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, IfWeRanTheWorld.com and MakeLoveNotPorn.com, 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.”