LONDON -- Charles and Maurice Saatchi liked to tell their colleagues the story of the blind beggar in Central Park who sat on the sidewalk with a sign that read: "I am blind."

One fine morning in early spring, an advertising copywriter passed by on his way to work, bent down and wrote something on the sign. When he stopped by that evening and asked how the day had gone, the blind man replied, "Fantastic. Never done so well. What did you write on the sign?"

The copywriter replied, "I added a few words to make it read: It is spring and I am blind."

Even a beggar needs an adman, or so the Saatchis believed. During two frenetic decades of hyperactive deal-making, they set about to make themselves admen to the world -- nothing less than the biggest, boldest, most creative and most profitable advertising and marketing agency that ever existed.

Or, as they themselves put it in one annual report: "It's good to be big, it's better to be good, but it's best to be both."

For a brief moment, some would say, Saatchi & Saatchi Co. was both. Starting only 20 years ago, Charles and Maurice Saatchi transformed their six-man agency on a London side street into the largest advertising conglomerate in the world. Just as the Beatles took American popular music, refined it and brought it back across the Atlantic, so too did the Saatchis lead the British conquest of Madison Avenue with a quintessentially American weapon: the ad.

They did it by a combination of British chic and British cheek. They hit London with a series of stylish, hard-edged ad campaigns -- a pregnant man to advertise family planning, a pack of lemmings to illustrate the dangers of smoking, a long unemployment line with the slogan "Labor Isn't Working" to promote Britain's Conservative Party -- shaking up an industry that despite its worship of innovation had grown stale and self-satisfied.

By 1979 they were the biggest ad agency in Britain. By 1986 after a corporate buying spree, they were the biggest in the world, operating on five continents and servicing more than 50 of the world's 100 largest companies. Among their clients: Toyota, Honda, Procter & Gamble, British Airways, Colgate Palmolive and Live Aid.

"Charles saw the world as a big supermarket -- you go in and buy what you want off the shelf," says a former senior officer at the company, one of many who left on less-than-friendly terms, yet speaks of the brothers with a wary affection. "Everything is for sale. The only question is can you afford the price. Things had to get out of hand -- and inevitably they did."

Among the corporate refuse of the '80s, from Boesky to Milken to Campeau to Trump, the Saatchis stand out for many reasons. Perhaps the Saatchis were victim to their own hype, believed too deeply in their own infallibility. Meanwhile a chastened stock market caught up with the incredible game of buy and buy and buy with borrowed money that was the key to their breathtaking annual growth in sales and profits.

Their tale is in large part the story of Britain in the era of Margaret Thatcher, when entrepreneurs armed with cash and insouciance set out to reassert British influence in a changed world. Their climb was one of the most swift, their fall one of the most sudden.

The Saatchis helped pioneer the concept of globalization. Thanks to computers, satellite television and films, they reasoned, markets were shrinking, national identities slipping. If everyone was buying the same products, then everyone could be sold in the same way. And a few large, fearless corporations could practically run the world.

Neither of the Saatchis would speak for this article, and many of their closest associates and former colleagues insisted upon anonymity. Once the darlings of the press, the Saatchis now believe the press has turned vicious and unfair. Yet like those former associates who parted on bad terms, journalists remain fascinated, even when appalled, by the brothers and the world they built.

"They had a terribly low boredom threshold and a momentum they felt they had to maintain -- they didn't want to do this year what they did last year," says financial journalist Ivan Fallon, author of, "The Brothers," the definitive British book on the brothers' rise.

"You say your bottom line is to become the biggest in Britain, and then in Europe and then in the world, and before you've even arrived there, you're asking, 'What do we do after that?' You keep forging a philosophy to fit whatever pleases you. And all the time you're succeeding, you reinforce your own view that you're infallible. They came to utterly believe that there were no ceilings for them."

Advertising may have been an American invention, but the British have always been masters at image making. A few weeks ago they celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the most humiliating defeats in their history, the evacuation at Dunkirk, as if it were a triumph, a fable of small boats and brave men. Three generations of Britons believed the myth. They also believed that the gruff, steely voice that entreated them to stand tall during the darkest hours of World War II belonged to Winston Churchill, perhaps Britain's greatest image maker, rather than to the actor who read Churchill's lines over the wireless.

In the 1970s, the British had their chance to assert those skills anew. Like Washington after the Cold War, Madison Avenue had grown uncomfortable with its own vast powers, wary of its own instincts. For all of its explosive growth, the advertising business was still something of a cottage industry -- a few giants, but lots of small agencies, and not much attention to bottom lines.

