The almost legendary Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts is a man who means a lot to the advertising industry and to myself as well.
The release of his book Lovemarks in 2004 came at an important time. I was transitioning from one gig to another and the timing couldn’t have been better. Reading it was a revelation. This was something that not only could I get behind, but I was willing to shout about as loudly as I could to anyone in my corporation at the time.
“Don’t you understand?” I recall from one leadership meeting. “This Kevin Roberts is a genius. Every senior leader should read this because it unlocks things that can carry us forward.” It wasn’t required reading, but a good number of local and corporate managers soaked up what was in Lovemarks and thanked me for the recommendation.
But it did, in fact, become required reading for a class I taught here in Oregon at a community college.
“What textbooks would you like to use for your class?” they asked.
“Oh, Lovemarks. Definitely. This Kevin Roberts is a genius and every student should read this because it unlocks things that can carry them forward,” I chirped.
I actually had to fight the administration a little bit. My argument on why this book instead of any others? The “Kevin Roberts genius” bit came up plenty of times and they understood my position.
For eight years, Lovemarks became the primary text.
Eight years of lauding Kevin Roberts and hailing him as the savior of marketing.
Eight years of defending something that I took with pretty much a religious fervor because it had, in fact, been so transformative and formative to me. It was almost a belief system and less marketing intelligence.
I thought Kevin Roberts was a genius — now I come to find out he’s yet another ill-informed later-age white male who has no idea what he’s talking about.
It’s too bad that all of what I learned and evangelized for is thrown out the window in one swing of the mouth. Suddenly, after one interview, if I could go back in time, I’d tell people, “never mind,” don’t spend your money on the book or bother wasting your time on learning what Roberts has to say.
This entire episode of Roberts saying the gender debate is “over” has not only pissed me off, it’s made me sad.
Sure, it’s hyperbole, but I feel duped.
Trust me, I get that people will let you down — but goddammit, Kevin, I went out of my way to prop you up and help you sell a bunch of books. I realize I’m not a big-time marketing person, but I would hazard to guess that I, conservatively, knocked 700 sales your way, telling people it was the best twenty-some dollars they could invest in their careers.
What a load of shit that turned out to be.
As a middle-aged white guy (that’s what I am), to be in the mix of something like this — whether its a gender, race, LGBT or disability scrap — is a tough one. We seem to all get (at times, deservedly) painted on the same golf club-joining, yacht-owning, being-on-marketing-event-panels, empathy-deficient canvas — one that is decidedly masculine, buried in an embarrassingly deep pool of testosterone that is as white as possible.
I’m not sitting here trying to thump my chest or stand on a soapbox and scream “I’m the middle aged white guy who gets it!” I acknowledge that, like all of us, I still have plenty of room to grow, even though I look through a slightly different lens.
I do believe that I am different, but don’t want a fucking medal. I just want to keep putting the work in as much as I can.
I’m not as loud as say, a Cindy Gallop (who I’ve had a good tete-a-tete or two with) or Brad Jakeman, but I’m part of a group of men who are trying, in our daily lives, to help move things forward. Our fight is a little more under the radar but we believe in it deeply.
Daniele Fiandaca with The Token Man. The 3% Conference (The Drum is proud partners, by the way) “Manbassadors” who don’t necessarily want the spotlight but want to see material progress. My own efforts with the Exceptional Women Out West series.
Why do I have a women’s leadership podcast? Because I believe in it and I believe that, even on this small level, I can do something to open some eyes, change some perceptions and help shift the balance.
In my career, I’ve had some pretty great men help lead me along. That’s the honest truth. There are plenty of very good, smart, enlightened guys out there. But the women and people of color in my career have helped me see and unearth things about myself and my potential that made me much better than I ever could have imagined. I could have settled for just “good” but they helped me see the path to “great.”
Wendy Clark, Lindsay Pattison (who I will publicly say I hope becomes WPP's CEO someday), Karen Blackett, Kat Gordon, Kathleen Saxton, Colleen DeCourcy, Susan Credle, Monique Nelson, Val DiFebo, Laura Jordan Bambach, Ade Onilude, Samantha Skey, our MD, Diane Young — hell, I could use another 20,000 words just naming the incredible women in this industry at every level — who improve it on a daily basis — not by just their words, but their deeds and actions — making it an inclusive party that is to be celebrated, not torn down.
The lovely Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, and a long-time friend, has always told me, “we need everyone to dig in to make it work.”
So yes, I am angry with Kevin Roberts (and kudos to Maurice Levy, someone I very much respect and like, for distancing himself from Roberts' shit) — but it steels my resolve to work that much harder and recruit other, like-minded 40/50/60/70/80-something men to get on the boat headed downstream, not the one against the current.
Kevin Roberts is done for me.
He has a new book out, and I have a copy sitting right next to me as I type. I’m sure it's quite good and, a few weeks ago, I was excited to read it — to get some more religion and wisdom from this “genius.”
But, see, if you genuflect at the altar of misogyny and stupidity, don't turn around and expect to see me in a pew.
I’ve left that particular church and I'm happy to be part of one that sees all people in the industry valued and celebrated.
Doug Zanger is the North America Editor at Large for The Drum. He is based in Portland, Oregon.