News & Views

Opinion / We Need To Talk About Kevin

by Katrina Dodd

You have to wonder what kind of weekend Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, has had.

In an interview with Business Insider’s Lara O’Reilly, this high-profile industry figure aired an analysis of gender bias in the advertising industry that has earned him a leave of absence from his job. It has also alienated, conservatively, the 50% of his co-workers who can’t believe he believes ‘the fucking [gender] debate is all over’ and a further 50% who merely can’t believe he actually said it out loud.

You really should read the whole interview, but here are some of the key points:

  • On women and leadership: ‘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’
  • On the subject of gender issues within Saatchi & Saatchi: Roberts claimed he doesn't spend “any time” on this at all. (Roberts, remember is also head coach of Publicis Groupe, a leadership mentoring role that feels at odds with this complacency)
  • On Cindy Gallop, former chair of BBH USA and founder of Make Love Not Porn: ‘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]’

All of which is problematic on a number of levels… To provide just a little bit of context for these comments, at this year’s Cannes Lions festival of Creativity – a bellwether for the industry – the schedule was replete with seminars and sessions that spoke specifically to the issues of diversity and equality.

From client-side we saw Unilever, owner of household brands from Axe body spray (‘Spray more, get more’) Pot Noodle (the ‘Slag of all snacks’) announce a major effort to ‘Unstereotype’ its advertising, after research it commissioned suggested only 2% of ads portrayed intelligent women.

From the agency world, we saw Madonna Badger, CCO and founder of Badger & Winters, speak powerfully about her #WomenNotObjects campaign, set up to combat the routine sexualisation and objectification of women in advertising.

From the world of adtech we saw Danielle Tiedt, CMO of YouTube underscore that ‘The stories that we tell need to be reflective. That part is actually not that hard, but if your team is not reflective of that you sometimes forget. This is why you see so many ads with only white faces and why 80% of the Cannes film festival is [made up of] white men.’

And we saw former Coca-Cola marketer Wendy Clark, now President and CEO of DDB North America, acknowledge exactly that challenge in her seminar on leadership: ‘Talent has no gender, no age. We will not rest until we are as diverse as the market we serve.’

The point is that by any objective standard, the fucking debate is nowhere close to be being all over. In fact, even Cannes Lions had its own epic foot-in-mouth moment, distributing to all delegates an updated edition of James Hurman’s seminal book The Case for Creativity – an update which contained exactly no contributions from women in the industry.

A contrite Hurman was quick to tweet this mea culpa to Gallop: '@cindygallop you're right. Should have been women interviewed. I never thought about it until I looked at your tweet and my heart sank.' #awkward.

It was the perfect illustration of Cindy Gallop’s famous description of adland’s closed loop of ‘white guys talking to white guys about other white guys’. It is the employment equivalent of a filter bubble: a self-perpetuating cycle that creates a blinkered perspective on reality. 

All of which makes Kevin Roberts’ decision to Mansplain the diversity situation last Friday as fascinating as it is bewildering. Does he really think women’s aspirations end with a desire ‘to keep doing the work’ while power, status and money go the chaps with the ‘vertical ambition’, not the other kind, the ‘intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.’ 

The answer, exasperatingly, appears to be 'yes'. But the really worrisome thing about Kevin’s ‘Calm down dear’ moment is that it inevitably leads to the uncomfortable feeling that what he articulated is exactly what other men in leadership positions across this industry and beyond are thinking.

We’ve all seen the campaign to Change the Ratio and similar initiatives gathering pace in the last few years, with key figures both client-side and agency-side championing gender equality.

A proportion of them are undoubtedly serious about it, walking the walk and making strenuous efforts to restructure the industry to embrace the strengths and skills of all its employees. And another more depressing proportion of them will simply be talking the talk, from a sense of enlightened self-interest rather than a pressing desire for change .

But for someone in the position of Kevin Roberts to have the blithe complacency to openly suggest that Houston, we don’t have a problem, flies in the face of the real-world, lived experience of women in the industry whose careers are being compromised by an outdated management structure that can’t shake itself out of the boys-club-by-default that seems to be the status quo.

It’s depressing for a proudly creative industry to be so stuck in its ways. But the first step, surely, is admitting there is a problem. The second step, I’d suggest, is not to defame and belittle the work of a woman who’s done more to shine a light on this relentless bullshit than anyone.

And finally, you need to accept that within any demographic, in any loosely-defined portion of the population, there is absolute diversity of ambition, experience, drive and potential. Figuring out how to level the playing field for everyone might not be in the short-term interests of the small, privileged group of suits cloistered in the C-suite, but it is essential for the long-term health and fiscal success of agencies and their clients. Diversity is a competitive advantage, and it’s time we started to structure for that.