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Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts suspended over gender diversity opinions

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As much as we'd all like to believe that we've all moved on from the dark ages of the 1960s and 1970s into an age of genuine enlightenment, the sad fact remains that, for the most part, adland is still a bit of a boys club. This is thanks in no small part to an old guard who are either part of the problem or refuse to admit there is one. We only have to cast our minds back a few months to March 2016, when J Walter Thompson's CEO Gustavo Martinez resigned in the wake of a catastrophic lawsuit, which accused him of some pretty abhorrent sexist behaviour. Fast forward 4 months or so and we're back in the same boat, albeit with a different major agency's leading light in the crosshairs.

I'm referring, of course, to Kevin Roberts, Global Chairman at Saatchi & Saatchi, who was suspended over the weekend after an incendiary and insensitive interview was published, in which he claimed he felt that the gender bias debate is (and I quote) “Fucking over.” In the same interview, he also suggested that the reason many women don't reach the same senior levels within the industry as men is because they lack the same levels of ambition. Granted the remarks were made as part of a wider discussion about the changing perspectives of men and women on the antiquated notion of senior management success, but still, not cool dude.

Roberts also took aim in the interview at Cindy Gallop, an outspoken and high profile campaigner, by claiming that he feels she is “Making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soapbox.” Gallop fired back via social media in a typically pithy manner and a number of high profile CMOs jumped to her defence. Needless to say, the agency’s parent company, Publicis, immediately put Roberts on leave following the publication of the interview with Lara O'Reilly in Business Insider. The interview was published on Friday and he was gone by Sunday. That's modern media for you, ruthlessly efficient if nothing else.

Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy said in a statement to all staff, which distanced the group from Roberts and his claims with quite some vigour: “It is for the gravity of these statements that Kevin Roberts has been asked to take a leave of absence from Publicis Groupe, effective immediately. As a member of the executive board, it will ultimately be the Publicis Groupe supervisory board’s duty to further evaluate his standing. Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the group will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion. Publicis Groupe works very hard to champion diversity and will continue to insist that each agency’s leadership be champions of both diversity and inclusion.”

Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of Publicis Communications, the division of Publicis that oversees Saatchi & Saatchi, added: “The way Kevin’s remarks were expressed I find offensive in terms of language and tonality. Behaviour like this is simply unacceptable in our Groupe. I am sorry that the comments made by Kevin have reflected poorly upon the Groupe and our culture. His views couldn’t be further from the truth about our commitment and feelings about gender diversity. I am very proud of being part of the Groupe, which is doing so much on gender equality, but I acknowledge that we, our industry and business at large are not where we need to be or where we aspire to be. This is an issue of critical importance to the Publicis Groupe and we are committed to being a role model. We have much more to do on this issue; it is a priority for me and all of Publicis Groupe leadership.”

Roberts, who is from Lancashire, is also head coach at Publicis and has been at the helm of Saatchi & Saatchi for 20 years. Some might argue that the comments he made were taken out of context before he was thrown to the wolves, and that he was simply suggesting that many women would prefer to be happy than successful. But as far as I'm concerned, even when examined in context, his comments reek of an unconscious bias that is not only outdated, but frankly idiotic. In the interview he mused, regarding women in advertising: “Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” He also shared these two gems: “I don’t think (the lack of women in leadership roles) is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work;” and “I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.” Of course, the man himself has yet to officially comment on the story, and his immediate long-term future with Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi will ultimately be determined by the Publicis Groupe Supervisory Board. Considering the backlash, however, things don't look particularly optimistic.

Obviously, this is a completely different situation to the Martinez case, but it underlines the same issue and the need for change within the industry. This is a change that, in my opinion, needs to come from the top, as that's also where most of the problems appear to be geminating, and we all know that problems which start at the top always end up trickling down to the rest of us. J. Walter Thompson has already introduced blind recruitment as a direct result of the Martinez controversy, and many smaller, independent agencies are taking some serious steps to alleviate gender bias. These examples are few and far between though, and this is not something that's going to happen overnight. But the more we talk about it, the more we expose it, and the more measures are taken to weed it out (at all levels), the sooner we can all begin to move forward as an industry that, as both a window and mirror to the wider world, should be leading by example.

Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK.

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