ROBERT SENIOR: THE ONLY REAL THING IS ACTION
Maurice and Charles Saatchi had Mrs Thatcher, and Robert Senior had the gorilla. All admen have a campaign that – for better or worse – defines them; for Senior it was a 2007 Cadbury Dairy Milk advert in which an ecstatic silverback gorilla pounded away on a drum-kit to Phil Collins’ hit ‘In the Air Tonight’. The gorilla had been waiting for that moment all his life.
The genesis of such success – the 90-second Cadbury ad won numerous awards – is due, he says, to ‘choreographed collisions’ of opinion, thoughts and character types. It is the product of a ‘circuitous creative journey’ rather than a linear response to the client brief.
‘When a client hears a thing,’ explains Senior, ‘the elements that are going to be the most interesting are the parts that are going to be utterly bewildering in the first iteration: “What do you mean you’re not showing my product?”’ It is the ‘sleight of hand’ of the adman that creates logic out of the abstract.
Advertising Agency: Fallon London. Creative: Richard Flintham/Juan Cabral.
Senior has been conjuring up such triumphs for 30 years. He worked as an account director for a series of agencies before becoming a founding partner of Fallon London in 1998. More recently, he was CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, a role from which he stepped down in January 2017.
His trademark campaigns blend joy, conceptualism and drama to create something alchemical. Fallon sent a blaze of 10,000 coloured balls ricocheting down the hills of San Francisco to promote Sony Bravia televisions; made a Skoda out of cake; and Saatchi & Saatchi staged a flash-mob dance in Liverpool Street Station for a T-Mobile ad. His campaigns become news stories (Cadbury’s gorilla appeared on the front page of the Financial Times).
Film created by Saatchi & Saatchi in honour of Robert‘s career at Saatchi & Saatchi and at Fallon, which he founded with Laurence Green, Richard Flintham, Andy McLeod and Michael Wall (pictured left to right).
Born in Middlesbrough, Senior travelled extensively in his youth due to his father’s work with ICI (he speaks German, French and Dutch). His paternal grandparents were West End performers and he has inherited their desire to entertain. After studying History and Politics at Durham he was, he maintains, equipped for a career as a teacher, a barrister or an adman. ‘Storytelling with a point,’ he says of all three.
Advertising and leadership are interchangeable, he claims: ‘It’s Tom Sawyer painting the fence.’ Inspire and the inspired will thrive. ‘When you are CEO, your department is culture. To internal and external stakeholders,’ he says. The perceived wisdom that an economic downturn should necessarily trigger cutbacks and redundancies is, he claims, sometimes the product of lazy thinking bordering on the irresponsible. ‘The share price is linked to sales, which are linked to people doing better at their job. People are at their best when there is a lightness.’
He believes that technology has changed the landscape of advertising. He likens internet marketing to the television advertising of the 1950s, beating customers into submission with generic campaigns. ‘Everything tastes of vanilla,’ he says. ‘We used to have really subtle flavours and now it’s vanilla and not even proper vanilla pods.’
Coinciding with Fallon and Saatchi & Saatchi being grouped together in 2007 – under his leadership – Senior ran Gordon Brown’s campaign (slogan: ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’). But the corporate ladder soon took him away from the agency’s creative hub to play Jenga with an increasingly elaborate company structure. The rainmaker was left holding the umbrella. And so he stepped away.
Film created by Saatchi & Saatchi charting Robert Senior‘s career at Saatchi & Saatchi and at Fallon London, which he co-founded with Laurence Green, Richard Flintham, Andy McLeod and Michael Wall (pictured left to right).
Advertising Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi; Creative: Kate Stanners
Now in his early 50s, he has the bounce of a gap-year student. In recent months, he has been a guest speaker at London Business School and the London School of Economics and joined the V&A Advisory Board. An attention to issues in education has propelled him to chair a huge fundraising initiative for Durham University and participate in Robert Peston’s Speakers for Schools programme, in which he enthused A-level students to have the courage to make mistakes (but also to learn by them).
The thought of a larger role, not necessarily in advertising, still appeals, however. It is ideas and causes – ‘Fallon was a cause, Saatchi was a cause’ – that interest him. He talks about his commute into London: ‘All these people, all this energy. Let’s say that half of them are minded to do something interesting today, make a difference. In theory the whole world would have shifted a tiny fraction based on all these people’s endeavours.’
So if he returns to that throng, would he re-embrace the adrenaline rush? ‘A bit,’ he smiles. ‘I’m very much of the school that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. And I’m one of those people. Nature abhors a vacuum.’
Robert was interviewed by Christian House for thisisabout.com
Advertising Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi. Copywriter: Julian Andrews. Creative Director: Kate Stanners.