Girl Guides: Havas Worldwide's Kate Robertson on diversity and empowering young people

She is stepping down from her role as Havas Worldwide president, so what’s next for Kate Robertson? Continuing The Drum’s Girl Guides, Stephen Lepitak catches up with Kate to discuss empowering young people through her One Young World summit and why “the job is not done” when it comes to diversity.

Kate Robertson

Kate Robertson is clearly not one to believe her own hype. The global president of Havas Worldwide is self-deprecating when she talks to The Drum about her decision to leave her role as the company’s global president, announced earlier this month, in order to concentrate on One Young World, her global summit driving social good.

She took the decision to depart her role after realising something had to give; she had fallen ill with glandular fever and only realised weeks afterwards what she was suffering from. She will leave Havas in the coming months, but One Young World was too important to walk away from, she explains.

One Young World aims to bring together young people to help make a change for good and give them a platform from which to develop their ideas. Six years since co-founding the forum with former Havas colleague David Jones, Robertson is clearly more inspired than ever by the achievements its delegates are amassing.

“Some of these people are genuine leaders and take your breath away in the way leaders do. That is a special thing,” she says, full of admiration. “They are able to take any opportunity and turn it into something that makes a difference. It is absolutely astonishing.”

In 2012 One Young World launched its social business accelerator, a fund to provide financing to growing social businesses. Within 24 hours, young delegates from all sorts of corporate backgrounds were offering assistance to other delegates, collaborating to help such ventures get off the ground for the good of society, explains Robertson.

Among the organisations being developed through the initiative is one working in the Pacific Nations to improve education around nutrition and HIV and Aids.

“What I see is the changes they can make. It’s not easy to make change, but these kids can because they are able to connect in the way they do and they have the same interests. It’s fantastic.

As a result of the success of One Young World, delegates have met and been advised by leaders in the global social good movement, such as Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Bob Geldof.

“They understand that they are privileged to meet these people and understand that it means our delegates are supposed to go out and do something about it rather than sitting around in conferences,” she adds.

Her decision to depart Havas will see her leave the world of advertising and marketing behind after 26 years in the industry, though she will still work as an advisor to Havas until next year. Asked about her biggest achievement during that time, she turns the focus on to her chief executive group, who she is very proud of.

“Their results have been astonishing and they are absolutely great, but then I should think that because I promoted all of them,” she laughs. She then turns to lauding the creative team she has in place on the company’s creative council and the digital strategy it has adopted, however is adamant that this is a job not yet complete.

“The overall strategy of digital insight is the right one. We are ahead of the game on that – we won’t be forever, but my group in the UK has been. Working closer with the media buyers is fantastic and the media guys under Dominique Delport [global managing director of Havas Media Group] have been fantastic and a joy to work with.”

As to the major challenges she believes the industry will face, it is the unknown that worries Robertson most.

“We were talking big change eight years ago but who saw social media coming eight years ago? Nobody. Eric Schmidt has said Google missed seeing that but I can remember in 1994 when Bill Gates said Microsoft missed seeing the internet. If Eric Schmidt can miss seeing social media and Bill Gates can miss seeing the internet, there is something everybody is missing seeing – God knows what.”

As to how she sees diversity improving in the marketing sector, Robertson is far from convinced there is genuine improvement. She admits that the conversations around improving the statistics are genuine but is clearly angered by how badly women are still treated within business as a whole.

“Women are treated absolutely appallingly. They are not being paid equally and they are not being promoted. It is true of the whole industry,” she states with fury, before pointing to Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham as one industry figure attempting to lead change.

“To turn around and say ‘the women, ethnic minorities – they’ve all got a point and I’m not putting up with it any more’ is amazing. Being an older woman, I always wanted to fight the good fight, make my own way and to fight on equal terms and to never accept anything else, but I now think ‘no, I haven’t done enough’.

“We are far from done in our industry and in others, and we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the backs as the job is not done. It’s masked by many things that are hiding it and it’s not good enough. Women are not equals. Not at all.”

Robertson expresses her own regret at not pushing forward female candidates within her own career when male employees were being promoted – something that never occurred to her at the time. “I am sure in not offering up a female alternative there are a number of times we have passed over equally able women which shows how propitiating the system is.”

Robertson concludes by stating that the conversation will only truly change when more male voices join the call and act to ensure their female counterparts are suitable positioned to match their abilities within the workplace. Her disappointment however, is all too evident, but it is clear this is a situation she intends to improve where she can.

This feature was first published in the most recent issue of The Drum.

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