NEWSMAKER/KEVIN ROBERTS: Saatchis enthusiast set for demerger challenge - Can Kevin Roberts breathe new life into the Saatchis network, asks Karen Yates

You don’t so much interview Kevin Roberts as allow his enthusiasm to dance around the room. The man destined to steer Saatchi & Saatchi through its severance from Bates and Cordiant has two speed settings: perpetual motion and gearing up for it.

You don’t so much interview Kevin Roberts as allow his enthusiasm

to dance around the room. The man destined to steer Saatchi & Saatchi

through its severance from Bates and Cordiant has two speed settings:

perpetual motion and gearing up for it.

We are discussing his appointment as the Saatchi worldwide chief

executive (Campaign, 9 May). The restless Lancastrian has already

crossed and re-crossed his legs several times and is launching into

conversation with an animation verging on gymnastics.

It works, though. As he talks, we are no longer in a boardroom deep in

the Cordiant empire, flanked by Cordiant cohorts. It’s as if we are old

friends and have just met up for a chat.

Roberts’ arrival at Saatchis coincides with a period of seismic change

for the network. The demerger from Cordiant has given birth to a new

brand of pragmatism in which being big for the sake of it has given way

to a desire to be the best. ’We have the motivation to go after accounts

we couldn’t before,’ says Bob Seelert, Cordiant’s chief executive, who

will be chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi plc after the demerger.

’Kevin is just the breath of fresh air we need.’

Roberts recalls his decision to quit his job running Lion Nathan, New

Zealand’s largest brewery, in 1996. After 30 years in the industry he

felt disenchanted with it.

Innovation was being replaced by cost-cutting and downsizing.

With a sweeping hand movement, he switches the scene to New York.

Roberts, who is buying a loft apartment, has dropped in for lunch with

his old friend, the Saatchi chairman and chief executive, Ed Wax.

Ed: ’Shit, you know I’m 60 years old and I want to leave at the end of

the year. I’m on an aeroplane all the time.’

Kev: ’Are any of the guys ready to take over yet?’

Ed: (pause) ’No, I don’t think they are.’

This dialogue prompted what Roberts describes as a ’bottoms up’ approach

at Saatchis - a series of phone calls from Pete Watkins, then chief

executive of Saatchis in Asia, Bob Isherwood, worldwide creative

director, and Peter Cullinane, head of Saatchis in Australasia.

’They explained what they wanted from a worldwide chief executive,’

Roberts says. ’That was a brand manager who was experienced enough to be

a big boss but informal enough to build a strong team.’

Roberts is a bluff, no-nonsense type and his talk is peppered with

street language. But in the stark light of the Cordiant boardroom, he

looks small and friendly - albeit alarmingly bright.

’I believe in the Saatchi brand because I’ve been close to it for 20

years. I have a history of brand management, and I’ve done a lot of

coaching,’ he says.

Isherwood describes Roberts as ’amazingly insightful. He gets straight

to the heart of a problem. And that’s really refreshing.’ Others prefer

the words ’confident’ or ’ruthless’, though all are affected by his

sheer energy. ’It’s awe-inspiring,’ Matt Ryan, a deputy creative

director at Charlotte Street, says.

Roberts began his career in London in the 60s, helping to launch Mary

Quant cosmetics, before being asked to work for Gillette. Two years

later he moved to Procter & Gamble - now a flagship client for Saatchis

- working in Switzerland and Morocco.

After running Pepsi in the Middle East and Canada, Roberts moved to New

Zealand to take up his Lion Nathan post. He took the no-name brewery by

the scruff of the neck and turned it into Australasia’s second-largest

brewing group.

Roberts has homes in the UK, US and New Zealand. He is sitting on chunks

of Auckland waterside just as the America’s Cup is set to make prices

soar, owns Auckland’s top restaurant, Gaults (and is planning to open

others) and is on the board of New Zealand’s formidable rugby union

team, the All Blacks.

’If something is worth doing,’ he has been quoted as saying, ’it’s worth

doing to excess. I’d rather work than do anything else.’ Roberts has

proved to be a prolific one-liner, and another of his epithets is

telling: ’You must always be willing to pursue failure. I make 30

decisions a day - 20 are wrong. That is a lot better than making three

decisions a day that are right.’

Derek Bowden, Saatchis’ European chief executive, describes Roberts as

’dynamic, decisive and fun. He doesn’t come across as a polished Madison

Avenue ad man. He’s self made, very quick, very sharp. He doesn’t

believe in hidden agendas or blame.’

Roberts is not one to mince words as Maurice Saatchi found out when he

rang Roberts from London at his home in New Zealand to solicit business

for M&C Saatchi. But Saatchi had overlooked one thing - the time


It was one o’clock in the morning when his call woke Roberts. Choice

words were spoken and Roberts went back to sleep. By the time the

Roberts household rose for work later that morning the place was awash

with white lilies sent by Saatchi as an apology. The advertising

account, however, did not move.

His arrival at Saatchis has already made an impact. Exercising his

inspirational nature, he has turned board meetings into more focused,

uplifting affairs.

He is also the architect of the new ’ownership culture’ Saatchis will

adopt when it trades as a separate entity in December. He is said to

have fought for the plan, in which 70 of the agency’s senior managers

invest their own money for part of the rewards expected if the share

price performs well.

Roberts is enthusiastic about the opportunities the demerger will throw

up for Saatchis. As he says in his straight manner: ’We’ll no longer be

able to blame the turkeys at the top, because we’ll be the turkeys at

the top.’


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