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Life after Kevin Roberts: the end of 'dinosaur' leaders?

Amid the comments made by Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts, Kate Magee wonders if the debate is really about the changing definitions of leadership and success.

Life after Kevin Roberts: the end of 'dinosaur' leaders?

What to make of the Kevin Roberts furore?

First, let’s put one thing to rest: the gender diversity debate is clearly not "over", as Roberts claimed in an interview with Business Insider. Former Bartle Bogle Hegarty US chairman Cindy Gallop isn’t "making up" the issue. 

The stories of casual sexism in the industry that have emerged since the media storm over Roberts’ comments, suspension and subsequent resignation from Saatchi & Saatchi last week are depressing and disappointing. Just because you can’t see unconscious bias doesn’t mean it does not exist. 

And for Roberts to deliberately provoke Gallop, a vocal diversity advocate, by criticising her for opportunism and self-promotion while he himself publicised his latest book is a bit rich. 

But whether you believe Roberts was burnt at the stake by wild harpies for voicing "the truth" (see Grace Dent and Katie Hopkins’ comments) or was allowed to resign when he should have been fired (Gallop), let’s focus on the deeper issue: the difficulties of diversity, ambition (of all shapes) and the changing definition of success. 

Roberts is by no means the only person to believe a lack of senior female leaders is not symptomatic of a wider problem. This view is often presented proudly, albeit privately – we are not (consciously) sexist, women are welcome to play our game. But this gender-blind approach, while sounding noble in theory, doesn’t work in practice because such a complex issue requires more active management, including a willingness to assess your own role in perpetuating the status quo. Look at the facts: only 11% of creative directors are women. It’s unlikely that the rest of them simply don’t want the job or – if you are claiming to be a meritocracy – that they aren’t good enough.

It is hard to find any other agency leaders who agree with Roberts’ assertion that two out of three creative women are turning down promotions because they have "circular", not "vertical", ambitions. But he did touch on something when he said that, for both sexes, "those Darwinian urges of wealth, power and fame – they are not terribly effective in today’s world for a millennial".

It is true that some women don’t want to move into management. And – whisper it – some men don’t either. That’s perfectly acceptable. This debate is about choices and giving both men and women an equal opportunity to get a promotion or turn it down. 

But if it is true that two-thirds of women are rejecting promotions, a shrug is not the smart reaction. If you are serious about having diverse leaders, you need to change what you are offering them. 

Badge of honour

No-one chooses adland to have an easy life. It’s an industry of long hours and high pressure. Decisions are made over late-night drinks and at business dinners, and jobs often come with hectic schedules packed with overseas travel and intensive shoots. Of course, there are some realities of the job that will be hard to overcome. But change is coming. 

In 2012, Roberts claimed on his blog that he spent 250 days a year overseas and worked seven days a week. On work/life balance, he wrote: "I believe that nothing succeeds like excess. And that balance and moderation should be avoided at all costs." 

Again, he’s not alone in his views. Many top jobs effectively require the person to prioritise their work above everything else. And it’s seen as something that should be done willingly, your total commitment worn as a badge of honour. But this old model of leadership is looking increasingly unattractive for a new generation approaching management roles at a time of radical cultural and social shifts.

First, the nature of family life is changing. There are more single-parent families and families with two working parents. Men are starting to – and will continue to – take on more childcare responsibilities now that equal paternity rights are on offer and they are less socially penalised for doing so. Men can "lean out". But these changes are hard – millennial parents are also the most prone to exhaustion (42% said they felt burnt out most or all of the time in the Working Families’ Modern Families Index 2016). 

Meanwhile, the workplace is undergoing a revolution. Technology allows remote and flexible working. But it also demands new skills and threats – automation will replace some jobs. 

A different generation

The recession has shaken the loyalty bond between company and worker. There are no longer jobs for life. People are often more likely to be promoted and secure pay rises if they switch employer. There has been an increase in redundancies and zero-hour contracts. Downward pressure on wages is compounded by burgeoning work responsibilities and spiralling house prices. 

Millennials are the first generation who could be financially worse off than their parents, according to last month’s report by the Resolution Foundation. Young people will not have access to the same lifestyle their boss had for doing the same job. Is it any wonder, then, that many are deciding not to postpone happiness for the promise of a future that may never arrive?

The issue for adland is how to make its leadership roles suitable for a more diverse group of people before it loses them to other industries or puts them off management roles entirely. But there is not an easy solution to this conundrum – here are three areas to help start the conversation.

Like many industries, such as teaching, the higher you climb the career ladder, the further you move from the craft. Does progression always have to be into management? The best directors still direct. Oscar-winning actors still act. Acclaimed musicians still perform. Find a way to establish different career paths for craftspeople that come with suitable respect and compensation. Can we scrap the old hierarchies and still run effective businesses?