Enter Charles and Maurice. "They arrived at a time when rising American domination had been accompanied by a pervasive blandness and repetition in the actual creative work of advertising," wrote Robert Heller, editor of Management Today. "It gave British agencies, mostly new, the chance to become the Greeks to the Romans of Madison Avenue. A rolling tide of brilliant British advertising reset the standard and the style.

"The Saatchis shared in the flood. The difference was that their ambitions were Roman in scope. They wanted an empire."

The Saatchis were born in Baghdad, the sons of an Iraqi Jewish merchant who fled the country with his young family in the late 1940s. Their place of birth was a fact the Saatchis, keen to be seen as insiders, sought to conceal as they made their way up the mountain of British business.

Maurice went to the London School of Economics while Charles, bored, gifted and restless, skipped college and went directly into the ad business as a copywriter. He made few friends, fewer allies, but gathered a small circle of devotees. Eventually he decided that the only way to get where he wanted to go was to open his own shop. And he persuaded his younger brother to join him.

The Saatchis launched themselves with a typically self-engineered attention-getter -- a two-page ad in the London Sunday Times titled "Why I Think It's Time for a New Kind of Advertising." It was bold and arrogant and it cost them a quarter of their start-up money.

They soon became London's hottest ad shop, a place for talented, difficult people. And the most talented and difficult, friends say, was Charles Saatchi himself.

William Muirhead, who now is chairman and joint chief executive of the original Saatchi ad agency on London's Charlotte Street, recalls his first glimpse of Charles Saatchi's witheringly high standards. Muirhead had been dispatched to a client with an ad he had never seen before and didn't quite understand. The client loved it, however, and Muirhead came back pleased.

Charles was not. "Charley said, 'It's crap,' and he ripped it into little pieces," says Muirhead. "I had to call back the client and say, 'You know that ad you really loved? Well, we've done something even better.' That's how Charley operated."

Friends say Charles Saatchi bullied everyone -- his clients, his employees, but most of all his younger brother. Now 47, Charles remains a harsh, relentless, profane, reclusive, intensely competitive man with a take-no-prisoners approach -- the adman as existential hero. Maurice, now 44, is a charming, quieter but no less assertive person, the ego to his brother's id.

To outsiders they were Rambo and The Nerd, a carefully honed brother act. Charles had the restless energy, the impulses and the intuition; Maurice, the know-how to translate the raw energy and ideas into a strategy for the '80s.

Charles was the spark, but Maurice handled the cash. He was the one who convinced London's tightfisted financial markets that an ad agency was a good investment, one worth backing with millions in share issues. And while Charles would skulk and hide from clients, Maurice would turn on the charm.

Between the two, friends recall, there was chemistry and there was terror. Sometimes there was blood as well when Charles lit upon Maurice. "They are Cain and Abel," says a former friend. "You have to remember that Cain loved his brother.

"Even in a hysterical rage, Charley could be very funny. I can remember him one day, red in the face, screaming at Maurice: 'I can't believe you came from the same womb as me.' "

Friends say today Charles still brings his pet schnauzer to work each morning, still plays board games like chess and Monopoly as if they were life-and-death struggles, still dominates the psyche of the company with his brooding presence.

But it is at most a spiritual presence -- most employees these days say they never see Charles Saatchi, who has long made a point of avoiding direct contact with clients and the press. After Saatchi & Saatchi went public in 1977, Charles never attended a shareholders meeting. There has been only one official photo in the past decade.

Both brothers tend to hover on the edge London's social scene, a world friends say they have never felt part of.

Maurice is married to Josephine Hart, whose career is as a West End theatrical producer. While less reclusive than Charles, friends say, Maurice prefers the privacy of the vast English garden he has designed for the multi-million-dollar country home where he and his family live in Sussex, south of London.

Charles's marriage to Doris Dibley, an American and former ad copywriter, broke up three years ago, but he still maintains houses in London's Mayfair area and in Long Island, still pursues the art collection he and Doris initiated together. It is now considered one of the world's largest collections of contemporary art -- worth more than $100 million, by some estimates -- and a small portion is displayed in a stark, white-walled former warehouse turned gallery in north London. Most of it, like Charles himself, remains behind closed doors, sealed off from view.

Among the best and brightest hired by the Saatchis in those early days of the agency were Tim Bell, who started as media director and ended up managing the day-to-day operations of the agency for the increasingly remote Charles; and Martin Sorrell, who did the same on the financial end. Sorrell and Maurice Saatchi together created a management system that monitored the company's financial condition daily and imposed rigid budgets on its new acquisitions yet allowed the new purchases wide-ranging autonomy in conducting business. The system impressed financiers in the City, London's version of Wall Street. They provided the cash that fueled the new acquisitions and made Saatchis the City's top glamour stock.

