A Coach Who Has Never Flown Coach: Kevin Roberts And The Women

There is a referendum on gender happening in advertising.  Painful as it is, the good news is that lately, progress is occurring at the speed of the 24/7 news cycle, rather than in fits and starts. That's only because male agency leaders have learned from previous humongous PR disasters.

Take the sudden flame-out of Kevin Roberts, the high-flying executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, who also adopted the active, grounded, man-of-the-ad-people title of “Head Coach” of the Publicis Groupe.

He seemed more head case than head coach however, in a candid, rambling, bizarrely self-sabotaging interview that appeared last Friday in Business Insider. As most insiders know by now, he proclaimed that the “the fucking (gender) debate is all over.”

Indeed, he said that if there were fewer female creative leaders at his agencies, it’s because “their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” (My colleague Bob Garfield also offered his own take on the subject.)



The irony was not lost on most thinking people that this came at the same time that the first female Democratic Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was being skewered by Trump supporters as a witch, a bitch, “the Devil,” and worse. Roger Ailes of Fox News resigned following allegations that he had serially and sexually harassed more than a dozen women at the network.

Meanwhile, the Donald was roundly panned for saying that his daughter Ivanka Trump "would find another career or find another company" if she were harassed on the job.

So yes, in the midst of all of this gender chaos, this was the moment that Roberts chose to mansplain his own way to “Mission Accomplished on the Advertising Lady Business.”

I found the “vertical” ambition language telling, so erect, implying a lineup of men waiting to be shot into the stratosphere. That’s in contrast to a sea of horizontal females, circling on their backs.

In his signature black muscle T-shirt, Roberts, the Brit-turned-New Zealander, author of the best selling “Lovemarks” about more “evolved” brands, seems a bit like a strong-man Trump type, playing the media, saying things for shock value and provocation.

But he’s actually more like a poignant, smug, but non-self-aware Ricky Gervais character. He even used the title “Dr.” for a while in press releases, after Roberts, a high-school dropout, received an honorary degree from a university.

During the interview, Roberts did try to cover his tracks a bit, explaining that women say: ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaurlike men judge yourself by.”

But the T-Rex kept digging himself in deeper, adding: “I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.”

He sounded like Woody Allen talking about his marriage to Soon Yi.

Where Roberts really went wrong was in deliberately picking a gratuitous fight with Cindy Gallop, founder of two startups, and, and a former executive at BBH.

For the past decade, Gallop has been a tireless (and unpaid) crusader for diversity and gender equality in the industry. Super-smart and articulate, she’s an obvious threat to the status quo and those in their execu-clouds.  

“I think she’s got problems that are of her own making,” Roberts told Business Insider. “ I think she’s making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box].”  

Talk about projection: if there ever were a self-fulfilling statement, Roberts was describing the interview he had just given in a nutshell.

By going after Gallop, he had dissed at least 50% of his employees. And this time, the industry wasn’t buying it.
Roberts’ boss at Publicis, Maurice Levy, moved swiftly to put him on leave, saying he would “not tolerate anyone speaking for our organization who does not value the importance of inclusion.”

It seems Levy had learned his lesson after speaking out six months ago about an especially egregious JWT discrimination suit against then-CEO Gustavo Martinez, when he said, at a 4As' conference, that the JWT flap was not representative of the industry,  “a one-time mistake.”

Though he appeared to be smoothing things over for his rival, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir Martin took offense, and turned it into a pissing contest. "Maurice has a habit of ignoring the facts and not letting the facts interfere with his analysis," Sorrell responded during the same 4As conference.

Meanwhile, the woman who brought the JWT suit, communications director Erin Johnson, is still twisting in the wind. She is still on leave, and the case is a textbook example for agencies of what not to do when charges of racism, sexism and harassment are repeatedly brought to HR and other executives and then covered up.

Still, kudos to Publicis CEO Levy for handling this incident differently. It was over by Monday, three days after the interview appeared, when Roberts resigned.

It was apt that the guy who put the “bro” in bromides released a statement, saying: “‘Fail fast, fix fast, learn fast’ is a leadership maxim I advocate.”  He apologized for his offenses and admitted to his “miscommunications.”

Certainly, they were worse than “miscommunications.”  But his rant does bring up issues worth investigating at a time when the 1950s agency model is crumbling in the wake of 21st century problems.

For example, there’s a reason that there’s been a renaissance for freelance creatives. At least as many creative men as women opt out of the “vertical” track. One reason is for flexibility, which is desperately needed in two-earner households with children. Another is the lack of efficiency and creativity in bureaucratic layers of management.

This Roberts incident also opens the mahogany doors to the inner sanctum of holding companies, where powerful men (and it’s mostly men) at his level fly first-class, check into five-star hotels, and live in a bubble of yes-persons.

At the time of his resignation, Roberts annual salary was reported to be $4.1 million. That’s a long way down, vertically, to the average female employee.

Public agencies have to worry about quarterly profits. But eventually they will lose the war if if they don’t invest heavily in women and people of color and sensitivity and bias training for all. The time to break down, and start building up, is now.

“I note that they now have a leadership coach vacancy — and I would like to offer my services for this,” Cindy Gallop responded. "Very importantly, so there's no suggestion of a gender wage gap at all, that would be on the same salary as Kevin Roberts: $4 million.”

6 comments about "A Coach Who Has Never Flown Coach: Kevin Roberts And The Women".
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  1. Jane Farrell from Freelance, August 5, 2016 at 7:18 p.m.

    The cluelessness is simply massive. Are guys like these not even smart enough to realize they don't know everything - or anything, as the case may be?

  2. Erik Sass from none, August 5, 2016 at 7:38 p.m.

    I can't believe Johnson is still on leave. What exactly is her offense? Is her judgment somehow in question because she dared to speak up?  Unbelievable.

  3. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, August 5, 2016 at 7:45 p.m.

    Reality check: every day more and more creatives, predominantly male, opt out of the race to the top and take their chances in the freelance market. There seems to be no end to the expansion of the freelance ranks and the market for them. This does not signal any lack of ambition among freelancers. It's because most creative director jobs are so uncreative. CDs get bogged down doing strategy and account work. Fighting for raises for their people. Arguing for additional teams. Soothing client fears. Entering and judging award shows.  Attending endless meetings between the hours of 8:00am and 6:00pm only to have to start directing creative at 7:00; tired, frustrated, out of juice as they watch the freelancers earning $1,500 to $2,000/day go home. 

    Does any any of this sound creative?  

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 5, 2016 at 10:22 p.m.

    Another problem that manfested itself out of agency congplomerates eating the profits for themselves and "shareholders" (themselves and the like). Mergers and aquisitions are going to be the sink of the world. 

  5. George Parker from Parker Consultants, August 8, 2016 at 9:21 a.m.

    As I have posted on AdScam, Last year Kev stayed in a $1600 per night London Hotel suite for SIX WEEKS, so he could attend the Rugby World Cup. Guess who picked up the tab for that?

  6. Jim English from The Met Museum, August 8, 2016 at 11:04 p.m.

    The Guardian reported last year that Roberts did not get involved on a claim from cleaning staff workers at Saatchi's Soho office for $50 thousand in unpaid wages. That amount probably a little less than the hotel bill referenced (by George) above.

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