John Drinnan: 'KR' out of step with the times

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Ad executive’s view seen as another sign of old boys’ club.
Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts resigned this week. Picture / Bloomberg
Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts resigned this week. Picture / Bloomberg

It has not been adman Kevin Roberts' finest hour, but I wonder whether he might be secretly pleased. He has left his job, but at least his dramatic departure is part of a wider campaign in advertising.

That campaign is the move towards gender diversity - in advertising and other businesses.

Diversity is the new sustainability and as a campaign it is making a return on investment that any ad agency would be proud of.

The trouble is that "KR" dismissed the significance of diversity as a growing brand.

His comments to the Business Insider website and dismissal of diversity activist Cindy Gallop (a former top executive at advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty) came across as arrogant and out of touch.

Gallop is no shrinking violet. She told the Guardian newspaper that Roberts' view that women were happy not to rise to the industry's upper ranks was "absolute f*****g bollocks".

Some in advertising thought Roberts was a genius. Others from the outside reckoned he made a career out of stating the obvious. In my opinion, for someone who promoted New Zealand, his personal shtick seemed the antithesis of our self-image.

Activism & politics

KR's crime - much debated in the advertising and media industries this week - was to publicly claim that Saatchi & Saatchi did not have a problem with gender diversity.

Also, he argued that many women wanted to focus on their advertising craft rather than climbing the corporate ladder.

It was a genuinely held opinion that not everyone in the industry would disagree with, but it ignored the fraught politics and activism involved in the move to gender diversity, all amid growing complaints about an old boys' network.

An Englishman who was assistant brand manager of Mary Quant in the 1960s, Roberts held senior positions with giant corporations Procter and Gamble and PepsiCo. From 1989 to 1997 he was chief operating officer at the comparatively tiny Lion Nathan, a client of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Local Saatchi executives were impressed, recommended him to head office, and he took over as CEO of Saatchi Worldwide in 2007.

He exits Saatchi amid a period of rapid change - socially, in marketing and in business generally. There have been a series of scandals over sexual harassment and a campaign against a persistent culture that shuts women out of top advertising jobs.

In my view, Roberts came across as old fashioned and paternalistic.

The PR view

Public relations consultant Deborah Pead - whose client My Food Bag is chaired by Roberts - said his public comments showed a lack of judgment.

Speaking before his resignation, she said Roberts was a scapegoat for the wider ad industry and its failings over diversity.

Mango PR managing director Claudia Macdonald said Roberts had shown he was out of touch with the spirit of the times. "Most of us know that diversity is a hot topic right now, and if he knew that he could have predicted the fallout," she said.

"Or did he think he was above censure and could say what he liked with impunity?"

Bell on the ball

Controversially, Roberts was once a board member at Telecom, a Saatchi client, an appointment that drew intense criticism from other agencies.

Once New Zealand's dominant ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi NZ drifted from greatness and several key accounts left.

To revive its fortunes, Roberts installed a new chief executive, Nicola Bell, a New Zealander who had risen through the ranks of international advertising to become a partner at Ogilvy in New York.

Bell - who has since left after six years to be the managing director at the R/GA agency in Los Angeles - is regarded as having rebuilt the agency. Ironically, she has also taken a role in criticising advertising's lack of gender diversity, lamenting that things have gone backwards.

Bell's comments on YouTube refer to some of the issues that led to Roberts' departure. Have a look here: tinyurl.com/jgv82u9

Mad Men

Where does New Zealand fit into the global scheme when it comes to diversity? One senior marketing person at a major corporate, who has spent a career dealing with ad agencies, told me there was still a problem with a "boys' club" culture that excluded women, particularly in creative departments. "it's ironic because you'd think they were the most aware people around town" said the marketer, who insisted on anonymity.

"Culturally not a lot has changed since Mad Men - but they don't drink in the morning."

Traditionally, women have been channelled into the media buying aspect and shut out of roles managing accounts and higher management.

Roberts may have been trying to express some nuances in women's approach to ambition. But he was always going to get short shrift in the midst of the diversity campaign.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

Read more by John Drinnan

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