In Conversation: Saatchi & Saatchi's Bob Seelert

In this edition of the Thought Leadership Project, I talk to Bob Seelert, who for the last 12 years has been the Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world’s leading creative ideas companies. His journey from small-town Connecticut to being CEO of five companies in three different industries, and a member of the board of directors of nine companies in the United States, England and France, reads like a script for “The Great American Success Story.” He talks about leadership, the importance of excellence in execution, and his favorite brand.

About Bob Seelert

After graduating from the Harvard Business School, he started a 23-year career with General Foods Corporation, one of the premier companies of its time in America. He held 17 different roles and positions across the organization, initially in sales and marketing and then general management, eventually becoming President and CEO of Worldwide Coffee and International Foods. He closely observed one of the biggest mega-mergers in US corporate history, the acquisition of General Foods by Philip Morris in 1985.

In the early nineties Seelert led turnaround operations at Topco, a grocery industry co-operative, and Kayser Roth, a leading U.S. manufacturer of leg wear that operated as a joint venture of the Blackstone Group and Wasserstein-Perella.

In 1995 he was recruited as the high-profile CEO to lead Cordiant, the UK-based holding company that had been formed following the dramatic shareholder revolt at the London-based Saatchi & Saatchi. He became Chairman in 1997 after hiring Kevin Roberts as CEO, moved the headquarters to New York, and together they re-built and re-focused the company as a potent ideas company working with many of the world’s leading corporations and brands. In 2000 Seelert concluded a merger of Saatchi & Saatchi with the Publicis Groupe of France at a share price that was 450% higher than the starting level. The company has improved its financial performance every year since, and in 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi had its best year in the history of the company.

The Conversation

This is a condensed version of Prof. Ram Ganeshan's interview with Bob Seelert.

Q: If you were to distill your leadership style to one value, what would it be? Can you give us examples of how this value has consistently and persistently guided you through your career?

A: The starting point for leadership is knowing who you are and what you stand for and what your own values, beliefs and principles are.

In 1982, I had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Institute and it was a two-week seminar with people drawn from business, not-for-profit, government, etc.  We would read the greatest writings from the greatest thinkers of all time and we would get together each day and we would debate in a forum very heavy duty topics like “Is man inherently good or is man Inherently bad.”

And interestingly people would come down on both sides of the question and it would very much affect how they approached their job.  For example, people who thought that men were inherently good were willing to delegate responsibility and energize their organizations. People who thought that men were inherently bad thought “this is why you have time clocks that people punch; this is why I have my people come in on Monday and I lay out for them what my expectations are for the week and then I have them come back in at the close of the day on Friday and tell me what they did.”

So when I got done with this seminar, I went back home and I asked myself, who am I? What do I believe in?  What are the values, beliefs and principles that I will carry forth in my career?  How will I bring them to life? And what will they mean for me as a person? I wrote a Personal Statement and it’s who I am and what I’m all about.

Ram Ganeshan’s note: I have included Bob’s personal statement below.

I stand before you as what I call a totally honest, open, and common-sensed based individual

And finally, a person who has fun while he works, and who keeps work in balance with his personal life.

A person who is an eternal optimist, and one who believes that most things in business are possible given the right people, the right attitudes, and agreement on what we want to get done.

A person who is oriented to the long-term, to growth, to multi-functional teamwork, and too constant improvement in everything we do.

A person who is competitive versus the outside world, has a passion for excellence in execution, and takes pride in the performance of his organization.

A person who recognizes that one cannot get the job done alone and therefore believes in communication, delegation, and clearly assigning accountabilities.

A person who expects commitment and hard work measured against high standards, and recognizes and rewards people accordingly.

The interesting and to some extent amazing part is I wrote this 27 years ago and if I were to rewrite it today, I would maybe change only a couple words.

So this has guided me in my career and I think if you’re going to be a leader you’ve got to gain people’s trust and you’ve got to stand for something. They have to know who you are and that they can count on you and what the banner is that you’re going to carry into the fray that they’ll be able to subscribe to.

And you then have to live this consistently every day of your life. So I am who I am.  I can even write it down on a piece of paper.  People implicitly or explicitly get to know that and they realize that what you see is what you get and that’s what I think leadership is all about.

Q: The readers of the Thought Leadership project are especially interested in business operations. At Saatchi & Saatchi, what does it take to transform your client’s needs (consumer insight, ideas, communications, etc.) into reality?  What are the typical operational challenges to executing these projects?

A: My wisdom:  “A good idea, poorly executed, can be worse than no idea at all.” In my experience, a great idea poorly executed consumes a lot of time, wastes a lot of money, and usually fails. So I’m very big on trying to instill in our organization two things. If you’ve got a great idea, fantastic, because we’re all about ideas and building our client’s business. But an idea isn’t really an idea until it’s touched by the consumer and brought to life. So I want you to focus on what I call attention to detail and excellence in execution in bringing the idea to life.

I’m going to give you a governmental example of where this didn’t work out well.  Obama comes in as President and he’s picked up a financial crisis and a tremendous economic depression and he selects Larry Summers as the Director of the White House's National Economic Council. I thought appointing Larry Summers was a good idea and that he’s one of the more thoughtful economists of our time. He thought it would be a good idea under these unique circumstances to re-inject a dose of Keynesian economics.

Then Larry said three really smart things.  He said that any dose of Keynesian economics ought to be timely, targeted and temporary.

And then what happened? What happened is the whole thing got turned over to two branches of Congress and 535 people put together an 800-billion dollar package half of which is a bunch of programs that hadn’t made the cut in the last eight years and the other half are not anywhere near as good as they could have been.

Only 30% of the money is even going to be working in place by the end of the year.  Now if that’s timely, targeted and temporary, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!

I was over in France and they had a stimulus package and 75% of their money was in the market place by July 1st and a hundred percent will be in the market place by the end of the year.  I thought to myself this is really embarrassing to be significantly out executed by the French.

The stimulus has good and bad sides but its going to be a “good idea, poorly executed, worse than no idea at all” because it’s costing a lot of money and it’s taking a lot of time and I don’t think it has the juice that it could have had if somebody had followed through with attention to detail and excellence in execution.

Q: Which brand do you admire most? Why?

A: The brand I admire most in recent years is Apple. Everything we do is subject to the law of diminishing returns but Apple keeps popping onto new growth curves with innovations that dramatically build their business. They introduced the iMac which was followed by iTunes, which was followed by iPod, which was followed by iPhone. Through a process of continuous innovation, they keep hopping onto a new curve from a strong foundation.

Q: I hear you are a history buff. Lets say you were to get access to a time machine that can transport you to any time, past or future. Where and when will you go first, why?

A: We are embarked on the Asian century, and particularly within that, the Chinese century. I just gave a talk in Japan saying that China’s GDP would be larger than the United States sometime between 2020 and 2030. I came back and I saw Goldman Sachs is specifically predicting it in 2027. So I want to see in 2050 how all of this worked out.

Q: Your other predictions…

A: I’ve given some other talks recently prognosticating the future of the U.S. auto industry after the bailouts. I think that Ford is actually going to do very well and I think General Motors and Chrysler are going to continue to decline and all we’ve done is throw away a hundred billion dollars and kicked the can forward.

About Saatchi & Saatchi

Saatchi & Saatchi is one of the world's top advertising agency networks, with more than 150 offices in about 85 countries. It provides creative advertising services and plans marketing campaigns for some of the largest advertisers and top global brands.