Ad sense

An interview with Richard Huntington, Strategy Director, Saatchi&Saatchi


Politicians have long called on the services of public relations firms, design experts and advertising agencies to help them communicate. What impact do they have, and how has their role changed? We asked one of the very biggest in the business, Saatchi & Saatchi, for some insights.

In 1979, a large, rather stark, poster appeared on billboards across the UK. The poster displayed a long queue of people shuffling under an awning that read “unemployment office”. At the top of the poster, in heavy black letters punctuated by a peremptory full stop, were the words “Labour isn’t working.” On the bottom margin, in a discreet, almost confessionary aside (the letters were the smallest on the poster) was the response: “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives”.

The poster was designed by a fresh and brilliant start-up named Saatchi & Saatchi. It was the first time in British history that a political party had used advertising to help win an election. The poster caused a stir. Denis Healey, a senior figure in the Labour government of the 1970s, derided the Conservatives for selling “politics like soap powder”. But the poster helped sway the British electorate in favour of Margaret Thatcher. It made Saatchi & Saatchi world famous, brought fame and fortune to its family founders, Maurice and Charles and opened a new front for campaign war chiefs. If Saatchi’s remains in the vanguard of communications globally, then those early days were crucial to its success.

“In fact, we learned a lot from selling soap powder”, says Richard Huntington, Strategy Director at Saatchi & Saatchi.

Bringing such an agency on board for the 1979 election campaign may have been a first in British electoral politics, but not in public policy. “The UK has a rich heritage of investing significantly in government communications”, Mr Huntington points out, adding that “in an apolitical sense, this heritage has pretty much existed since the Second World War: the Ministry of Information and Propaganda during the war years for instance. But there was a ramping-up in the 1980s. By the time we reached the millennium the government was one the biggest ad buyers in the UK”.

Political advertising is commonplace nowadays in most OECD countries. Laws about advertising can be quite strict, such as in France, where each candidate is allotted 18 television spots–ten lasting 90 seconds and eight lasting three minutes, 30 seconds–during which time they cannot denigrate other candidates or seek donations. The opposite is true in the United States, where advertising is often pugnacious and (as was clear in the television spots for the recent US presidential election) seems mostly intent on mocking the credibility of the opposing candidate rather than delivering a cogent political message.

Mr Huntington is a “planner by trade”. He came to Saatchi & Saatchi after a stint as planning director at United London. He is genially outspoken, iconoclastic and is a zealous and persuasive apologist for advertising in the service of the public good. On his website he describes himself as having “made rodeo sexy, produced food porn, helped men confront their fear of the telephone, and made Sky more appealing to digital refusniks”.

Saatchi has gone from strength to strength since those Thatcher years, when it was sought out by industries making the leap to privatisation, although it has since shifted away from policyrelated communications. “On the whole, the agency was a favourite with fullynationalised companies going private then. But we haven’t done a lot in that arena over the last ten years”.

In fact, in politics generally, though Saatchi added a communications edge to famous election campaigns, and not just for the Conservatives–the firm produced the “Not Flash, Just Gordon” poster for Labour in anticipation of elections in 2007 when Gordon Brown took over as prime minister from Tony Blair–its involvement has declined in recent years, says Mr Huntington.

He saw signs of change in the UK with the 2010 general election. One factor was voter apathy. “The decline in ideology has had a knock-on effect on people’s passion”.

For Saatchi & Saatchi, advertising has evolved as a concept. In fact, when Kevin Roberts took over as CEO in 1997 after a shareholder revolt compelled Maurice and Charles to quit the firm, he dropped the word “advertising” from the name and rebranded Saatchi & Saatchi as an “ideas company”. The company’s vision of itself changed.

“The emphasis today is more on changing behaviour”, says Mr Huntington. “Once, the goal was to change attitudes to a subject in order to change behaviour. Now it’s the reverse: to change behaviour in order to change attitudes”. Changes in society have prompted this shift. People, Mr Huntington says, distrust the government, in part because of its moral high-handedness in the past. Today, people are more likely to relate to brands and icons. “Brands are now important to behaviour change. So instead of “government” we say “NHS” because we don’t like the government and we like the NHS.”

Social media is largely responsible for further recent shifts in register. “Stop smoking” campaigns in the UK are more positive than they were, he says, referring to the anti-smoking ads of another advertising agency. “Such campaigns nurture a change in behaviour through the use of emails, social media, etc. Unlike smoking campaigns 30 years ago, they don’t turn up on their doorsteps and shout at them. People can have their hands held today, whether it is has to do with buying a Toyota or getting down to a healthy diet”.

Nor are blunt posters the preferred way forward anymore.

“Our tools today allow us to have a more genuine dialogue with people. These conversations take them through the necessary stages to get them to do something desirable. People are acutely aware of who is talking to them. They are more cynical and much more connected. Our role is to manage that conversation”.

Visit  Saatchi & Saatchi’s website at and

©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019