When someone tells you that their company is ‘an ideas factory’, the typical reaction is to roll one’s eyes. However, when that person is Bob Seelert, Global Chairman for Saatchi & Saatchi – the most famous advertising company in the world – then perhaps it’s time to sit up and take notice.
“Martin Luther King didn’t get up at the Lincoln Memorial and say, ‘I have a mission statement’; he said, ‘I have a dream’, because dreams are a much more powerful thing”
With two Harvard degrees and a 40-year career at the forefront of some of the world’s toughest leadership assignments, Bob Seelert has amassed a reputation as a turnaround expert. He’s revived the fortunes of businesses and brands in both the US and internationally, and done so through a commitment to nurturing top talent – and demanding the very best from the people under his command.
For the past 12 years he’s been the Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world’s leading creative ideas companies. His journey from small-town Connecticut to CEO of some of the world’s leading companies – not to mention board member for nine companies in the United States, England and France – has led him to develop a unique perspective on leadership and success, and made him one of the most respected figures in global business.
As Chairman, he is actively involved in the strategy and management of Saatchi & Saatchi, dispensing advice, counsel and perspective to senior executives and client teams. “Our business is all about people and ideas,” he explains. “We don’t have any factories, we don’t have any formulas, we don’t have products, and we don’t have manufacturing capabilities. Our assets go up and down the lift every day, and our whole business is about giving birth to the ideas that are going to drive people’s businesses.”
You’ve had a long and illustrious career. How do you think things have changed for CEOs and other C-level executives compared to when you started in business? Do you think things are tougher now, or require adoption of a different approach?
I suppose there are many things that have changed, but just as many things that are timeless. The whole challenge of leadership – how to be a great leader – is, I think, fundamentally the same today as it was back when I got started. Leaders have to do three things. They have to set direction for the enterprise. They have to establish standards or expectations for how the enterprise is going to perform. And once they have those two things in place, they have to unleash the energy of the organization – to empower people to go out and get the job done, because you can’t get the job done alone.
Okay, let’s talk a little about setting the right direction. What does this involve?
Setting direction is all about having an inspirational dream for the company. Other people call this creating a mission statement. But Martin Luther King didn’t get up at the Lincoln Memorial and say, “I have a mission statement”; he said, “I have a dream”, because dreams are a very powerful thing. We wrote our inspirational dream at Saatchi and Saatchi back in 1996: “To be revered as the hothouse for world-changing ideas that create sustainable growth for our clients.” I think that’s 17 words or thereabouts, and you should be able to do this in 20 words or less so that everybody in the organization can metaphorically tape the strategy to their forehead. It needs to be short enough and memorable enough so that every single person in the company can be expected to know what this is.
Everywhere I go in Saatchi and Saatchi, I always start off with a reminder of this. Our inspirational dream is to be revered as the hothouse for world-changing ideas that create sustainable growth for our clients. That’s why we’re here. That’s what inspires customers and employees to come to our company. So that’s what an inspirational dream is: it’s an expression of who you are and what you’re all about and how you’re going to go forward as a company. For us, this is a timeless thing. We’ve been caught up in the difficulties of the 2009 economic environment, but we haven’t changed a word of our inspirational dream. When you can write it and it can sustain you in good times and bad, it’s a really powerful statement.
I guess this leads naturally into the idea of maintaining high standards. How have you consistently achieved this in your career?
I’ve always tried to establish high standards and expectations; some of my core values in that regard have been a belief in the long-term, a belief in growth, a belief in continuous improvement, and a belief in out-competing all of the companies in our peer group so that we grow faster than them. But you can set standards of performance for any job. So take my PA at Saatchi and Saatchi, for instance. I remember saying to her, “Look, your job is to help ensure that I am successful in what I do. And the standard of performance for your job is going to be what I call ‘flawless execution’. You will make sure that I am always in the right place at the right time fully prepared with everything I need in order to perform at my best. That will happen 100-percent of the time. And it’ll happen flawlessly. I’ll never be late. I’ll never be in the wrong place. I’ll never arrive at the airport and find that I didn’t have a ticket, or at a restaurant and I didn’t have a booking, or whatever. We set a clear standard of what expectations were going to be for what the job was, and she performed them ‘flawlessly’.
Would you say you’re a tough boss?
I’d say I’m a person who sets high expectations and then recognizes and rewards people for performing against them. A football coach of an American football team once said, “Expect a lot of your people. They’ll usually meet it.” And quite frankly, I think one of the things that maybe some people don’t do is they don’t set expectations high enough. They don’t encourage people to come forward and perform at the level that they could be capable of if you made it clear what their performance levels should be
And this is where the third element of leadership – unleashing the energy of the organization – comes in, because a lot of that has to do with communications. It is making sure that people know that you want and expect them to contribute, and that you’re going to recognize and reward them when they do. And I think those are the same kind of expectations that one would’ve had from a leader when I got started 40 years ago. Are there more pressures today? Sure. Is there a faster pace? Sure. Are there more wide-ranging considerations, including political and social and global kinds of considerations? Sure. But is the fundamental role of a leader any different than it was? No. I think they still need to do those three basic things in today’s environment.
