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Cheerio!

Mike Burns lived and breathed Saatchi’s Cheerios account for twenty years. But when Kevin Roberts, Saatchi’s smooth-talking, sloganeering, black-clad CEO, pushed him too far, he sadly said good-bye to the brand he loved—and seventeen others followed him out the door. A story of loyalty and mutiny in an ad agency.

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At 8:30 on the morning of September 14, 2004, some 400 employees, virtually all of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide’s New York office, gathered in an agency conference room for what most thought was a regular company meeting. Kevin Roberts knew different.

The 55-year-old Roberts had been named CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide in 1997 and had presided over something of a company renaissance. Founded in London by the brothers Charles and Maurice Saatchi in 1970, the agency became the U.K.’s largest in less than a decade. Its “Labour isn’t working” campaign helped usher Margaret Thatcher into office in 1979, and Saatchi went on to become one of the world’s most storied ad firms, creating memorable ads for clients such as British Airways and M&M Mars. By the nineties, however, the Saatchi brothers had nearly bankrupted the agency, and by December 1994, they were removed from the company’s board in an internal coup. In 1995, a new parent company called Cordiant was formed. Still, the agency floundered.

At first, hiring Kevin Roberts smacked of desperation. He had never held a job in advertising, but he did possess some of the panache of Maurice and Charlie. The antithesis of the Greenwich man in the gray flannel suit, Roberts dressed in Armani black, was known to place colleagues in headlocks, and caroused and cursed with a British lad’s zeal. Roberts was raised in Lancashire, England, but the high-school dropout adopted New Zealand as his country and spoke in an over-the-top Kiwi accent. Roberts is an outsize character, wildly enthusiastic about his work and given to Tony Robbins–style motivational speeches. And he wasn’t above a stunt or two. In the late eighties, at a black-tie corporate dinner in Toronto, Roberts, then president of Pepsi Canada, walked onto a stage. A Coke machine was wheeled out. Roberts reached behind a table, pulled out a machine gun, and proceeded to blast the Coke machine. They were only blanks, but it made an impression.

Roberts’s guiding marketing star is a concept he calls Lovemarks, a simple theory holding that there is a magical place beyond brand loyalty where worshipped products like the Volkswagen Beetle, Guinness beer, and the iPod reside. Roberts’s goal was to take Saatchi clients like Tide and Pampers from loyalty to Lovemark. To that end, he immersed the company in Kevin-speak. There were posters in the lobby reading A LOVEMARK IS LIKE A GREAT LOVER. NEVER BORING. On the Saatchi Website, Roberts wrote, “Darwin would have got it straight off. Product to trademark. Trademark to brand. Brand to Lovemark. Lovemarks are super-evolved brands.” Then there was Peak Performance, Roberts’s path to boosting productivity. A sample tenet: “You either fear change and duck for cover, or you revel in it. I’m with the Chinese sage who said, ‘When you’re caught in a storm, don’t run for your life. Build a windmill!’ ”

Roberts was just as good at selling the Roberts brand as he was at selling Tide. He trotted the globe, padding his reported $1.9 million salary with seminars and book sales.

As CEO, Roberts rededicated Saatchi to its core clients, on the theory that it’s easier and more cost-effective to generate new business from people with whom you already have a relationship than to chase new clients. In large part, it worked. Longtime Saatchi client Procter & Gamble, for example, shifted brands like Pampers and Oil of Olay to the agency, generating millions in new billings. In 2002, Ad Age named Saatchi & Saatchi its agency of the year, noting the company’s revenue had increased from $6.6 billion to $7.9 billion that year.

One man waiting for Roberts to speak in the Saatchi conference room that September morning was Mike Burns. Despite being seven years younger than Roberts, Burns was advertising old-school. An Irish-American son of the Bronx, Burns went straight into ad work after college, and, in 1980, took a job at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, a buttoned-down firm that had been handling the Minneapolis-based General Mills account since before the Depression. He was just 23. A quarter of a century later, Dancer had been swallowed by Saatchi in a merger, but General Mills still has dozens of brands at the agency, including Cheerios, Yoplait, and Pillsbury. As the General Mills–Saatchi partnership entered its ninth decade, General Mills was providing Saatchi with $500 million in billing, 50 percent of the New York office’s total revenue.

For his entire adult life, Mike Burns worked on General Mills. He never married, never had children; he must have made the trip to Minnesota more than 500 times. He worked with some of the same people for twenty years (he is godfather to the children of Anne Adriance, his longtime No. 2 on the General Mills account). Burns eventually became the powerful head of the General Mills “silo,” a Saatchi term for an agency-within-an-agency arrangement in which the firm’s major clients were largely independent from one another. He was the most important executive on the agency’s most important account.


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