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Sun 8 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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‘Our only limitation is our own imagination’

Rob Mitchell is leading Saatchi & Saatchi through a period of impressive growth. Richard Abbott meets him

‘Our only limitation is our own imagination’|~|Mitchell,-Robert200.jpg|~|Mitchell... ‘There is some good stuff and there is some real dross. But the better stuff is beginning to outweigh the worse’|~|Rob Mitchell might just have the best office in Dubai. When you are tired of sitting on his comfy black sofa (or his red beanbag), you can open his sliding doors and step out on to the balcony overlooking a lush green lawn, the sandy beach and the Arabian Gulf.

Welcome to Beach Villas, a former residence built in the shape of a ship that now houses the Dubai office of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

Naturally, as skipper of the ship, Mitchell needs a decent vantage point from which to steer it. Or at least, that’s what he probably tells his staff.

Saatchi & Saatchi is growing quickly, with business up 41% year-on-year and the addition of new clients in the last 18 months, including Qatar Airways and Mall of the Emirates. It is on the short-list for Campaign’s Advertising Agency of the Year.

Mitchell is a constant traveler. His work takes him around the Middle East on a regular basis and he has just returned from a month’s holiday in Australia on the day that Campaign visits.

“Travel is my biggest hobby. I travel about 30 times a year and at least twice a month,” he says. The travel theme is continued by his wife, who runs the Middle East arm of Italian national airline Alitalia.

Mitchell describes himself as “very hard working” and, like most advertising agency bosses, he can be found at his desk around the clock when the heat is on.

One of the latest tasks his agency took on was the advertising campaign for the Red Bull Flugtag, an event which saw a reported 30,000 people descend on Dubai’s Creekside Park.

Mitchell graduated from Manchester University in English literature. “A literary education is not a bad thing. It helps you understand the process of creation and sell the work better,” he says.

He admits he “fell” into advertising as a job and one of his first assignments was working at Lowe, Howe and Spink, alongside the great Frank Lowe. “I am sure he has got a harder side to him, but I found him very urbane, sophisticated and incredibly charming,” says Mitchell.

He came to Dubai in 1993, initially as an account director at Fortune Promoseven, “in search of adventure and tax-free money”. A year later he moved to Saatchi & Saatchi and he graduated to the managing director’s office in 2000.

“The difference between running an agency and running an account is to create an environment where ideas can flourish and get all the talent together as a creative team,” he says. “But you never stop being an account man.”

His mission is to grow the agency further and give it more stature on the international stage. “Dubai is a natural hub and it is getting more profile around the world,” he says. “It is getting increasingly significant within our own network.”

As if to prove this, the Dubai office has been selected as one of five global hubs to host Saatchi & Saatchi’s worldwide planning clinic, where creatives from around the world come together to compare ideas. And Mitchell is optimistic about the improving levels of creativity coming out of this region.

“The Middle East is still a small percentage of global ad spend, but the growth curve is steep,” he says.

“Clients are getting braver. Because the market is getting more crowded they need to stand out and differentiate themselves. The briefs are getting better, for that reason.”

He is pleased to see more talented individuals coming to the market, including a new generation of young Arabs from the Levant and Egypt, who are bringing with them a fountain of local insight.

“Our only limit is our own ability and imagination,” says Mitchell. “There is some good stuff and there is some real dross. But the better stuff is beginning to outweigh the worse.”

Mitchell is true to the global Saatchi & Saatchi policy, quoting the company’s CEO Kevin Roberts, who coined the word ‘lovemarks’ to describe brands that consumers form a loyalty beyond reason.

“Our big business has always been in the conceptual idea,” he says.

He paints a rosy picture of the advertising market. I ask him if anything frustrates him about his job. “Very little frustrates me,” he says, before stopping and thinking. “I don’t like making tough calls about people. But our industry does have quite a performance culture.”

What does he suspect that his staff think of him? “You’d have to ask them,” he says. “I would hope that I am quite well liked. I am quite easy going and encourage an open, friendly atmosphere. I can be quite serious too. I can be quite direct and tough when required.”

Saatchi & Saatchi was one of the first international agencies to establish itself in the Middle East. The Dubai office opened in 1993 and it moved to its current Jumeirah home five years ago.

“We are an ideas company. In our corporate culture we have always believed in a high standard of creativity; everyone working here is expected to contribute to idea creation,” says Mitchell. “I hope people choose to work here because of the agency’s reputation. People tend to go by gut feel.”

One of the initiatives being run by Saatchi & Saatchi globally is the ‘switch’ programme that enables younger employees to swap jobs with their counterparts in other international offices.

The office itself must be a major attraction too, with the front door opening on to the beach and the office merely a stone’s throw from media hangout Sho Cho’s.

As we leave the building we pass a meeting room, where creative director Ed Jones is leading a meeting. Worryingly, his head is buried deep in his hands.

“He must be thinking hard,” says Mitchell, who is full of praise for the internationally-traveled Jones and the partnership that they have developed in Dubai.

“He has the wisdom and experience of over 20 years in the network in five different countries, combined with the energy of an 18-year-old.”

Mitchell is off to London at the weekend after our interview.

I ask if there is anywhere he has not yet visited. “I have to go to South America next year. If I can get another month off work, I will do that,” he says. “But I am not sure if I can do that two years running.”||**||

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