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
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,
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