Both Bell and Sorrell left the Saatchis with bitterness, and their departures are considered among the key reasons for the company's subsequent decline. Sorrell bought a small firm, known as WPP, and began acquiring larger companies until last year he surpassed Saatchi as the world's largest advertising group. Bell has opened his own firm to develop corporate strategies and lobbying campaigns. He is also considered one of Margaret Thatcher's most intimate advisers. Yet friends say Bell, despite the rancor, still stands in awe of Charles Saatchi.

"Tim was great on a surfboard," says Muirhead, "but Charley made the waves."

The Thatcher account in many ways was the key to the Saatchis' reputation and acceptance. They won it in 1978 in typical fashion, according to Fallon -- neither brother showed up for the meeting at the Conservative Party's central office. But Gordon Reece, then the party's communications director and a member of Thatcher's inner circle, was eager to import American-style techniques to help defeat the ruling Labor Party and he believed the Saatchis could help him do it.

The best ads were sharp and bitter -- a slick, fast-moving television spot depicting everything in Britain moving in reverse, and the famous poster campaigns. One depicted an unemployment line above the simple message "Labor Isn't Working"; another showed a young black man with the line, "Labor says he's black -- Tories say he's British."

The ads were aimed not at specific policies or issues but feelings, what Bell called "the emotional meaning" of voting for Thatcher. Labor was caught off guard -- every time its leaders criticized the ads, the result predictably was more publicity, which made the Saatchis and the Conservatives look even more clever, and Labor more clumsy. Thatcher won a substantial electoral victory in 1979 and the Saatchi legend was born.

But by then the Saatchis were already moving on to bigger battles. Clever ad-making was not enough -- they also wanted to be known as the top marketing company. And so the Saatchis had started buying. The first big acquisition was Compton in 1975, a blue-chip ad agency that was twice as big as they were. The Saatchis convinced Compton's owners that the two companies should merge. They even added Compton's name to their own. But within a few days, the headline in Campaign, the London ad weekly with a direct pipeline to Charles, read "Saatchi swallows up the Compton Group." Many of Compton's senior managers left quickly.

After that, says a former employee, the pattern was established. "Charley and Maurice would tell the prospective sellers anything they wanted to hear, invent an ideal version of what life would be like after the deal was signed. And afterward we would just do exactly whatever it was we wanted."

It was the biggest acquisitions binge the London stock market has ever seen. By 1985 the Saatchis were buying companies, most of them American, at the rate of one a month. In the spring of 1986 they paid $100 million for the New York ad firm of Backer & Spielvogel, the largest sum ever paid for an ad agency. A month later they smashed that record by paying nearly $500 million for Ted Bates Worldwide, the third largest agency in the United States.

Bates was the deal that made Saatchi the world's biggest agency, yet it also marked the beginning of the end. Analysts said they paid far too much for Bates and bought a company whose conservative approach to the business was the virtual antithesis of their own. The deal also cost them big amounts of business from major clients upset that Saatchi had grown so large its many little arms were servicing rivals. Procter & Gamble, the Saatchis' biggest client, Colgate-Palmolive and Warner Lambert reportedly removed more than $300 million in business after the Bates deal.

There were other problems. Searching for new worlds to conquer, Charles and Maurice decided that the consultancy business was as ripe for acquisition as the advertising business. As usual they formed a theory to justify the instinct -- the Saatchis would become a full-service company that could offer clients not only advertising, but public relations, research, even financial services.

Beginning in 1984, they bought a dozen small agencies, only to discover that their expertise in advertising did not extend to the specialized world of consultancies. The new agencies proved a big drain on corporate profits.

The 1987 British general election was also a minor disaster -- Saatchi still designed the ad campaign for the Conservatives but played a much reduced role. The brothers resisted Thatcher's plea that Bell, who had just left the firm, be hired on as a consultant to run the campaign. As Thatcher's lead in the polls melted away, she grew more and more panicky and increasingly inclined to blame her predicament on the Saatchi campaign, which looked lackluster compared with the crisp new Labor Party ads produced by Hugh Hudson, director of the movie "Chariots of Fire." Hudson's ads personalized the campaign and portrayed Labor leader Neil Kinnock in the same heroic terms as the protagonists of the film, and included the inspiring Kinnock lines about his coal-mining ancestors that U.S. presidential candidate Joseph Biden later got caught plagiarizing.

