Saatchi executive says gender issue 'is over'; days later, his career is

Saatchi & Saatchi head Kevin Roberts caused a stir.
Saatchi & Saatchi head Kevin Roberts caused a stir.
Published August 3 2016
Updated August 4 2016

In an interview published last week, veteran Saatchi & Saatchi advertising executive Kevin Roberts said he doesn't spend "any time" on gender issues and the "f- - - - - - debate is all over" when it comes to gender diversity in his industry.

He very quickly learned it wasn't.

Those comments and others, which Roberts made in an interview with Business Insider published Friday, sparked a furious uproar on social media and within an industry that's facing recent scandals about sexist behavior. By Wednesday morning, Roberts, the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and "head coach" at the agency's parent company, Publicis Groupe, announced he would resign, moving up a planned retirement from May of next year to Sept. 1.

In a statement about his resignation, Roberts said, "I have inadvertently embarrassed Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis Groupe" and "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."

Roberts recently wrote a book called 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World and is known as something of a guru in the industry after his 2004 book, Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands.

In the Business Insider interview, Roberts said diversity is worse in other industries, such as financial services. He also made comments that seemed to generalize the goals that young women set for their careers.

He put it this way: "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.' "

The remarks prompted Publicis Groupe to place Roberts on leave Saturday. "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 and chief executive Maurice Lévy said in a statement. "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."

The incident shows how critical the issue of diversity has become in an industry known for its Mad Men past, especially as it faces new scandals, such as a recent discrimination lawsuit filed by a female executive against former J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez. (Martinez has denied the allegations.) In March, Publicis' Lévy had to clarify comments he himself made at a conference in Miami about the Martinez suit, which some interpreted as suggesting gender issues do not remain a widespread problem in the industry.