivo and Graf served eight and two years, respectively. And since last year, brands that collectively spend $240 million in media annually—Miller Lite, Pillsbury, Kool-Aid, Capri Sun—have left, though Saatchi added a significant client in Walmart. (Other wins included Charter Communications, Tecate and Vita Coco.)

This year, the shop also pitched two big accounts: Procter & Gamble’s Duracell and Microsoft (with several sister shops) but in each case failed to close. Same goes for Pizza Hut last year and in 2009. The New York leadership turnover may have been a factor.

“To win new business on a consistent basis takes a cohesive leadership team and I’m not sure they have it,” said marketing consultant Avi Dan.

When asked about the turnover, Senior said that it reflected the high expectations that global leaders have for New York and their willingness to change course when results don’t materialize. He also praised current business and creative chiefs Smart and Benjamin, both of whom he had a hand in selecting.

As for client erosion, Senior turned philosophical. “I don’t want to spend any time or energy drawing up faux theories about the past,” he said. “I would sooner stare at the future through the lens of realistic optimism and belief, work with like-minded people and see what we can do together.”