Where are the female leaders?

How did the regional and international advertising industry react to Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts’ strong words on gender diversity, asks Austyn Allison

The ad industry around the world and in the Middle East has been reacting to the controversial remarks on gender diversity that led to the resignation of Saatchi & Saatchi’s executive chairman Kevin Roberts.

Roberts hit headlines in late July when he said “the f***ing debate is over” in an interview with Business Insider while talking about women in leadership positions.

He said: “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’.”

After the interview was published, he was placed on leave by Publicis Groupe, which owns Saatchi & Saatchi and announced his resignation within a matter of days.

A statement from Publicis said that Roberts will step down on September 1, “prior to his retirement date due in May 2017”. Roberts later followed this with his own statement, saying: “‘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.”

Roberts started his career in the late 1960s with London fashion house Mary Quant. He then became a senior marketing executive for Gillette and P&G in the Middle East.

At 32, he became chief executive of Pepsi-Cola Middle East in 1982 and five years later became Pepsi’s CEO in Canada. In 1989 he moved to Auckland to become chief operating officer of Lion Nathan.

He became the worldwide chief executive at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997 and was promoted to executive chairman two years ago, based in
New York.

The 66-year-old is well known for his ‘Lovemarks’ philosophy at the agency, which centres on an emotional connection with brands. His book on the topic explored why some brands are popular over others.

Maurice Levy,
CEO, Publicis Groupe

The opinion expressed by Kevin is neither shared nor supported by myself or the Groupe. It is his own, expressed in his unique and provocative way, and does not reflect the Groupe opinion or policy.

Nadine Ghossoub
CEO, Science&Sunshine

It’s unfortunate that there are so many opinions on gender diversity yet not enough action. Telling people what they want to hear and doing nothing to change the status quo doesn’t make the problem go away. Gender bias is a fundamental problem not just in our industry but more importantly in society.

I honestly don’t know what [Roberts] was thinking when he made these statements, especially at a time when gender parity in our industry is a hot topic.

As a woman and CEO of an ad agency, am I offended or insulted? No. I find it silly. What does he know about being a woman anyway? Does it bother me that someone in his position would publicly make a statement like that? Sure. It embarrasses me to have people like that represent our industry. But the buck doesn’t stop with Kevin Roberts. There are unfortunately so many more that secretly share his views.

He might have just done us a favour though. His statements could have just given the industry the push it needs to start acting.

Tarek Miknas

My experience with women in leadership positions at our agency has been outstanding. Within the FP7/MENA network, we have four women running our agencies, and they have continually, over a number of years, demonstrated exceptional commitment and an exceptional balance between IQ and EQ.

Those four offices are among our best performing and happiest.

I don’t subscribe to the point of view of [Roberts], and can’t imagine anyone that would.

Ramzi Raad
Group chairman, TBWA\Raad Middle East

I worked with Kevin Roberts for a couple of years while he was an active member of Procter & Gamble’s Middle East marketing team and I was on the agency side of the fence working on Ariel, Pampers and Fairy Liquid. His recent comments did not come as a surprise to me, as Kevin has never shied from saying and doing what he personally thinks and believes. Have we all forgotten the day when he was the boss of Pepsi-Cola and went on stage with a machine gun to blast a Coca-Cola vending machine?

I strongly believe that the current controversy has been much more stirred by the reaction of Publicis’ bosses to Kevin’s interview more than anything else. I have arrived at this conclusion for the simple reason that other groups – and I take my own agency group, TBWA, as an example – have been bold and vocal in their stance on gender diversity, while others have lagged behind and some have totally ignored the challenge.

In March 2015, newly appointed president and CEO of TBWA\Worldwide Troy Ruhanen, launched Project 20\20, whose goal is to increase women’s leadership roles in all TBWA offices and across all departments by 2020. At TBWA\Raad\Lebanon we are proud to have achieved a 52 per cent female versus 48 per cent male employment split in our creative department.

Sir Martin Sorrell

It sounded to me that the Publicis Groupe team coach was only echoing the words of his boss, (or is it team manager?) at the 4As Conference in March: i.e. that there wasn’t a diversity issue in our industry, and that any substance, for example, in the Gustavo Martinez case was an isolated example [the global chairman of WPP’s J. Walter Thompson resigned after the agency’s communications chief filed a discrimination suit against him]. I tried to correct that impression at the same conference.

The Kevin Roberts case and, indeed, other examples including the long litigation in the Manning, Selvedge and Lee case [in October 2015, the Publicis PR agency settled a class-action gender discrimination case for almost $3m], which was not well reported on, clearly prove it wasn’t and that we’re all suffering from it, across the industry.

More hard work needs to be done to establish even gender balance and that’s not the end. My experience, for what it’s worth, indicates that female leadership is the most effective catalyst.

Edmond Moutran
Chairman and CEO, Memac Ogilvy & Mather Holding MENA

We came to know Kevin Roberts when he was in charge of the Middle East region back in the early 1980s, and have known him as a deep thinker and an achiever. But we do not know what caused such a key executive figure to remark on gender equality in such a manner that initiated a wave of world reproach and denunciation across our industry.

Perhaps because Kevin Roberts is his own character and speaks his own words. He said that gender diversity is no longer a problem at his agency and that women didn’t become executives because they were happier in humbler roles. We do not subscribe to that belief, for we have always embraced gender equality, diversity and inclusion as a constant principle of our cultural and corporate values.

Indeed, we never cease to encourage our workforce of men and women to develop their careers, take higher roles, pursue their ambitions, and achieve their potential on equal footing. As a result, many of our great talents and executives have thus rightfully earned our industry’s respect and agency’s gratitude.

Elie Khouri
CEO, Omnicom Media Group MENA

The world of marketing and communications does have a diversity and inclusion problem. The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past 10 years the amount of women in senior leadership roles entering the Cannes Lions awards hasn’t increased. In fact, it has fallen from 9.9 per cent to 9.8 per cent. Consider also only 12-14 per cent of creative directorship roles are held by women (according to recruitment consultancy Propel). Only a few months ago, Leo Burnett Sydney received serious backlash from the industry over its all-white-male creative team.

In the marketing services industry, the question of inclusion and diversity has never been more crucial or relevant. Given the fact that women make up to 85 per cent of purchase decisions, the reason we need to have women represented at every level of our industry is plainly obvious. What’s more, as the nature of marketing transforms before our very eyes, who we hire and promote, and the kind of work we engage in, will be pivotal to being successful in the new era of marketing, data, content and technology.