20 questions – Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi

5 May 2011 Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is one of advertising's leading luminaries. A creative whirlwind, Saatchi & Saatchi's globetrotting CEO has steered the ad agency from one success to the next, injected passion into brands with the Lovemarks concept, penned books and articles, and worked with the All Blacks rugby union team on peak performance. Roberts took a few moments out of his hectic schedule to field questions on the CEO's job, the ad industry and business in general.

1. How do you envisage your role as CEO?

I'm brand manager and head of talent. As brand manager of Saatchi & Saatchi, I am responsible for sustaining the enterprise and the brand equity that our people have worked so hard to create over the

past 40 years. My second role is to make Saatchi & Saatchi a magnet for talent, because if we get the best people, we win.

2. And how do you do that?

By offering our people responsibility, learning, recognition and joy.

3. What makes a good CEO?

CEOs need three things: focus, commitment and discipline. Many CEOs are not focused. Tyrannised by the three-stakeholder approach - shareholder, customer, employee - they lurch from one thing to the next; short-term, long-term and all over the place.

4. What attracted you to marketing and advertising?

I like consumers and brands. In particular, I like the way they are driven by personality and relationship, and that they are partly science but mainly art. I like solving problems, creating innovation and trying out new things. I've always had lots of ideas and opinions. Marketing and advertising is a pretty good place for me to play.

"Many CEOs are not focused. Tyrannised by the three-stakeholder approach - shareholder, customer, employee - they lurch from one thing to the next."

5. Who were your influences early in your career?

My first job was with fashion designer Mary Quant in the 1960s. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, working with a brilliantly creative woman.

6. Have you had many mentors during your career?

I have been very fortunate to have been mentored throughout my career and I still am. To be the best you can be, you constantly need mentors that will support you, drive you, tell you the truth, and provide you with that beautiful balance of push and pull.

7. How tough is the CEO's job?

I think it is very tough at the bottom, pretty tough in the middle, but a lot easier at the top.

8. There must be something that's difficult?

One thing that's really difficult at the top is making sure you're in touch with what's going on. I think the further up a company you go, the stupider you become. You can lose touch with what is going on - with consumers and with real life. So watch out - you need to keep in touch.

9. Why is that?

People tell you what they think you want to hear. They try to make themselves look good, to get promoted, and they don't want to disappoint you. Plus, people who work for you naturally assume you know everything, when you don't.

10. So how do you make sure you keep in touch with what is happening in the market?

I have a bunch of eight kids in their thirties - top talent at Saatchi - called KR Live 1. They mentor me upwards. I consult them about specifics; for example, where I suspect my thinking is out of date, or when I think that what my people are recommending to me is just not that exciting.

11. What are the main trends in your industry at the moment?

There's been a huge power shift in advertising and marketing. When I was growing up brands had all the power; then in the 1990s the retailers had all the power. Now the power has completely shifted to the consumer - to the people.

12. What are the implications of that?

You cannot command and control, and you cannot 'sell by yell'. You had better be out there living with that consumer, authentically; genuinely feeling what he or she is feeling. We have never known anything like this before. And the industry will never return to the way it was.

13. Any other trends?

In our industry you have the big and the tiny. You have to be focused on using scale to generate more ideas with more people faster, or you need to focus on being boutique, bespoke and really smart. If you get trapped in the middle, like many of the agencies today, it is going to be hard work.

"You need magic; the only thing that matters is the unreasonable power of creativity. All the other things have become equalised."

14. What gives companies a competitive edge?

Not technology, not information and not knowledge. We all have those or access to them. They are table stakes. You need magic; the only thing that matters is the unreasonable power of creativity. The only differentiator, the top thing on a significant percentage of CEOs' minds is creativity. All the other things have become equalised.

15. What are the big challenges for business and society?

The biggest challenge is to turn sustainability from a concept into an action plan, make it actionable and core to the business. And I'm not seeing that happen. Too often it is just talk or a CSR, governance or PR programme. Consumers are really unhappy with that.

16. Is it lack of collective will?

I don't think it is a collective problem at all. Forget big summits and meetings. You need a DOT programme - Do One Thing. If you just do one thing you can make a difference. Every company employee can do one thing. And after you have done DOT, you know what is next?

17. No.

DAT - Do Another Thing.

18. What other challenges stand out?

Marketing is dead. Consumers will no longer be marketed to in our society. What consumers want is to be part of a movement.

19. Describe how you help others in business; for example, your work with the MBA class at Lancaster University Management School?

I'm focused on making the world a better place for everyone. I want to inspire young business people to think the same. I can do that by talking to the MBAs and sending them out as apostles of this belief. If I touch these people they are likely to go out into jobs where they can influence others.

20. What makes you feel great about your job? 

I get the most joy when a great idea from Saatchi & Saatchi makes a difference in culture or society. And there have been a few. I've got a terrific job - why wouldn't you want to run Saatchi & Saatchi?