Mark Ritson: Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts is blind to the ongoing male dominance of advertising

Saatchi & Saatchi’s chairman, now placed on leave by Publicis Groupe for his comments, is wrong to say the gender equality debate in marketing is “over”. Powerful white men are perpetuating inequality, even if they don’t realise it.

The debate about diversity in marketing is far from over. That’s the clear message from the dramatic events that unfolded at Publicis Groupe over the weekend. On Saturday Kevin Roberts, the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and famed author and speaker, gave a blistering interview with Lara O’Reilly from Business Insider. In the interview Roberts dismissed the ongoing debate about gender bias in the ad industry and claimed that he does not spend “any time” on an issue which he feels “is over”. Roberts went on to explain that he “could not talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem”.

When challenged with the recent comments of gender-equality activist and former advertising executive Cindy Gallop, Roberts was again unequivocal: “I think she’s got problems that are of her own making. I think she’s making up a lot of stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soapbox.”

It’s incendiary stuff. Not least because of the power and influence that Roberts
enjoys across marketing. Within 24 hours Publicis Groupe, the holding company that ultimately employs Roberts, had moved quickly to denounce his comments and place him on leave of absence.

How could Roberts have got it so wrong, so vehemently? Let me try and explain with a recent experience of my own. Earlier this year I found myself in the familiar position of teaching the first class in my MBA brand management course. Week one is about defining brands and the pivotal importance of the concept of brand equity and my opening lecture examines some of the classic definitions of brand over the decades from great marketing thinkers.

All the usual suspects are there: Aaker, Goden, Ogilvy, Zyman and my personal favourite, Al Achenbaum. At the end of the 10 slides I pull them together into a conceptual model of brand equity. To my surprise, during my most recent class a female hand shot up on the back row as I was mid-way through my equation. I looked up and gestured for the question.

“All of these experts are men. Surely with such a wide representation of women in marketing there might have been some equally enlightening quotes from a woman?”

I reacted badly. With barely a second to think I noted her observation was true but then pointed out that none of the quotes came from Asians, from people of colour or, to my knowledge, from anyone who was gay. I challenged the student that what she was requesting was that I go back to my office and spend the day looking for quotes from female marketers not because their ideas were useful but because they were women. “These,” I concluded haughtily, “are the best quotes on the subject irrespective of race or gender or sexuality.” And I went back to my equation.

But it sat badly with me. When I looked at my slides later that night the 10 white male faces seemed to leer at me. I told myself that I had genuinely looked for the best quotes on branding. So what if they all happened to come from white men? White men have dominated the world of marketing and branding for 50 years, I told myself. I was just reflecting the state of the world. If a woman had said something powerful it would have been in my list.

But a quieter, more powerful voice kept suggesting that I had missed the bigger point because I could not see the bigger point. It was Cindy Gallop’s point – the one I had seen so forcefully made at a recent conference I had attended – that advertising is a closed loop of “white guys talking to white guys about other white guys”. And it was now hitting me like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus. When I had seen Gallop’s speech I had agreed with every word. But suddenly I wasn’t in Gallop’s corner, I was the problem she had been talking about.

A week or so later I sat down at my desk and did the exact thing I had railed against in class. I got a coffee and started looking for new quotes on brand equity that came from a more diverse set of thinkers. To my delight/horror it was not hard. To my even greater delight/horror the end result is a more powerful lecture on brand equity.

It’s easy to attack a man when he is down and we should let Kevin Roberts respond, in his own time and in his own words, to the whirlwind events of the past few days. But I would make the point that even well-meaning senior white males often can’t see the discriminatory trees for the egalitarian marketing forest they think they inhabit.

My female MBA student was right. And to appreciate it I had to see what it was like to be her. To imagine being surrounded in class by 75% men, watching a male professor show her 10 quotes from 10 men to finally appreciate that discrimination is never over. It’s always there. And all it takes is a bit of empathy, thoughtfulness and good old fashioned humility to keep an eye on it.



There are 18 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Thank you. As the one girl in the room at Charlotte Street many times, and in many rooms since.

  2. Thanks for sharing such a good example, Mark.
    I hope everyone will share this post widely. I know I will.

    And feel free to use my quote on brands any time you like:
    “A brand is a non-conscious emotional shortcut to a customer choice” (2003)

  3. Hope you apologized to the female student.

  4. Blimey, never thought I would hear Mark Ritson talking about humility 🙂 But a great article.

    As someone with a 50/50 split re male to female team members which was not planned but just happened, I attribute this to my upbringing. Role models play such a massive part in our upbringing and I was lucky to be surrounded by some amazing ladies namely my Gran and an amazing Italian lady who basically become an “adopted” Gran to me and my family.

