Kevin Roberts has never had a higher profile in his homeland. But
whether that’s a good thing for the New Zealand-born worldwide chief
executive of Saatchi & Saatchi - or, indeed, for the Saatchi offices in
Auckland and Wellington - is quite a different question.
Twenty-one months into his stint as the Saatchi boss, the 48-year-old
former brewing executive finds himself at the centre of a political
storm that’s been sweeping across the front pages of New Zealand’s
newspapers for weeks.
The controversy is over allegations that the Prime Minister, Jenny
Shipley, and her political party, National, wrongly interfered in a
planned global marketing campaign intended to promote New Zealand as a
tourist destination. Shipley’s political opponents are suggesting
National hi-jacked what should have been an apolitical campaign to
secure ’feel good’ publicity in an election year - and that Saatchi may
be benefiting improperly from its cosy relationship with the Prime
Minister and her political party.
The media and National’s political opponents are casting a close eye
over what Shipley has described as her ’close personal friendship’ with
Roberts and they are searching for a smoking gun to prove
The controversy emerged after a string of resignations from New
Zealand’s Tourism Board and the public disclosure of the suspicions of a
former board member, Gerry McSweeney, that the National party wanted to
use the planned NZdollars 30 million Saatchi-devised campaign to boost
The campaign is intended to focus on a series of so-called ’mega-events’
in New Zealand this year, such as the Americas Cup yacht racing. In an
interview with The Sunday Star-Times, McSweeney raised questions about
Shipley’s role in a ’pre-launch’ of the campaign at New Zealand House in
London in January. The paper said the event seemed to be pitched at
attracting publicity in New Zealand rather than overseas.
One of Shipley’s political opponents, Jim Anderton, the leader of the
Alliance, later upped the stakes when he told the New Zealand Parliament
of a letter from an unnamed source claiming that Saatchi had offered a
cut-price re-election campaign to the National Party in exchange for
securing the Tourism Board business. The letter alleged that Shipley and
Roberts had discussed the deal at a private dinner last year.
Factual errors quickly undermined the credibility of the letter but the
premier landed in trouble when she bungled her explanation to
Parliament, by first denying then admitting that politics and Tourist
board issues had been discussed over dinner.
There’s some sympathy in the ad industry for the staff at Saatchi, which
has long been New Zealand’s leading ad agency. While the affair does
nothing to deter Roberts from the globetrotting that sees him ricochet
around the worldwide Saatchi network, local staff are left facing what
looks like a prolonged torture-by-innuendo.