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Opinion and Insight
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We Need to Talk About Kevin

LBB Editorial, 1 month, 3 weeks ago

LBB’s Laura Swinton on the resignation and gender debate comments of Saatchi & Saatchi’s former Chairman Kevin Roberts

We Need to Talk About Kevin

So, it looks like Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts is going to have a lot more time to play Pokémon Go this summer. After declaring the gender debate ‘over’ in an interview with Business Insider, the Saatchi Executive Chairman and Publicis Groupe Head Coach found himself suddenly on a ‘leave of absence’ before resigning this week. 

The interview took me a few reads to get my head around, and if I’m honest I’m not sure what I make of it. While the interview was nothing short of a four lane pile up of awful, there has been so much to unpack from it and the subsequent fall out. The weirdly personal attack on Cindy Gallop. The striking lack of media savvy from someone whose career has been all about the media. The swift efficiency of his removal. 

A lot to think about. But here’s where I’m at.

Pour Myself a Cup of Ambition

Women, according to Kev, aren’t quite so ambitious and hungry for top jobs as their male counterparts, far happier pootling away doing ‘great work’. An interesting hypothesis given the chromosomal make up of the new UK Prime Minister and at a time when the US might be months away from voting in its first female president.

Shifting the focus onto women and their supposed lack of hunger for leadership conveniently sidesteps barriers within individual companies and the wider industry. I was reminded of criticism that Sheryl Sandberg faced following Lean In, that she’d overlooked the systematic problems that women, particularly less advantaged women, face. Of course, Sandberg’s book comes from a well-meaning place, a place of support and solidarity.

There are few things more annoying than a man telling a woman that what she has experienced is wrong. Because he’s not seen other guys openly masturbating on Public Transport or, say, been groped at the agency Christmas party, it mustn’t actually happen. Because he’s never personally decided to discriminate against a woman when it comes to pay and opportunity, no woman must ever have suffered from bias (whether conscious or unconscious). I hate to use the painfully clumsy term ‘mansplaining’, but there’s no other word for it.

The comments have drawn ire from demonstrably ambitious and successful women. Their innate feminine frailty seemingly hasn’t prevented them from reaching the top jobs after all. What’s more, as Saatchi’s very own CCO Kate Stanners (a woman, also) pointed out, his comments upset a lot of women working for Publicis Groupe.

What’s really frustrating to me – being a pedant and former psychology student with a grasp of basic statistics – is that, by speaking for ‘women’, half of the population is lumped together as a homogenous group. Judging the motivations and aspirations of a whole gender based on little more than your own guesswork is dumbfounding. (I thought the ad industry was all about ‘data’ these days?)

The Only Way is Up?

Having said all that, I think beneath all the sexist stuff Kevin Roberts did touch on something interesting and which, once the furore has faded, the industry might want to pick back up on. The nature of ambition. He suggests that women – and millennials of both genders – reject what he calls ‘vertical ambition’ in favour of an ‘intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy’. But in this, Kevin has unwittingly revealed one of the biggest problems holding back agencies – the old school hierarchies. Ruthless, loadsamoney, American Psycho ‘vertical ambition’ just isn’t relevant anymore. Agencies are on the verge of crisis, and the old way of doing things has proven to be sluggish and slow to respond – and that includes the way they hire, promote and organise themselves.

If, for a moment, we entertain the idea that what he says about women and younger people is true… and if the younger generation is our future… then maybe it’s their definition of ambition the industry should be organising itself around?

Ambition isn’t just about having a dream of a corner office. I’ve met people, men and women, whose single-minded ambition has been the stuff of material gain, status and a willingness to sacrifice anything to reach the top. Some have been reasonably bright, others less so. Some have been terrifying. Some have been totally untrustworthy. None have screamed ‘inspiring and effective leader’. 

Oh look, I feel a Douglas Adams quote coming on: 

“It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

The thing is, advertising is a business, not the bloody X Factor. Why do we think that those who want it the most automatically make the best leaders? Is narrow-minded, self-interested drive the quality we should be looking for in the leaders that we hope will inspire, cultivate talent, guide people through a time of change? Empathy and social intelligence have been shown to be associated with effective - and even transformational - leadership.

The difference, I suspect, between the ‘vertical ambition’ and the ‘circular’ ambition, is that one type recognises that there might actually be more to life than advertising. And recognising that there’s more to life than advertising – that is, getting out there, understanding people, understanding what’s really important to them – is crucial to creating relevant work. If the current system really is alienating talent with those qualities, whether male or female, the industry as a whole risks losing out on potentially brilliant leaders.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Speaking personally – and I know that this will wind certain people up, so feel free to disagree with – there are certain elements of the ad industry gender debate that do feel pretty ‘over’ to me. 

Gender can’t stand alone from race, sexuality, geography, socioeconomic class or nepotism when it comes to diversity. Otherwise what you end up with is well educated, middle class white women arguing for the furtherment of well educated, middle class white women – barely any better than the old boys’ club.

Some of the obstacles that make it harder for women to progress in the industry also hamper other groups. The mandatory late nights won’t suit the junior creative who has to care for siblings or disabled parents – or the one who can’t miss the last train back to Clacton because pay is too low to live in the city. The ‘Mad Bantz’ culture that permits rape jokes also permits race jokes. The culture of beers in the office doesn’t just exclude the pregnant planner, but the Jain account planner, Muslim strategist or Mormon receptionist.

So if anything is ‘over’, it’s the idea that gender diversity is just a debate that exists in a vacuum. The industry is facing a challenging and transformative time, and change is the new normal. And that change isn’t just about clients’ shrinking budgets or growing demands, it’s also about the kind of talent agencies need to lead them in the 21st century. Diverse leadership isn’t just about gender, or race, or any one thing alone – I believe they’re all inextricably linked and tied up together and rooted in the same lumpen rot that’s holding the industry back. As any student of evolution knows, diversity and complexity go together… and this is a very complex world we’re living in.