    It is time the education system realised we are formed and shaped by our environment. Your post is a good start.

  5. Great article. I’m sure most of us are guilty of reinforcing the inequality most of the time, without actually holding sexist (or racist, or any other -ist) views. As Mark proves, it takes effort. But it’s good to see that the effort is rewarded!!

  6. Carl Jones 2 Aug 2016

    We need not only more white women in advertising, but women of colour to occupy the top ranks, however we also seem to forget that men of colour are under represented as well . If we look at history we will see that white women got the vote by attacking white men’s power position in the 1800’s, but forgot the rights of women of colour. Feminism in the 60’s attacked white mens position again in order to get white women more power, but ignored women of colour. If one looks at the Cannes festival award wining agencies, e.g. ALMAP BBDO in Brazil and ask how many of the top staff are non white? You will discover that there are more white women in positions of power than people of colour. As an industry we should be looking at race and gender equally, and not only focus on the ‘white’ gender gap.

  7. Christine Cryer 2 Aug 2016

    Fantastic article with such honesty

  8. Jack Silver 5 Aug 2016

    If you’re going to point out one kind of discrimination then it might be an idea not to do it using another kind of discrimination.

    An article that accuses someone of being “blind” to the male dominance of advertising is normalising the idea that it’s OK use disability as an insult.

    Which is equivalent to saying someone “throws like a girl” or is “so gay”.

    Eg it’s normalising the idea that being a woman, gay, or disabled is somehow worse.

    Any article about lack of diversity in marketing should probably avoid ableist language as much as it should avoid sexist, or other exclusionary language.

  9. Allan Hassell 7 Aug 2016

    Marvellous article – nice to see a fantastic public apology for an event that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, as you could have written the piece without any reference to your own incident.

  10. Rick 7 Aug 2016

    More than a great article. Particularly for like-minded males, you take us thru a journey that becomes the lesson itself: 1) initial dismissive reaction(that many of us might have–you know, “more PC stuff”); 2) listening to that “voice” inside us that says, “at least question one’s basic assumptions”; 3) do the work to figure out if we’re right or wrong. Once again, Mark Ritson, you’ve taught us as much about HOW to think as you have about WHAT to think.

  11. Melissa Dulling 7 Aug 2016

    I’m delighted Mark was enlightened. And that Mr Roberts is hopefully now chewing over his ignorance for the better. I’m joining his mini MBA is September and I hope there will be a good high female and BAME representation….because I’m not going to sit back and be ignored….because I’m a woman. It’ll have to be because I’ve said something jackass

  12. I agree with some of the other comments – Mark, did you raise the story in one of your following lectures and explain the journey you had in changing your thinking? I feel it would be a great lesson for everyone there about how to reflect on, and change, unconscious biases.

  13. Al King 8 Aug 2016

    Can we see the 1st list and then the revised one “corrected” for sexism please? We should all be the judge of whether its better or not.

  14. Jean Grogan 8 Aug 2016

    You’re overlooking the student’s point here, Mr Ritson;
    “I /… /pointed out that none of the quotes came from Asians, from people of colour or, to my knowledge, from anyone who was gay.”

    No disrespect intended to “Asians, people of colour” or “gay people”, but women – who made up 52% of the Earth’s population last time I looked – are not a minority group.

    • m ritson 9 Aug 2016

      Neither are Asians. They make up 60% of the worlds population. Slightly more than women. Mind you half of them, I am reliably informed, are women apparently. So there you go.

      Once you start with the “my minority are more major than your minority” claptrap its elephants all the way down.

  15. Teresa Preston 10 Aug 2016

    Great article and I appreciate your honest self-realization of your own implicit and unintentional bias that led to your change in thinking. It’s these types of examples that, when shared, create more self-awareness among others.

  16. David 15 Nov 2016

    I actually disagree, and I’m saying that as an African American.

    If a field has been dominated by white guys, the theories and standards that the field is built on, should be based on them, unless someone new of any race or sex has come by and overthrown them, in terms of genius, sort of like how Einstein came for Newton. It’s why classics are classics. There are a lot of great black writers, but if we’re talking all-time-writers in English, no black, asian, hispanic etc, man or woman is replacing Shakespeare.

    What you should have done is challenged her to do an independent study on who she thinks should be replaced on the top 10 that you mentioned and then to write a persuasive essay on that for extra credit. That would teach her to a. how to think about the field vs. criticize a field for lack of equality. It would also help her understand genius and how to recognize and rate it. In other words, it would teach her, what has always been the point of a good education: how to make good judgments.

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