Studio profile: M&C Saatchi

AUTHOR:  
Published:  February 12, 2011
Studio profile: M&C Saatchi

Brutal Simplicity

Words: Jo Spurling

The M&C Saatchi Sydney offices stretch out inside the former financial building in which they are housed like a complex labyrinth. The fully restored internal façade, a resplendant art deco with rounded corners housing Australia’s oldest escalator, complements the hustle and bustle of the creative hubbub inside and, though it seems obvious, several scenes from Mad Men flutter through my mind. I am here to meet creative director, Ben Welsh, who cuts a stylish figure when he appears at the door to the M&C Saatchi café (yes, they have their own café). Welsh is like everything and nothing I expected, the perfect combination.

While many people seemingly know from an early age where their life will lead, Welsh started out in one direction and then performed a complete 180, before finally settling in the advertising world. “Once upon a time I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau,” he recalls. “So I did a degree in marine biology. Then I wanted to row for Cambridge, so I studied an MPhil in applied entomology at Cambridge University (Magdalene, if anyone was wondering). I failed to achieve either, but in that time I discovered two things – Australian wine, in general, and Australian women, one in particular. One thing led to another and I found myself being part of the 1986 Mount Mary Vintage in the Yarra Valley. Then, as the 80s were waning I had a tough choice to make – head off to Roseworthy to do a degree in winemaking, or see if Copy School could get me somewhere in advertising.”

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

The choice it seems was to take a chance in Copy School. Skipping ahead in our tale, and it was not too long after the emergence of M&C Saatchi that Welsh had joined their team. “There are books written on that subject, but my short version of events would be: Maurice [Saatchi] calls Tom Dery and Simon Corah and says: ‘How would you like to drop your secure and well-paid positions at your respective agencies, and start a new one, with one client and few immediate prospects?’ They say: ‘Why not?’ The first office was a hotel room. Finances were a credit card. Industry pundits gave it one year, tops. Things really started to take off when Tom McFarlane joined as creative director and I joined the following year.”

Welsh was soon swimming in a sea of creative, client briefs and advertising, playing his part in creating some of the the amazing and innovative work for which M&C Saatchi is renowned. Yet when it comes to describing the M&C Saatchi style, Welsh refers to the words of Maurice Saatchi. “It is easier to complicate than simplify. Simple messages enter the brain quicker and stay there longer. Brutal simplicity of thought is a painful necessity. The 21st century requires us to be even more brutal. And even more simple,” he quotes.

This brutal simplicity permeates through every M&C Saatchi outcome, and it’s not as easy as you may think. “Brutal simplicity is a strategic discipline,” Welsh says. “A way of coming up with something relevant and pointy. It’s also designed to help create great ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean simple ads. Both the Herringbone and Optus ‘whale song’ work were born from brutal simplicity. I’ve never been a fan of communications where the ‘strategy is showing’, it gets in the way of charm, an often overlooked essential ingredient.”

Polo poster

Polo poster

Along with brutal simplicity, Welsh adds that ‘creative hard sell’ has always been a part of the M&C Saatchi mantra. “We do work that works,” Welsh explains. “It can be a $2 million TV campaign, a 30Kb web banner or a five cent DM piece. The creative department cares as much about the results as
anyone else in the agency.”

According to Welsh, effective creative is based on survival, but I’ll let him explain that one. “You need to survive the uncertainty, then the knockbacks and finally the production,” Welsh says. “The key to survival is enthusiasm. A great ad still retains the original joy the creative had when the idea was cracked. It can actually
grow. The team’s excitement becomes the creative director’s. Before long the client is jumping up and down, calling it their own, and even finding a bit more money to make it happen. Too many bright ideas lose their lustre along the journey.”

Winning and keeping that business, however, still comes down to many different factors. “It’s as much about the people as the work,” says Welsh. “I think pitches should be replaced by lunches (then after a meeting go through work, which proves that you have the ability). You simply sit around and chat.

A little wine breaks down barriers and by the Grappas and Frangelicos you’ll know whether you want to be together. It’s a bit like speed dating – actually, we once did a pitch based on aspeed date and one on a series of lunches, which we won.”

In a similar vein to many of the creatives I have spoken to over the years, Welsh’s favourite project will always be ‘the next one’, though not wanting to sound ‘a bit wanky’ (as he puts it), looking back he still has a soft spot for the agency’s New Zealand Tourism work. “A dream pitch and the result, 100% PURE NEW ZEALAND was a campaign that is generally considered as the benchmark in tourism advertising. More recently I’m incredibly proud of all the guys who were responsible for ACON’s ‘Wear it with Pride’ campaign (Gen Hoey, Hannes Ciatti and Ben Huxter with lots of involvement from many others). Their passion created a momentum, which spread through the agency and beyond. The Optus ‘whale song’ campaign last year was also a breakthrough.”

Optus Big Meeting Mug

Optus Big Meeting Mug

Nearly all digital projects undertaken by M&C Saatchi are completed wholly in-house, with the agency boasting one of the largest digital teams in Australia – comprising more than 60 people. Recently, though, it has been working closely with Boffswana to create the ‘whale song’ website for Optus, mentioned above. With the tagline, ‘Anything is possible through communication’, the site encourages you to create your own whale song using your computer keyboard. It’s haunting and beautiful, and this writer is not afraid to admit it made her a little teary-eyed as well.

mcsaatchi.com.

All images copyright M&C Saatchi.

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