meet the new ceo
Chris Kay: The man who wants to lead the most influential creative company in modern Britain
As Saatchi & Saatchi's new CEO Chris Kay has big plans for the big agency brand
08 February 2022
Few jobs in advertising come with as much baggage as the role of chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi.
Inspite/because of everything the agency has been through in its 50+ years, it’s still the most famous ad agency out in the real world. And it’s still the one agency every marketer has heard of. In a pretty amorphous ad agency marketplace, Saatchi & Saatchi is a standout brand.
Now it’s Chris Kay’s brand.
Kay was appointed Saatchi & Saatchi’s chief executive last summer. His predecessor Sam Hawkey had jumped to AMV BBDO, leaving behind him an agency set on a fair course but with plenty still to do.
It’s fair to say that the Saatchi name is bigger than the Saatchi business. Saatchi & Saatchi’s famous entrepreneurial foundations are now well hidden beneath the weight of its mighty Publicis Groupe parent. The agency sits within the Groupe’s Power of One integrated model, which last week helped propel Publicis to a 75 per cent leap in profits to €1.34 billion. And like all venerable creative agencies, it’s trying to find a future in a world where first-party data management, digital media, commerce, and business transformation are the sought-after levers of growth.
But first-party data, digital media, commerce – these don’t touch hearts and move minds and drive brand love without some serious creative and strategic magic. Which is where Saatchi & Saatchi comes in. And Chris Kay.
Although Kay has never had a big agency role here and is a relatively unknown quantity in the UK market, handing him the Saatchi crown wasn’t quite the gamble it seems. Magnus Djaba, a former Saatchi CEO himself and now global chief client officer of Publicis Groupe, had worked with Kay back in their days at Fallon. He says: "I was once told that people follow leaders because of their belief, their charisma and a history that says they can legitimately lead. Chris has all three in spades. Saatchi London will be different and better under Chris... he's already got off top a flyer."
But for the rest of us, Kay needs an introduction.
The Burnley-born son of a nurse and a factory worker, Kay spent seven years at Fallon through its glory days, then went to Manchester City as the club’s head of marketing. It was a fabulous job - even for a Burnley supporter. “It was barely a month after the Abu Dhabi royal family investment. So all the money had come in. It was like, you know, if someone on council estate wins the National Lottery, and starts buying speedboats, and doing crazy things, that's what it was. It was like a wild west. And I was seen as a creative person because I came from a creative industry. So I did kit design, I was architecture lead for a new entertainment centre around the stadium, did the tour to New York….it was a great job – it just rains all the time up there. So I was like, fuck this, I’m not staying in Manchester."
So for much of the past decade Kay put the rain behind him, working at 72andSunny, first in L.A. then as CEO of APAC based in Sydney.
But perhaps you can have too much sun. And it's not hard to understand why the job of rejuvenating Saatchi appealed. But how exactly does Kay plan to do that?
So what’s your vision for Saatchi & Saatchi Chris?
To be the most influential creative company in modern Britain.
There's a lot packed into that, so I'll unpack it.
The word Influential has a few meanings behind it. Influential in the lives of our people, because I think that's how you get to creativity. I've been really lucky in that I saw it most at 72andSunny, that if you allow people to be their true selves, then they'll creatively express in a way that they probably wouldn't somewhere else. And what that means is, when you're in a room, and you're in a brainstorm, and you don't feel like you can say the stupid thing, you're not going to get to a great idea, because it's the stupid thing that unlocks the next thing that unlocks the next thing and gets to a great idea. So, influential in the lives of our people first, so they believe this as a company for them.
Number two, influential in the lives of our clients. Because we need to go deep in their business, especially in the new world order to work out how we can use creativity to drive growth. So influential with clients is important.
Then influential in culture. Because you have to affect culture to create change.
Then influential in our industry. This company still has a name that makes people listen. And I don't know if our industry has changed enough in the last 12 years, since I've been away, as it probably should have done. So I think it's up to us and other people and custodians of this industry to help it change.
And influential in the creative agenda of our country, because I feel like creativity has been stolen from our industry. I feel like we've lost our confidence.
So influential has a lot of beats to it.
And being clear that we’re a creative company is important. I’d like everyone in this company to think creatively. I think the best companies are when even the finance person thinks creatively about how they deliver a really different fee structure that gives you freedom.
Phew. How far away from that vision is Saatchis right now?
