Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Saatchi Chairman Resigns Over Gender Comments

By Leon Kaye

This week, Kevin Roberts resigned as chairman of the venerable advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, effective Sept. 1. Roberts planned to retire in May 2017, but outrage over inflammatory comments about gender issues in his industry hastened his departure from the advertising agency he joined as CEO in 1997.

Roberts’ fall has its origins in an interview with Business Insider last week. During the conversation, BI’s Lara O’Reilly asked him about the ongoing controversy over the lack of women executives within the advertising industry.

“Not in my view,” Roberts responded. “The f----ing debate is all over.”

O’Reilly pressed Roberts and brought up the fact that women leaders in the industry -- including former head of the global advertising agency BBH, Cindy Gallop -- have a lot to say about gender in the advertising world. And Roberts continued to vent.  "I think she's got problems that are of her own making,” he said of Gallop. “I think she's making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile [as on Twitter], and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box]."

The result was a firestorm on social media, with Gallop telling the Guardian that Roberts’ views were typical within the industry. Long before the outburst, she continued, most male advertising executives had long expressed such views privately. Meanwhile hashtags such as #ChangeTheRatio caught fire on Twitter as more women stepped up to share their experiences in an industry the New York Times has described as one still dominated by “Mad Men.”

Roberts’ outburst became such an embarrassment for Saatchi & Saatchi that its CEO, Robert Senior, issued a statement rebuking the chairman. “Kevin [Roberts] has given what are his personal views on the subject of gender diversity. However, those views are not mine, and nor are they the position of the agency,” said Senior, adding that “the issue of gender diversity is not in any way over for our industry.”

Despite the fact that the vast majority of advertised products are purchased by women, the leadership of the world’s most prominent advertising firms is still dominated by men. Women now comprise 11.5 percent of creative directors within the sector – and that is up from 3 percent in 2010, largely due to the activism sparked by the formation of an eponymous organization and conference that has tried to address this issue.

The disconnect between the industry's overwhelming propensity to target women, the fact that women are increasingly the majority of employees at advertising firms and the dearth of female executives has several underlying factors. Relatively low salaries for entry-level and individual contributor positions, coupled with the high cost of living in cities where advertising agencies have their marquee offices, are factors. Low morale certainly also contributes to disengaged male and female employees. But as a Forbes analysis highlights, the lack of work-life balance -- as parodied on AMC’s popular "Mad Men" series -- deters many women from pursuing a long-term career in the industry.

The result is the loss of talent and potential ideas in an industry that is coping with far more disparate channels than a generation ago. The Internet, and now the rise of social media, has made it more difficult for companies, and their advertising agencies, to communicate their messages to consumers. And as one of Saatchi & Saatchi’s creative directors explained to Fast Company a few years ago, the most creative moments are not necessarily at an office or in front of a whiteboard, but at home, around town or during mundane tasks such as working out or preparing a meal.

For the advertising industry’s long-term viability, the mentoring of more women so that they eventually become leaders at these firms is not about a ratio or political correctness. Such change is not even about doing the moral or humane thing, as it is well known a career in advertising can entail long hours. But more flexible schedules and creating a work environment in which a woman can feel as if she can juggle work and family can help transform an industry that few can respect and many love to lampoon. Advertising has to change with the times so it can still resonate, and this will only happen if change starts at the top.

As Gallop said in her interview with the Guardian, singling out Roberts or any other ogre is not enough, and in fact, is even a distraction. “I really want not to see one man who says what the rest are thinking become the sole lightning rod. I want to see action taken at the top and all the way though.”

Image credit: Saatchi & Saatchi

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye