With a name like Kevin Roberts he should be in Coronation Street – a cross between garage mechanic Kevin Webster and former mayor Alf Roberts. Throw in his love of cricket, football, rugby and beer and he could appear the archetypal southern stereotype of a northern man.
But the new boss of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide, the man brought in to replace 61-year-old chief executive and chairman Ed Wax, has come a long way from his north-western roots, at least geographically, if not spiritually. His odyssey around packaged goods manufacturers has taken him to four continents in 23 years.
Born in Lancaster 47 years ago, he now controls an empire with 161 agencies in 91 countries, employing 6,624 people. Until he was offered the job as Saatchi’s chief executive officer in January – it took him four months to make up his mind – he had planned to open a sports marketing company in his adopted home, New Zealand.
Part of that project involved the possible purchase of an equity stake in his beloved, if perennially troubled, Manchester City football club. And although he says financially he might have made the wrong decision in joining Saatchi, rather than going it alone in sports marketing, Roberts may live to thank Wax one day for saving him from cold Saturday afternoons being booed by the home fans at City’s Maine Road stadium.
Robert’s delay in accepting the Saatchi offer may have something to do with the fate of John Fitzgerald – the last man hired to replace Wax. Recruited from McCann-Erickson to run Saatchi’s New York office, but effectively heir apparent to Wax, he lasted only eight months before the internal politicking in New York took its toll. Sources say Fitzgerald’s style was too abrasive and there is no doubt he put noses out of joint. Roberts is more collegiate and, in any case, he is not “on trial” in the way Fitzgerald was: as a former Saatchi client he is already accepted.
His arrival means the two most powerful people in the Saatchi empire, Bob Seelert and now Roberts, are both from non-agency backgrounds. Seelert arrived in 1995 to stabilise the group after the departure of the Saatchi brothers.
“I had heard the Fitzgerald stories and obviously spoke to some of the Saatchi executives and others about what happened,” says Roberts candidly. “My appointment was described as ‘bottom up’ by Saatchi, which I still don’t fully understand, but Fitzgerald was brought in from another agency above people’s heads, and not as chief executive. I, by contrast, was brought in from below and from a non-agency background and everybody knew I was Ed Wax’s replacement.”
Roberts has arrived at Saatchi through a circuitous route. He spent the five years between 1969 and 1974 marketing the Mary Quant cosmetics brand, where he met his wife of 23 years, then a Mary Quant model. A short stint on new product development at Gillette was followed by seven years at Procter & Gamble, where he was responsible for the Middle East and Africa and which marked the beginning of his 20-year love affair with Saatchi.
Seven years as president and chief executive officer at PepsiCo, with stints in the Middle East and Canada, led to the chief operating officer post at New Zealand brewer Lion Nathan, brewer of Castlemaine and Steinlager. But many questioned what Roberts’ role was going to be when his appointment was announced, only four weeks after the demerger of the Cordiant group was unveiled in May.
While Wax made no secret of the fact that he wanted to go part-time, there was still some surprise that Saatchi went for an “outsider” – albeit one who had been a client on and off for 20 years.
“I had been in consumer marketing for 30 years, since leaving school,” says Roberts, “and I was tired of the re-engineering, refocusing, downsizing and cost-cutting that was going on in companies.
“A lot of companies have lost the plot. Marketing directors are being hit by chief executives who are not taking enough interest in the advertising process; by sales teams only interested in trade bribes (to attract consumers); and by management consultants whose fees are coming out of marketing budgets.
“As a result there is a lack of imagination among clients and too much safe advertising, which is destroying brand equity. There is nobody on the client side willing to say ‘yes’ to a fantastic idea but lots willing to say ‘no’,” he adds.
He feels this is true of a lot of agencies. “Agencies have mirrored their clients, reducing creative and planning resources. As a brand manager at P&G, I went to the agency looking for ideas – agencies are now full of suits and God forbid, MBAs – but no ideas.”
But Roberts retains his real venom for management consultants who, in the UK, have only relatively recently started to pose a threat to ad agencies’ grip on providing strategic advice. But in the US and elsewhere their position is already established.
“Management consultants have not had a creative idea in ten years. They are all about process; there is no imagination. And in the US at least, they are all huddling in their corporate headquarters to come up with the next new product. But ad agencies have to improve their access to chief executives and learn how to charge for their advice – McKinseys can charge $1m (600,000) per month for things that agencies have previously provided free.”
Roberts comes across as an evangelist. He talks about the strengths of the agency network, the culture, the clients. In his four-month rumination before taking the Saatchi job he wrote a “mission statement” – the type of thing more regularly associated with West Coast US than the North-west of England. It distilled down to what he believes the Saatchi brand means and what he wants it to be – “the hottest ideas shop on the planet”.
Leaving aside any cynicism about mission statements and how you actually measure relative levels of “hotness”, Roberts has been hired as the international cheerleader for the Saatchi name worldwide.
As such, he took the advice of other Saatchi executives. They want him to build the brand and act as a coach to unite the different interests worldwide. The aim is to win more P&G business in the US, more Toyota in Europe; or indeed, just win more business.
His hyperbole has to be tempered. But with a global client list stretching from P&G, to Toyota, Kodak and General Mills and billings of $7.1bn (4.3bn), he isn’t wrong to aim high.
Hiring Roberts was Wax’s idea and, like so many things recently (not least the Guinness/GrandMet merger), came about following a dinner date. Wax and Roberts met in New York; the latter was in town to buy a loft apartment in the trendy SoHo district. Both were looking for a way out of their jobs.
Subsequently, Wax met the Saatchi board, including worldwide creative director Bob Isherwood and chief executive of Saatchi in Asia Pete Watkins in San Francisco. Wax dropped into the general conversation the fact that Roberts was going to leave Lion Nathan and – to Wax’s relief – Roberts was offered the job.
“I will never work at another agency. Saatchi is about ideas, imagination, the fact that nothing is impossible.” Ironically that is the phrase that Maurice Saatchi coined. Roberts will not be too concerned about that. If he can believe that Manchester City will one day be in the Premier League, then he must believe that nothing is impossible.