I don't think I'm turning up with anything really new. I think I'm turning up with clarity. And I think I'm turning up with simplicity. So I think I’m giving a lens for what we've been doing already. As you come into any job, you find some really good things, you find some things that need some help.
What’s your view of London advertising now after having spent so much time in other markets?
It's a bummer it's still called London, isn't it? Our industry? Because in America it used to be New York, but now it's way beyond that – it’s Boulder, it's Portland, it's Los Angeles. And that means you get an absolute different lens on work from different places that pushes the whole market forwards. London's the only place in this country that has great agencies. I mean, no disrespect to the regions, but there isn't a great agency pumping great work out of Birmingham. So it sucks a little bit that it’s just London. I would love it if there was better talent being used outside of this mini epicentre and I think as the new world order changes, there's an opportunity to do that, you know, to diversify the talent and get a real understanding of what's going on in the regions.
I think a lot of people still look and sound like me who do my job, and that's probably not cool. So that needs to change.
And I don't think we're representing this country in the work that we're doing. I think we need to do a much better job of that.
I don't know if we have the global opportunities in this market that we used to have. And I don't know if that's a bit of an effect. I don't know if the UK has struggled a tiny bit, because it hasn't had those big global innovation brands start here that allow you to partner and do something great together. I don’t know the last big global brand that came out of the UK.
I think there's a moment in time for us as an industry to get our confidence back. But I think we do need fresh energy, we do need change, we do need a different perspective. It is interesting to me how this is still a really tight community, isn't it? It's really small community. We’re not inspiring each other. But I love it when other agencies do great work. I love it when I really wish we’d made something that someone else has created.
So which other companies are getting you excited right now?
Around the world, I like what Squarespace do in their creative department. You know, I like what Headspace have just done with their creative department. I think we can learn from the power of collaboration that having creativity and marketing working side by side can achieve.
Here, I think the work the guys at Uncommon have done as a leadership team, to create that thing is amazing. I think they're great. And I think the way that they attack things, I think the work that they do is great. I think AMV been doing really good stuff. I don't think anyone is consistently knocking it out of the park, maybe like agencies did five to 10 years ago. And I don't know why that is. But yeah, I get inspired by what I see here. I'd love it if the industry would just come together to be great again.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the pitching process, what’s your view?
Pitching sucks, doesn’t it. I know that’s a flippant comment, but it sort of does. And what I mean by that is, the pitching system hasn't changed – it’s still six weeks, eight weeks, show me everything.
I mean, it’s a relationship business, isn't it? And I don't think the world of retainers is what it used to be. I remember pitching for Asda and it was s a three-year retainer, so of course, you'd throw everything into that. Sometimes now, we get calls and you've got a pitch for a project. And that project has a very small amount of money attached to it. That's just unfair, for the client as much as for us, because I don't think you're getting the relationship you need to get.
So how empowered are you within Publicis to say no to bad pitches?
I said “No” to a client last week. And we'll keep saying no on things that don't feel like they’re fair: fair to the idea, fair to the client, and then fair to us. I think the way that Annette [King, the chief executive of Publicis Groupe UK] runs the group is to empower the agency brands to make the right decisions. I think the group has great clarity on the strength of its brands. And so autonomy is important.
Honestly, for the Publicis Groupe and for every other brand in the Groupe, if Saatchis is on fire, then MSL is gonna pick up an incredible influencer brief, Turner Duckworth is gonna get a design job, and vice versa - when Turner Duckworth’s on fire and they’ve got a client that needs a brand platform, then they’ll call us. I've never been in a group before where I can actually call smart people to help me and they do.
I'm a firm believer that for new business you should always chase people, not brands. So I would love to find clients that feel like they're on a similar journey. You know, if there's clients who want to work out what their role is in this country, and how they can create change, then that would be great.
What are your top three favourite ads?
PlayStation - "Double Life".
Dating myself but this is the reason I wanted to get into TBWA for my first job in advertising.
It’s timeless, beautiful, and is a great study of not just landing deep in the culture of the audience opening the doors to all in an inspiring way.
Sony Bravia - "Balls"
I was the New Business director at Fallon when the edit for this came back from the shoot in San Francisco. Not only did I think it was mesmerizingly simple in its execution but I also immediately realised how embarrassingly simple it would make my day job become once it was out in the world.
Discovery Channel – "I Love The Whole World".
I joined 72andSunny in LA, not just because I had found a crew of partners who were incredibly inspiring and challenging in equal measure, but they were also producing such optimistic work liked this which made me want to move to the US to join in the fun.