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Kevin Roberts behaved like a Mad Man when he needed to be a PR man

 - 16/08/2016

Kevin Roberts, the Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman, once told the Financial Times that he worked at an agency where “nothing is too politically incorrect”.

Now that he’s found out that’s not the case, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from why he believed it to be so, why he was so keen to stress that the agency comprised “creative mavericks” and why this unwillingness to be constrained by the rules proved his undoing in today’s media landscape.

Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts


If we can understand the rationale behind swaggering into an interview with Business Insider and declaring the “fucking debate is all over” when it comes to ad industry gender issues, we can also gain insight into why brands choose to pursue cut-through via controversy, why they need to be more aware than ever that they don’t have total control over how their message is interpreted, and how they should behave accordingly.

Roberts’ approach to the interview is perhaps best explained in his new book, 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World, where he declares he’s a “serial rule-breaker” who has been helped rather than hindered by his unwillingness to stick to the script. “The more I’ve infringed, the more success I’ve had,” he says.

And, despite now proving there’s an exception to every rule – even one about rule breaking – he’s probably mostly right.

Ad land rewards mavericks because ripping up the rulebook can be a route to delivering great creative work.

The reason such an approach can’t be replicated in an interview – or a press release for that matter – is because the communicator lacks control. In earned media channels, we need to consider not just what we want to say, but how what we want to say will be communicated on our behalf.

In paid media, it’s possible to tear up the rule book, draft the ad copy, design the art work, go through the internal approval process, get the client sign-off, and then the creative work appears exactly as intended.

In earned media, your comment could be edited, your quote might appear out of context and the findings of your press release might be refuted within the resulting coverage. As PR professionals, it’s our job to ensure we balance what your key messages are with what will be considered newsworthy and how your message might be interpreted by the media.

Kevin Roberts doesn’t have to do that. As a result, he is at times more guilty of bringing a paid media mindset to an earned media opportunity than outright sexism. He’s most likely guilty of both, but let’s evaluate his controversial remarks in turn.

Declaring the gender debate to be “over” might sound flippant, but that’s partly because the context of that remark is missing. Read the quote in its entirety and it becomes apparent that he’s arguing that the case for diverse teams is so thoroughly proven that it’s no longer a debate. And, at times when he talks of a lack of ambition to reach the top, this seems to be a comment on millennials in general rather than women specifically.

In more damning comments, he explains the lack of women in top roles by referring to “talented, creative females” who are ready to be made a creative director but decline because they’d rather focus on the work they’re producing than managing “a piece of business and people”. In a similar vein, he claims: “I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they’re very happy.”

It’s clear Roberts is overestimating himself as an authority on women’s career ambitions here. Not only is he patronisingly generalising about half the population, but the view he’s expressing – that women are underrepresented in top roles simply because they choose not to hold these positions – militates against his ability to create a fairer, more meritocratic corporate culture.

He ultimately confirms this by claiming he doesn’t spend “any time” on gender discrimination because advertising compares favourably with other industries.

Combine this complacency with what appears to be brash dismissiveness and some lazy generalisations about women, millennials and ambition, and you’ve got a story.


In paid media, combine ‘the debate is over’ with a graph showing how companies with more diverse workforces perform better, and you’ve got an ad.