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Current as of 27/04/17 06:40AM NZST
Business Editor for the NZ Herald

Telecom's exiting adman still sparking

Telecom dropped its Abstain for the Game campaign  but Roberts says it was "bloody funny".
Telecom dropped its Abstain for the Game campaign but Roberts says it was "bloody funny".

Departing Telecom director and advertising veteran Kevin Roberts says he was "more than neck deep" in the Spark name-change, was the "primary player" in appointing chief executive Simon Moutter and still reckons the company's ill-fated campaign to get the country to abstain from sex for the All Blacks could have found popular support.

Roberts stepped down this week after almost six years as a director of the company's biggest landline and internet company. It's the first change around the board table since Moutter joined in 2012.

The global boss of Saatchi & Saatchi said his "run was done" at Telecom after two terms on the company's board during a time of unprecedented change.

New York-based Roberts said he eagerly supported Telecom splitting with lines company Chorus - one of the biggest corporate shakeups in New Zealand's history - and was heavily involved in the imminent name change.

Telecom's rebrand to Spark, which puzzled some in the sector when it was announced in February, is expected to happen in August.

"I was a very active proponent that we were no longer a telco and that we had a name that was no longer fit for the business that we were in and was no longer relevant to the consumers we're attempting to serve and that calling ourselves Telecom in a world where we're a connected, creative, collaborative, enabling technology company seems bizarre to me," Roberts told the Weekend Herald yesterday.

"So yeah, I was strongly in favour of finding a new name and I was strongly in favour of 'Spark'."

Roberts was full of praise for Telecom chief executive Moutter and credits himself for putting the man at the company's helm.

"I was the primary player in the decision to appoint Simon Moutter - who I've known for a decade - and who I felt was the best human extant to take on that job," he said.

Asked what his legacy at Telecom would be, the departing director said he believed he had given the company a "greater sensitivity towards the customer".

"It shouldn't be about the brand, it shouldn't be about the name, it shouldn't be about retail, it shouldn't be about infrastructure, we've got to put the New Zealand customer right in the forefront of everything we do. I think that's happening."

Roberts will be replaced on the board by entrepreneur Ido Leffler, who is the co-founder of new United States school supplies business Yoobi.

Some commentators pointed out this week that Leffler had neither New Zealand business experience nor telco experience.

"I [would] hope he doesn't fit into a role in the New Zealand telco space because what would be the point? You've got tons of that [on the board]," said Roberts, who described Leffler's appointment as fantastic.

"Let me give you an anecdote. He [Leffler] was in New York at the United Nations and had the idea and executed the idea of bringing 150 top entrepreneurs from around the world to the United Nations for two days, seating them 10 at a table with a UN council member [who] gave the table the top problem his nation was facing and these entrepreneurs brainstormed ideas," Roberts said.

While Roberts has resigned his directorship, Saatchi & Saatchi is still used by Telecom for advertising work.

The agency's relationship with the company dates back about 20 years.

Roberts, now in his mid-60s, fondly remembers Saatchi & Saatchi's Telecom ads from the 1990s but agrees there have been some misses since then.

One, arguably, stands out; Roberts didn't think the "Abstain for the Game" campaign got the welcome that was hoped for.

The Saatchi & Saatchi boss said he had nothing to do with the ads, which asked All Black supporters to refrain from having sex during the 2011 Rugby World Cup and featured Sean Fitzpatrick driving a pink fist. The campaign was aborted after it was leaked to the media and widely lampooned.

"I only knew about it [at the time] because Fitzy was telling me about it," Roberts said.

"I thought it was bloody funny, so it just shows what I know ... I still believe if we'd had the chance to run the campaign Kiwis would have got behind it," he said.

In leaving the Telecom board, Roberts now is on the hunt for another New Zealand project but has nothing specific in mind.

While he admires the work being done by startups here, he wants to lend a hand to something bigger: "I want to play at scale, I want to win the world from the edge," he said.

"I want to do something that's working in New Zealand and that's got some legs and that my global experience and branding, all that stuff could accelerate."

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