Calling them "mildly controversial remarks,” British journalist Libby Purves took a long look at the Kevin Roberts situation. As you recall, the Saatchi & Saatchi CEO was recently asked to take a leave of absence for claiming diversity is no longer an issue in the advertising business.
Of the notion that women prefer a different sort of ambition than men, Roberts said, "Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it's this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy. So they say: 'We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.'"
Predictably, the world went ballistic. How dare a man even remotely suggest that the accession of men and women in business is different -- in a way, according to Roberts, that women actually prefer -- and that the gender gap debate is over. Cindy Gallop was pissed. The media went nuts. Bloggers claim to be "done with" Kevin Roberts.
And yet, there is a lone journalist -- a female -- who thinks everyone has blown Roberts' comment out of proportion.
Writing in The Daily Mail, British radio presenter, journalist and author Libby Purves wrote, "Work is part of our lives, and our lives are our own to manage and direct. If ‘leaning in’ doesn’t suit us, we don’t have to. There should be equal esteem, if not equal money, for people who stick to what they do best. Women or men, mothers or mavericks, young or older, we can be loyal foot soldiers, or multi-career mavericks, or just keener on sanity breaks whether to sail round the world or breastfeed a baby."
She claims it serves no purpose to "sideline" people (Roberts) for having "incorrect" ideas nor cling to absolute principles of political correctness when dealing with issues such as diversity in the workplace.
Is she right? Do some in business simply prefer not to break through the glass ceiling or into the board room simply to handle crisis after crisis rather than working in a less senior position and just doing the work they love?
Purves also questions the work of Cheryl Sandberg and her Lean In movement which urges women to, in Purves' words, "hurl themselves at every promotion and grasp for power even while embarking on starting families" when "lots of women don't want to "lean in" and smash glass ceilings."
Purves concludes by saying Roberts may simply have been too frank but argues that "he's not the one blaming women for not being ambitious, he was rather lamenting it. If anyone's pointing the finger, it's the lean in Sherylites."
Did the angry mob act too quickly or was Roberts handed the proper slap upside the head?
Left unsaid in the Kevin Roberts debate is the relatively undesirable nature of the senior agency executive position. The facts are clear: ad agency workloads are growing, but clients are relentlessly cutting fees. Agency people are overworked and underpaid. Agency remuneration is a fraction of what can be earned in ad tech and management consulting. The holding companies squeeze their agencies for profits, which in many cases can only be generated through agency downsizings. Who in their right mind would seek a senior executive position? Only a very brave individual -- woman or man -- would want to take this on, and part of the responsibility would entail completely overturning the way agencies are (un)managed today. It's an outsider's challenge, and it might be particularly well-suited for talented, experienced women who have traditionally been outsiders in this white man's club -- but let's not understate the nature of the challenge! Madison Avenue's Manslaughter is the current condition of the industry, brought about by the long-term management passivity of ad agency senior executives.