Kevin Roberts, chairman of advertising behemoth Saatchi & Saatchi, may find himself with unexpectedly ample free time this August, as he’s been “asked” to take a leave of absence over controversial comments about women in the ad business.
It started with an interview at Business Insider, specifically with an exchange about gender diversity in Roberts’ field. Interviewer Lara O’Reilly wrote that she “remarked how the gender diversity debate rages on within the advertising industry,” and received the response “Not in my view,” from Roberts. He explained:
“Edward de Bono [the physician, psychologist, and author] once told me there is no point in being brilliant at the wrong thing — the fucking debate is all over. This is a diverse world, we are in a world where we need, like we’ve never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity ... this will be reflected in the way the Groupe is.”
He also noted that Saatchi is about 65 percent female, while parent company Publicis Groupe is split evenly. If he’d left it there, his remarks might have been read as merely garbled support for the idea that he considers a wide variety of perspectives important, if slightly out of touch regarding the on-the-ground realities of attempting to advance as a woman in the ad business. But he kept going.
Roberts said he doesn’t spend “any time” on supposed gender issues at his agencies at all — saying the issue is “way worse” in sectors like financial services, where there are “problems left, right, and center.”
Where this is a gender-related challenge at Saatchi, he said, is elevating female creatives into top roles.
“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’,” Roberts said.
“Better than financial services” is nothing to brag about. Roberts also said, “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.”
He also responded to a question about Cindy Gallop’s advocacy regarding sexism in the ad industry by saying, “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].”
And now he has been invited to take a leave of absence, Ad Age reports. Publicis Groupe, which owns Saatchi and Saatchi, released a statement to that effect:
“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,” Publicis Chairman CEO Maurice Levy said in statement....
He added: “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.”
The very public blowback likely factored into Publicis’s thinking. Ad Age notes that, “High-ranking leaders from PepsiCo, JPMorgan Chase, DDB and other companies ripped Mr. Roberts on Twitter,” and “PepsiCo Global Beverage Group President Brad Jakeman, for instance, tweeted that he was proud not to be a Saatchi client.” Oops!