Unbeknown to the Saatchis, Thatcher started quietly consulting with another agency, Young & Rubicam, then secretly called in Bell. When it was over, less than a month later, and the Conservatives had won another landslide, the Saatchis accused Bell of attempting to undermine them. Weeks of recriminations followed -- insiders say Charles Saatchi phoned prominent newspaper editors and businessmen to accuse Bell of drug addiction and criminal wrongdoing -- before both sides agreed to an uneasy truce. The brothers formally resigned the Conservative account a few months later. Thatcher, Conservative insiders say, was fed up with the Saatchis.

By then Charles and Maurice were adrift in even deeper waters. They tried to buy Midland Bank, one of Britain's largest, then Hill Samuel, a smaller merchant bank. In both instances they were rebuffed by the owners but word got out around the City, whose financial mandarins viewed the bids with awe and anger.

"Here they had just paid a ridiculous sum for Bates, had had difficulties with consulting, and the next thing you know, Maurice wants to buy a bank," says Emma Hill, an analyst with Wertheim & Co. in New York.

The drain on cash flow of the massive acquisitions began to eat into profits. After Sorrell left in 1986, the financial monitoring system fell into disrepair.

There was also a deep sense of alienation among newly acquired employees in the United States, where people never really caught Saatchi fever. Clients too sometimes felt unloved or ignored. Charles and Maurice increasingly removed themselves from day-to-day operations and turned them over to subordinates who were said to lack Sorrell's brilliance and Bell's feel-good style of inspiration.

After the Midland bank fiasco, investors grew wary and the share price of Saatchi stock tumbled. At the same time, corporate spending on advertising was shrinking as British interest rates soared and sales tailed off. Suddenly the dream was over.

It ended officially last October when Maurice announced that the brothers were relinquishing their roles as joint chief executives and appointing French businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus to sort out the mess. He has been trying to sell off the consultancies, keep investors from bailing out and ward off the takeover artists who are hungrily eyeing the bloody remains like birds of prey after a massacre. Last week Saatchi sold, for only $2 million in cash, plus royalty payments, a Chicago legal consultancy called Peterson that it paid $116 million for only three years ago.

Louis-Dreyfus has quickly forced out a number of the brothers' longtime associates and allies and installed his own people. He has also lowered the company's sights. The new Saatchi image, says an insider hired by the new team, is that of "a company run by mature adults rather than a bunch of young creative guys playing with someone else's money."

The brothers each have accepted a 30 percent cut in their salaries. Maurice is still actively involved but appears to outsiders to have been reduced to a front man, accompanying Louis-Dreyfus when he goes to see fund managers to plead for more time and money, and taking senior clients to lunch. "His name is over the door," says an insider, "and he's not going to walk away from the mess."

Charles still plots and dreams, friends say, but is more reclusive than ever and often deeply depressed. They say he attributes the blame for his downfall to others, never to himself. "Charley is never wrong, he is never ever ever wrong," says a former associate. "It's the investors' fault for getting cold feet. Or it's Maurice's fault for failing to replace Tim or Martin."

Some of the glory remains. Bill Muirhead, the Saatchi loyalist who runs the original Charlotte Street agency, points out that his shop is still the biggest in Britain and last year was voted tops in the business by clients in an independent survey. It won more creative awards than any other firm and was the first agency to place a billboard on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.

But even as Muirhead recites those achievements, a certain weariness creeps around the edges of his optimism. "It's a very competitive business," he says. "You've got to have an edge all the time and you can't stop competing, because once you stop, you're dead. I don't worry about the big guys. I worry about the guys who are just opening their doors. They're hungry and they want the money and they're ready to take the risks."

Sometimes the nerve endings show. When Paul Cowan, an accounts manager, and seven other staffers left last month and opened their own shop, boasting that they were the true "keepers of the Saatchi creative flame," Saatchis fired back with derogatory comments in the press and threats of lawsuits.. It all looked rather heavy-handed and it contributed to another drop in the share price.

What it all comes down to is not just the loss of money, but of something almost as valuable in the ad business -- aura and mystique. Without those two characteristics, the Saatchis are just another pair of hustling admen, Supermen who lost their capes.

"The Saatchi magic was a huge plus factor, and now it's gone," says author Fallon. "These were the people who could do no wrong. But just as the gilt has gone off the Thatcher image, it has gone off Saatchi image as well. And they themselves are terribly conscious of it.

"They still have basically a very good advertising business. But is that enough?"