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Monday, 28 July 2014

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Saatchi & Saatchi boss who touches down in Cumbria

A toothy grin, a welcoming hand on the shoulder and a “How y’ doing, mate?” Kevin Roberts: chief executive officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, part-time resident of Cumbria, legendary destroyer of vending machines.

Kevin Roberts photo
Kevin Roberts

Legendary if your trade is advertising, where Kevin Roberts is arguably the biggest brand in the business.

The man who revels in his maverick reputation heads one of the world’s most successful ad agencies, leading a team of 6,000 people in 86 countries.

Saatchi & Saatchi is based in New York and Roberts, 59, also has homes in New Zealand, St Tropez and Grasmere, where we find him today.

His accent is a stew of Kiwi, American and northern England, the latter courtesy of his upbringing in Lancaster. These well-travelled tones hurl out more swearing than a Viz character and enough soundbites about business and life to fill a library of self-help books.

It all surges forth in the candid waves which often pour from the powerful and wealthy. Roberts’s salary last year was 2.8m Euros; at current exchange rates that’s about £2.4m.

So... destroyer of vending machines? In the late Eighties Roberts was president of Pepsi-Cola’s Canadian division. Pepsi – ‘The Choice of a New Generation’ – was closing in on Coca-Cola – ‘The Real Thing’.

Roberts sensed panic from his brand’s bitter rivals. “I wanted to keep pushing them to the edge,” he says.

At a black-tie dinner attended by the Canadian Prime Minister, Roberts took to the podium, made his speech, and said: “Watch this.”

He recalls: “A Coke vending machine had been wheeled on stage. I bent down, picked up a machine gun, and blew this thing away. Everybody hit the deck. It was on the news and everywhere. All people wanted to talk about was ‘Is this crazy guy Kevin Roberts going to come round with his machine gun?’ Then they’d buy another case of Pepsi. My people were walking 20 feet high.”

Next stop: chief operating officer at Australian brewer Lion Nathan. “The company had been formed after a merger and no one could remember its name. When I walked in for my first meeting, I had a lion. I’d borrowed it from the zoo.” He laughs. “People crapped themselves. No one forgot the name after that.”

A couple of points: Roberts fired blanks at the vending machine, which had been wired to snap, crackle and pop. And the lion was sedated and monitored by its keeper. He admits to a reckless streak. But in his world anyone who can conjure up striking images and headlines will be forgiven much worse sins than that.

In 1997 Roberts’s attributes attracted Saatchi & Saatchi. Formed in 1970 by brothers Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the agency had become the UK’s biggest in less than a decade.

Its famous ‘Labour isn’t working’ campaign helped sweep Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979. By the Nineties, the brothers had been ousted in a boardroom coup and the company was floundering.

Roberts was brought in as top man. One of his most important marketing exercises was on Saatchi itself. He rebranded it ‘an ideas company’ rather than an ad agency – “ideas are the currency of the future”. Under his leadership Saatchi has thrived with clients like Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Visa.

And Cadbury. Thanks to Roberts’s team, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is now linked in millions of minds with a drumming gorilla. More importantly – and pretty much the only thing that really matters – sales increased. “Up 14 per cent,” he notes. “Great advertising like that can leave you feeling good about a brand.”

A bar of chocolate and a gorilla pounding drums to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. In advertising, A leads to B by a roundabout route. “The creative process is completely chaotic,” says Roberts.

“It starts with a deep understanding of what the consumer feels. Someone will say ‘You know what? I think chocolate is all about one thing: joy.’ Women eat Dairy Milk on their own. They come home, they lie on the couch and break off a block – joy! You give that line to the creative team and something else comes out the end.”

Roberts knows that one brand of chocolate may taste very like another. Advertising is there to create differences. “The quality of a product is not enough,” he says. “All dandruff shampoo gets rid of dandruff. All beers get you drunk. But what makes you choose Beck’s rather than Stella?

“What you’re looking for when you spend money is something more than just getting rid of dandruff. You’re looking for stuff that makes you happy.

“All advertising is attempting to create an emotional connection.

“Function leaves you a little empty. We want something that cares a bit more, is more empathetic. Life’s a bit ordinary at the moment, right? Everyone’s worried about their job, they can’t afford to go on holiday, we have fear of terrorism.

“People are looking for great emotional connectivity. What’s demanded is desire, authenticity. You’ve got to stand for something. You’ve got to have a big dream. That way people share it.”

This dream might be encapsulated in a slogan: ‘The Choice of a New Generation’. It might be a seductive image like Marlboro Man. And sometimes advertising sparks a brand into developing a life of its own. Consumers feel themselves becoming part of the world’s coolest gang, simply by buying a product which does much the same as its competitors.

“Who’d have thought that everybody would have an iPod?” asks Roberts. “All these guys like Samsung have MP3 players that are just as good but iPod has 75 per cent of the market. If you have an iPod you’re part of the tribe.

“A successful brand becomes irresistible. I still drink Diet Pepsi every day. I still shave with a Gillette Sensor. Great brands infiltrate your life. It’s a lifelong love affair.”

Has life left us so starved of emotion that we look to fizzy drinks and razor blades for fulfilment? Roberts is convinced that the way we embrace newcomers like the iPod and cling to long-established brands is about more than satisfying a physical need.