Agencies should provide proper training and support for those who want management roles. As one executive says: "I was terrified when I became a managing director. It was a completely different role and I wasn’t given a job description or training. It took me years before I was able to set boundaries to enable me to do the right thing for the agency and not care what people thought of me." Focusing on the executive pipeline means you will have more diverse candidates when required.

The industry should also consider whether its expectations of managers and leaders are too high. Are the long hours really necessary? Breaking free from the shackles of charging by time would help, which can only be achieved through frank conversations with clients. 

If adland wants to attract and retain the best people, it is going to have to change. 

Roberts’ comments were foolish and perhaps "miscommunicated", but no-one has the definitive answer. It’s a thorny problem that doesn’t start and end in the office – it’s a much more intractable issue that spreads into wider questions of workplace legacies, gender identity, social constructs and biology. But these are not insurmountable. 

Adland needs to pay more than just lip service to diversity of all forms because its future depends on getting it right. 

After all, you need the new breed of leaders more than they need you. 

Management model: industry views

Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO:

"I haven’t had experience of women turning down senior roles but I have certainly had the pleasure of coaching many into them. We have to be resolute about increasing and supporting the executive talent pipeline. Increase it by systematically removing all barriers that talented and ambitious women may encounter. And support it by leading by example, encouraging and developing talent, providing opportunity and offering flexible working arrangements to support working parents and carers. And we have to do all this together. We can’t empower women without involving men."

Debbie Klein, chief executive, Europe and Asia-Pacific, Engine:

"It’s nonsense that women are turning down senior roles in their droves. What is true is that many up-and-coming stars across the disciplines are likely to have had a less linear career path than my generation. It’s more common for them to take twists and turns, have a period working for themselves, maybe some time out, and then often back to corporate life. That’s as true for men as for women, but taking the scenic route doesn’t mean they don’t want the big jobs. Too many amazing women leave the industry or go solo before we have a chance to get them lined up for those top jobs. We need to tell them, loudly, that we want them to come back."

Roisin Donnelly, former brand director, northern Europe, Procter & Gamble:

"We need to change the way we work to adapt to the changing lives and priorities of people. Technology is a great enabler but we need to focus on people and not platforms. Technology has given us an always-on, 24/7 world, but work should not be 24/7. Clients will get the best results by building respect and teamwork and setting realistic deadlines. As clients, we need to encourage agencies to embrace diversity – all the visible and invisible differences. Leveraging diversity will make agencies more creative and more successful."

Helen Calcraft, founding partner, Lucky Generals:

"Everybody, male and female, wants and deserves to be able to balance work life and home life. But parenting is still a massive pressure point. As an industry, we are adjusting – but I believe we must be proactive in demonstrating that you can lead and have a young family at the same time, as many of the women I speak to simply don’t believe this is possible or true. Many working mothers fall prey to dark and unspoken pressures and silent judgment in agencies. We need to work harder to remove these invidious attitudes and the associated guilt and unhappiness that they induce."

Sarah Jenkins, chief marketing officer, Grey London: 

"There is definitely a macro issue bubbling under the prehistoric vernacular. How do people progress in an industry that too often punishes those who can’t or won’t commit to a 24/7 working week? It’s not only an unrealistic approach, it’s dumb. We burn out extraordinary talent.

"We need to force a change in the value exchange between client and industry. We also need to create a culture where personal time is valued and protected. With the urgent all too often overtaking the important, agency leaders are failing to prioritise their biggest asset: brilliant people."

Ben Bilboul, group chief executive, Karmarama:

"How many agencies actively encourage employees to take advantage of more progressive ways of working?

"Ambition is sky-high for millennials. For this younger generation, the expectation is that work should be filled with purpose and meaning. And when they look at the mistakes of the generation of leaders above them, many of whom chased money ahead of fulfilment and ended up divorced and miserable, it’s hardly surprising that they seek a new type of work contract.

"Create a business with purpose and a culture that genuinely engages with the hopes and fears of a diverse workforce. And recognise that if senior women turn down that job offer, it’s not the job they’re rejecting – it’s you."

Amelia Torode, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London:

"The idea that women in advertising are satisfied to let the men take control and do the heavy lifting is highly offensive. 

"However, I do think that there is a new generation, both men and women, who are saying with confidence that they are not prepared to sacrifice everything at the altar of leadership. We’ve seen too many advertising leaders who are, ironically, the worst possible advertisements for leadership. We don’t want to lead like them. I don’t lead like them. 

"I love my job working with Richard [Stainer, chief executive] at TBWA\London but I love my children more and don’t want to outsource their childhood. My mother is going through chemotherapy and I want to spend time with her, so I work a four-day week. It’s no big deal. Leadership should never be about the hours you work – it’s about the impact you have. 

"Sheryl Sandberg once said: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Well, thank goodness that if you look at our industry today, there are more and more role models disrupting the old, antiquated, testosterone-heavy model of agency leadership."