Lancaster Saatchi boss quits over gender row

Kevin Roberts.
Kevin Roberts.

A top Lancaster-born advertising executive has resigned after making comments about women in the workplace.

Kevin Roberts has quit his role as executive chairman of top advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. He will leave the post in September.

Mr Roberts said he had “inadvertently embarrassed” the company.

This comes after he was initially asked to take a leave of absence after an interview he gave to Business Insider magazine.

In the interview, Mr Roberts was asked if the gender diversity debate still rages in the advertising industry.

“Not in my view,” he said.

“This is a diverse world, we are in a world where we need, like we’ve never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity.”

When asked about advertising consultant Cindy Gallop who tweeted “Sexual harassment is endemic in the media, advertising and every industry” Mr Roberts replied “I think she’s got problems that are of her own making. 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).”

He said of Saatchi and Saatchi: “We have a bunch of talented, creative females, but they reach a certain point in their careers...10 years of experience, when we are ready to make them a creative director of a big piece of business, and I think we fail in two out of three of those choices because the executive involved said: ‘I don’t want to manage a piece of business and people, I want to keep doing the work’.

“If you think about those Darwinian urges of wealth, power, and fame — they are not terribly effective in today’s world for a millennial because they want connectivity and collaboration. They feel like they can get that without managing and leading, so maybe we have got the definition wrong.”

He said that many women and men simply want to be happy and do great work.

“So we are trying to impose our antiquated s__t on them, and they are going: ‘Actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’” he 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’.

“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. I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.”

After the comments, Publicis Groupe put out the following statement.

“Following the comments made by Saatchi & Saatchi Executive Chairman and Publicis Groupe Head Coach, Kevin Roberts, in a recent interview with Business Insider, Publicis Groupe Chairman & CEO, Maurice Lévy addressed a statement internally to all Publicis Groupe employees to reiterate the Groupe’s no-tolerance policy towards behavior or commentary counter to the spirit of Publicis Groupe and its celebration of difference as captured in the motto Viva la Difference!

“It is for the gravity of these statements that Kevin Roberts has been asked to take a leave of absence from Publicis Groupe effective immediately. As a member of The Directoire, it will ultimately be the Publicis Groupe Supervisory Board’s duty to further evaluate his standing.

“Diversity & inclusion are business imperatives on which Publicis Groupe will not negotiate. “While fostering a work environment that is inclusive of all talent is a collective responsibility, it is leadership’s job to nurture the career aspirations and goals of all our talent.

“Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organization who does not value the importance of inclusion.

“Publicis Groupe works very hard to champion diversity and will continue to insist that each

agency’s leadership be champions of both diversity and inclusion.”

Kate Stanners, global chief creative officer at Saatchi, told Radio 4’ she rejected the suggestion that women lacked ambition – saying Mr Roberts’s comments had upset a “huge” number of employees. She said women “don’t bail out, and do want the top jobs”. When pressed on his comments, she added: “Kevin is his own character and speaks in his own words.”

But columnist Grace Dent, writing in the i newspaper, defended Mr Roberts saying he “just told the truth”.

“I wonder if I’m the only woman feeling slightly uneasy about his turbo-banishment,” she wrote.

“Women do very often settle for a different sort of happiness.

“I’ve known dozens of brilliant women who had babies, reduced their hours and did not become magazine publishers, legal partners, board members or channel controllers, but focussed instead on a happy family life. Roberts’ thoughts are not wholly inaccurate. Are they depressing? Slightly.”

Mr Roberts issued his own statement after resigning.

“Fail Fast, Fix Fast, Learn Fast” is a leadership maxim I advocate.

“When discussing with Business Insider evolving career priorities and new ways of work/life integration, I failed exceptionally fast.

“My miscommunication on a number of points has caused upset and offence, and for this I am sorry.

“I have inadvertently embarrassed Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis Groupe, two companies I love and have been devoted to for almost 20 years.

“I have expressed my regret and apology to the companies for the furor my remarks and language stimulated, and I extend this to colleagues, staff and clients.

“So that we can all move forward, I am bringing forward my May 1, 2017, retirement from the company, and will leave the Groupe on September 1, 2016.

“There is a lot of learning to reflect on, and within the thousands of tweets, comments and articles there are many powerful and passionate contributions on the changing nature of the workplace, the work we do, what success really looks like, and what companies must do to provide women and men the optimal frameworks in which to flourish.

“I believe that new thinking, frameworks and measures are needed to make more rapid progress on diversity in all its forms, in all professions and occupations.

“Hopefully, the focus on this serious and complex issue will gather momentum.”

Mr Roberts, 66, was born in Lancaster and educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School. He was given an honorary doctorate by Lancaster University in 2009.