Kevin Roberts, the executive chairman of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and head coach at parent company Publicis Groupe has resigned.
The announcement comes just days after he was placed “on leave of absence” by Publicis following controversial comments he made to Business Insider about gender diversity in the advertising industry.
In an interview published Friday, Roberts had declared the gender diversity debate in the advertising industry was “over” and that he spent “no time” thinking about the issue at Publicis, thanks to its 50/50 gender split, adding that the company had “never had a problem.”
Roberts also suggested that many female and male creatives do not to take top leadership roles because they simply want to be happy and “do great work.”
In a statement, Publicis Groupe said: “The Supervisory Board and the Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe took note of Kevin Robert’s decision to step down with effect from September 1st 2016, prior to his retirement date due in May 2017.”
Kevin Roberts also provided his own statement, apologizing that his “miscommunication” had caused upset and offence:
“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.
I have inadvertently embarrassed Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis Groupe, two companies I love and have been devoted to for almost 20 years.
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.
So that we can all move forward, I am bringing forward my May 1, 2017, retirement from the company, and will leave the Groupe on September 1, 2016.
There is a lot of learning to reflect on, and within the thousands of tweets, comments and articles there are many powerful and passionate contributions on the changing nature of the workplace, the work we do, what success really looks like, and what companies must do to provide women and men the optimal frameworks in which to flourish.
I believe that new thinking, frameworks and measures are needed to make more rapid progress on diversity in all its forms, in all professions and occupations. Hopefully, the focus on this serious and complex issue will gather momentum.”
Roberts’ comments made headlines worldwide over the weekend and caused much consternation within the advertising industry.
Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis Groupe, released a statement shortly after the article was published saying Roberts’ comments were “unacceptable.” Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Robert Senior said Roberts’ views were not the position of the agency and that “the issue of gender diversity is not in any way over for our industry.”
Outside of the Publicis Groupe, many senior advertising figures including Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, DDB North America CEO Wendy Clark, PepsiCo beverage president Brad Jakeman, and outgoing American Association of Advertising Agencies CEO Nancy Hill all used Twitter to heap their criticism on Roberts’ comments.
In the interview, Roberts also took aim at former BBH president and vocal women’s leadership advocate Cindy Gallop, who Business Insider said still had “lots to tweet about” despite his views that there wasn’t a diversity issue in the advertising industry.
Of Gallop, Roberts said: “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].”
Gallop responded in a statement by inviting women and men of the industry to tweet Roberts “to let him know whether they think I’m ‘making it all up’.”
— Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) July 29, 2016
In May 2016, Publicis settled an unrelated class action sex discrimination lawsuit with employees of MSLGroup, one of its PR agencies, for $3 million. Publicis denied the settlement was the reason why the company reacted so quickly to reprimand Roberts for his comments.
Roberts began his advertising career in 1969 at Mary Quant cosmetics in the UK, where he was a brand manager. According to The New York Magazine, Roberts had persuaded management to hire him despite having no experience, by offering to work for six months at half-pay.
From there, he joined Gillette’s marketing team, working on women’s toiletries, before joining Procter & Gamble in 1975, where he spent seven years as chief of marketing for its Middle East division. It was there he first got to know Saatchi, as the agency’s client.
He later went on to Pepsi in the Middle East before switching to become CEO of Pepsi Canada. After that, he spent seven years as director and chief operating officer of New Zealand brewery Lion Nathan, before eventually joining Saatchi & Saatchi as global CEO in 1997.
In 2015, his role switched to become executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and head coach at Publicis Groupe. The head coach role involved supporting the company’s “P12” directors and helping the company with its recent restructuring.
Outside of his advertising job, Roberts is a business ambassador for the New Zealand United States council, the chairman of home delivery service My Food Bag, and he teaches at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University.
Publicis Groupe’s annual report states that “in the event of a forced departure due to a change in control, strategy, and other than in the case of serious or gross misconduct,” Roberts would be entitled to a termination benefit equal to 120% of his annual fixed salary, the maximum annual amount of his target bonus, plus the annual cost of the various benefits he receives.
In 2015, Roberts was paid $US4,137,786 in total compensation. That included fixed compensation of $US901,610, “variable compensation” (which included a contractual annual pension disbursement) of $US3,204,322, and benefits in kind of $US31,854.
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