Saatchi’s Roberts Resigns After Flap Over Comments on Women

  • Declaration that debate on gender is ‘over’ prompted rebukes
  • Sign of growing power for Levy’s second-in-command Sadoun

Kevin Roberts resigned as executive chairman of Publicis Groupe SA’s Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, days after provoking an uproar by declaring the debate on gender diversity “is all over.”

The career of Roberts, one of the ad industry’s best-known and most powerful executives, unraveled quickly following comments published last Friday in an interview with Business Insider. In it, he said he doesn’t spend any time on gender issues at the agency, and suggested that some women weren’t interested in advancing in their careers.

Publicis Chairman Maurice Levy responded swiftly, placing Roberts on leave on Saturday and issuing a statement that his comments didn’t uphold the company’s policy of zero tolerance for behavior or commentary counter to the “spirit of Publicis Groupe and its celebration of difference.”

Roberts’s resignation was announced Wednesday in a statement from Paris-based Publicis.

“I have inadvertently embarrassed Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis Groupe, two companies I love and have been devoted to for almost 20 years,” Roberts said in a statement. “My miscommunication on a number of points has caused upset and offense, and for this I am sorry,” Roberts said in a separate statement.

The 66-year-old Roberts resigned under pressure from Publicis, which sought to protect its business and avoid the harsh publicity that’s overtaken other ad firms in cases related to sexism, said a person familiar with the situation. He was due to retire next year.

A spokeswoman for Publicis declined to comment on Roberts’s departure beyond a statement.

Roberts is the latest in a series of top officials to leave Publicis in recent years, including David Kenny, former CEO of digital agency and Publicis acquisition Digitas; former chief operating officer Jean-Yves Naouri; and former head of the Publicis agency network Richard Pinder.

Though Roberts was set to retire, his accelerated departure consolidates the position of Publicis Communications CEO Arthur Sadoun, Levy’s second-in-command and the leading candidate to succeed him. Sadoun also weighed in on Saturday, after Levy had already commented, issuing his own memo to employees denouncing Roberts’s comments, which was distributed to news outlets.

“It’s remarkable that Sadoun stepped in so quickly” Pinder, U.K. and international CEO of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, said in a telephone interview. “He’s clearly gaining confidence by the minute.”

Emotional Connection

Roberts joined Saatchi in 1997 as chief executive officer, after earlier roles at Gillette Co., P&G and PepsiCo Inc. He moved to Publicis with the agency’s 2000 acquisition. Roberts burnished his standing as a thought leader with a 2004 book, “Lovemarks,” in which he advocated moving beyond branding and trying to establish an emotional connection with the customer. His ideas were credited with prompting JC Penney Co. to switch a $430 million advertising account to Saatchi & Saatchi in 2006.

Saatchi’s client list in 2015 included Arby’s Restaurant, Coca-Cola Co., Deutsche Telekom AG, General Mills Inc., Toyota Motor Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Mondelez International Inc.

In recent months, the ad industry has muddled through several incidents that raised questions about its attitudes toward women. In March, a female employee of Madison Avenue firm J. Walter Thompson filed a discrimination lawsuit accusing the agency’s CEO, Gustavo Martinez, of making racist and sexist comments. WPP Plc, JWT’s parent, stood by him initially, prompting a war of words between Publicis’s Levy and WPP CEO Martin Sorrell. Martinez resigned that month.

Roberts’s comments last week earned rebukes from people including the president of PepsiCo’s global beverage group, Brad Jakeman, who said it was “cheap and disappointing” that Roberts also criticized Cindy Gallop, a former top executive at ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty who is an outspoken advocate for women in advertising.

"Kevin’s resignation was inevitable,” said Daniele Fiandaca, an ad executive who co-founded London-based Token Man, an initiative aimed at helping men understand challenges women face in the industry. “This should force every CEO to review every aspect of their business and to start properly investing in real culture change."

In his statement, Roberts said the response to his comments contained “many powerful and passionate contributions on the changing nature of the workplace, the work we do, what success really looks like, and what companies must do to provide women and men the optimal frameworks in which to flourish.”

“New thinking, frameworks and measures are needed to make more rapid progress on diversity in all its forms,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, the focus on this serious and complex issue will gather momentum."

He steps down from his roles at Saatchi as well as Publicis head coach and a member of the parent’s management board, effective Sept. 1, ahead of a planned retirement date in May 2017. Roberts was the second-highest paid corporate officer at Publicis after Levy in 2015. His compensation was 3.06 million euros ($3.43 million) for 2015, compared with 3.92 million for Levy.

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