Kate Robertson on leaving advertising : ‘You never realise how bad materialism in the industry is until you get outside'

Today (7 December) sees The Drum launch a new video series examining the myriad reasons behind personal exits from the marketing world. Why I Left Advertising’s first subject, One Young World co-founder Kate Robertson, details her industry insights only garnered after resigning from her position as president of Havas Worldwide in 2015.

Kate Robertson unequivocally believes advertising is a young person’s game: “You leave because you get old,” she says. “The pressure, the relentless need to keep up, to keep abreast of changes and to stay fresh, and keep your mind open, and constantly come up with new ideas…the creativity that you require around process, and people, and different ways of working…being young is a really good thing.”

An early career selling radio advertising in South Africa led the co-founder of One Young World to spend the majority of her working life in Europe with shops such as J. Walter Thompson and Sholz & Friends, before climbing the ladder of Havas to become global president and UK chairman. Now, at the age of 61 and with a politically significant global conference to pull off every year, she is – quite understandably – “tired”, yet also "probably the happiest" she's ever been.

Yet Robertson cannot claim age as the sole reason for getting out of advertising. Ostensibly minor factors (the departure of her co-founder David Jones from Havas, regime change, a general shift in power in favour of the industry’s purchasing directors) may have contributed, but the fact of the matter was Robertson already had One Young World – a global forum for young leaders – on her lap.

It was Robertson’s experience of the Apartheid-era South Africa that fueled her passion for the subject. Yet she never intended One Young World to take over her life. It was only after five years that she decided to "take it really seriously" and resigned from the network in April 2015. That November she hosted the first Asia-based One Young World in Bangkok; this year she was introducing the likes of Emma Watson and Justin Tredeau on stage in Ottawa.

The charity has just moved into a new, bigger office space behind the National Gallery and the team is currently in the planning for 2017’s conference to be held in Bogotá, Colombia.

“Looking at the industry from the outside is a very, very tough thing,” Robertson says. “It was a hard thing to work in advertising and question its role in a capitalist system potentially gone - or going - wrong, particularly since the financial crisis.”

“We’re not very nice,” she continues. “I'm not saying it's unique to the advertising industry, but you never realise how bad the materialism is until you get outside of it. You are not a better person because of your handbag, or your car, or by what your house cost.

“And the egos…oh my word. The thing that advertising folk have of telling you the cost of things they own? It's really, really bad. I see it sometimes with some bankers but I don't see it in other industries. I don't see it with clients. And you wonder why people don’t like people in the ad industry. This isn’t me saying: ‘Look how lovely I am’. It’s me saying: ‘My God, I was one of those people’.”

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

All by Katie