In 2004 he summed up these thoughts in a book called Lovemarks. Lovemarks are brands not only used by consumers, but loved by them, “infusing mystery, sensuality and intimacy to win loyalty beyond reason”.

This evangelism for brands extends to business as a whole. Roberts has claimed that “The role of business is to make the world a better place for everyone.”

He argues: “Capitalism is a great idea but it needs to be inclusive. All that ‘greed is good’ stuff has been proven to be really, really bad. Fifty million people will lose their jobs this year. That leads to crime and all kinds of social problems.

“Business is the only way out. And that’s global. Right now if you live in Africa you’re pretty much screwed. Giving them money is a short-term band aid. We’ve got to invest in training.

“In the Sixties it was all about egalitarianism. Then we had a few decades of ‘greed is good’. Now we’ve got exactly what we wanted in the Sixties. People, through technology and access to information, have control. The consumer is boss.”

The counter-argument says business is boss, with advertising its means of persuading people to be forever dissatisfied.

Roberts bristles at this, saying that some “left-wing guy” he met recently said something along these lines. “The implication is that people are stupid. But the consumer isn’t a moron. If you think today’s consumer can be pressed into buying stuff they don’t need, you must be living in a menagerie.”

This is the only time bonhomie gives way to a flash of something sterner. Just as well, because Roberts says good-natured co-operation is the key to success. “My role is to create a climate of inspiration. You try to be caring and demanding, like a family. Everyone can talk to me. You go human first.”

It’s hard to picture the pre-marketing Kevin Roberts using the phrase ‘go human’. He grew up on a Lancaster council estate and his father was a security guard at a psychiatric hospital. “Which is not dissimilar to what I do now...”

Roberts was kicked out of Lancaster Grammar School after his girlfriend Barbara fell pregnant. “We had no money. I was 17, she was 18. We didn’t know anything about anything.”

They married, had a daughter, and moved to London in 1969. Roberts had landed a job at fashion house Mary Quant, where he met Rowena. He and Barbara divorced. Rowena has been Mrs Roberts for 34 years. They have two sons and a daughter.

Roberts became a marketing executive for Gillette then Procter & Gamble before joining Pepsi.

In 1989 the family moved to Auckland and Roberts is now a New Zealand citizen. It was a kind of rebirth in a country which regards where you are now as infinitely more important than where you came from.

This new man has access to powerful people who need him as much as he needs them. In November Roberts will be meeting Bill Clinton and George Lucas. He recently spoke at the same event as Al Gore, former almost-US president turned environmental campaigner.

Roberts believes politicians are “generally dirt-bags” and he dismisses Gore as “the only guy to have got a Nobel Peace Prize for PowerPoint. His speech was ‘The end is nigh.’ Mine was about joy and optimism. Possibilities not limits.”

He spreads this message at the three universities which have given him honorary professorships. In 2004 Roberts became a governor of Lancaster Grammar, the school which turfed him out nearly 40 years earlier.

What he calls “the most important thing I do” involves not young high-fliers but teenagers on the edge of oblivion. That’s a place Roberts remembers well. “When I was 14 I started nicking stuff in town. Just stuff to eat, like peanuts and crisps. I’d been doing that for three or four weeks, and I’d been spotted. I did it again and there was a copper waiting for me. He gave me a real telling off: ‘What are you doing? You’re going to screw up your life!’ Instead of charging me he arranged for me to coach 11-year-olds in cricket and rugby at Lancaster Lads’ Club. He turned my life around.”

Decades later in New Zealand, Roberts thought about applying the same principle to other troubled young lives. Punishment didn’t seem to be working. What about prevention?

He became a trustee of the Turn Your Life Around Trust (TYLA), a charity with the power to write off teenagers’ first offences if they agree to join the mentoring programme. Seventy-five per cent never re-offend. Roberts makes about $1.5m a year from speeches, at $50,000 a time. It all goes to TYLA.

The marketing maverick turns 60 in October but it’s no surprise to hear him dismiss talk of retirement. “And do what? I mean, who wouldn’t want to run Saatchi & Saatchi? It’s like permission to misbehave.

“I hear people talk about work-life balance. I live in work-life integration. I work every day. And I have fun every day.”

At the Grasmere home he bought three years ago the fun includes surrounding himself with photographs of the footballers he grew up idolising and the models he grew up fancying. Parts of the house are like a shrine to the Sixties. “I wanted this to be the sort of place I didn’t have then.”

It’s worked out well though, hasn’t it? His life doesn’t look like one shot through with regrets. “There have been hard times,” he says. “Becoming a dad at 17. That’s tough. Getting divorced is really hard. Telling your daughter that you’re splitting up.

“One of my main mentors while I was growing up is dying of dementia. There’s no good way to die, but that’s really not a good way. Those things I find hard. The business stuff... that’s just business.”

Roberts looks up and points to another of his mementoes: a photograph of Russell Crowe in Gladiator. It’s been signed by the actor – one of many famous friends – with a line from the film: “To Kevin. ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity.’”

“I so much believe that,” says the warrior whose weapons are words, pictures and passion. “If you want to leave a legacy, leave the place better.”

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