Looking back over your career, is it possible to isolate one instance, project or situation that you’re most proud of?
The thing that I’m most proud of is when I first came to Saatchi and Saatchi in 1995. The board had ousted the two founding brothers, and I was recruited to come in and take over. When the brothers left, six percent of the revenue had walked out the door. They’d gone across town to start up a new and supposedly rival agency. The company was losing money. It was burning cash. It had too much debt at too high an interest rate. It was all coming due soon. And everybody in the company, as well as all the clients, were asking, “Should I stay or leave?”
So, you talk about tough times; that was a really difficult situation. When I took the job, a friend of mine called me up and said, “Oh, my God. I’m amazed that you’re doing this. Congratulations, but you’d better enjoy it while you can because the company might not be there in three months.” But the reality is, after I arrived, nobody left. We refinanced the company. We started to re-grow the revenue, and up until 2009 we’ve actually had 13 consecutive years of revenue growth. We did a merger with the Publicis Group in 2000, and that transaction occurred at a share price that was 450-percent above where it was when I started in 1995. So I think that was my single greatest accomplishment – in essence, taking this company and rescuing it from the brink and growing it to a point where it was a highly valued merger partner, and has gone on to be a consistently growing and excellent worldwide network.
Was it quite clear to you when you walked in what you needed to do, or did it take a long time to figure out what was required?
Well, it was quite clear to me that the company was in crisis, and one of the things that I did was try to gain presence with as many offices, as many people, and as many clients as I possibly could, as quickly as possible. So I came in and said, “Here’s who I am. Here are some things that I believe in.” And I think that immediately gave some sense of inspiration and leadership that things were going to work out okay. I got around to offices that accounted for 65 percent of our revenues worldwide within the first six months that I was with the company. I got around to meet with the top 10 clients of all of the networks, and the top 20 clients of the group. I got around to meet with the 10 leading shareholders who owned more than 60 percent of the shares. So I was active 24/7, but more importantly than that I had a presence; I didn’t go isolate myself in an office and just send out bulletins. I was an in-your-face presence trying to inspire people and give them confidence that we were going to survive and prosper.
You’re now no longer overseeing the day-today operations of the firm, you’ve moved upstairs to the role of chairman. Do you think that the role of the chairman has become a more complex position given recent concerns over executive behavior?
I certainly believe the chairman has broader and more complicated external issues to deal with. We’re in a global economy with a lot of wide-ranging governmental, regulatory, political, environmental and social kinds of considerations. I think those things have grown in complexity. But internally, you still set direction, establish standards and unleash the energy of the group. That’s kind of what it’s all about.
What leaders have inspired you throughout your career?
I just got through reading an article where they named Steve Jobs the CEO of the decade, and I think he is an incredibly inspirational and innovative leader. Here’s someone who has been in the computer business since the first emergence of the personal computer. And he is now taking it through what I think even he would call its final phase of development, whereby he is creating devices linked to the internet that create and enable a whole new digital lifestyle, which increasing numbers of people are living every day. It’s things like the iPod and the iPhone and everything else that you can do on the internet that makes all of this possible. And he’s been at the heart of that, to be honest. His company has been at the heart of that in an innovation sense. So, I think you have to have great respect for innovative, entrepreneurial people who not only develop incredible business success, but that have, in this case, shaped an entirely new lifestyle. It’s really quite amazing.
What kind of impact is the advent of the digital lifestyle having on your business?
It is having a tremendous impact on the advertising business. When I got started I could put together a television and print campaign to launch a product in the United States that would reach 90 percent of American consumers four or five times within a four-week period of time. Now, that’s completely impossible, because media is so fractionated. There are so many different channels and platforms.
The other big thing is that we used to intrude into homes; now we need to get invited into them. We want consumers to seek us out. We don’t just want to bludgeon them over the head with messages. We want to make connections with them. And getting in front of these people that are living the digital lifestyle through screens – whether it’s their mobile phone or the internet or a TV or seeing a movie – is a big challenge. We’re asking ourselves two questions now with regards to our campaigns. Will people want to see it again? And will they want to share it with their friends? The ‘share-ability’ aspect is recognizing that we’re in a world of incredible social interconnectedness and things can spread like wildfire. We used to totally control the message. We would develop the ad and we would place it, and that was pretty much the way it got from here to there. Now, the idea goes out and it can evolve and go almost anywhere.
Does that make it harder to both plan campaigns and keep up with them once they’ve launched?
It’s very demanding, because the devices that people like Steve Jobs keep inventing are constantly changing how all of this is taking place and disseminated, and new social networks keep coming along and building momentum, while others fall by the wayside. So the world is a constantly changing place. TV came in and people thought radio was going to just vanish, but it didn’t; instead it evolved into a very different kind of medium. In the same way, the digitally driven internet world is having a tremendous impact on a lot of mediums. But I don’t think they’re going to go away; they’re just going to have to adjust to whatever the economic requirements are.
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