Monday 1 August 2016 7:45 pm

In defence of Kevin Roberts: The Saatchi chief dared to be honest about gender diversity

Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts was placed on an immediate leave of absence at the weekend for supposedly ill-judged and uninformed comments on gender diversity.

But those who have jumped on Roberts for saying (among other things) that the debate on gender bias within the advertising industry was “over” have got it wrong. I have since read Roberts’s comments, and not only is he well-informed on the subject, but he approaches the complex issue of gender diversity in a more intelligent and nuanced way than most.

I did my MBA with some of the most driven and professionally advanced women in the world, and we all went on to work for great companies. Fifteen years later, many of us work part-time or don’t work at all, not because our companies had poor gender diversity policies, but because we wanted a more fulfilling life. A friend who has the best education of any man or woman I know, with first-class degrees from Stanford, Cambridge and Columbia, stopped working altogether because her house was “too large” and “needed attention”. I personally think that it is a waste of a world-class background, but each to her own. Some of my male friends have done the same, perhaps realising that going to the office for 35 years is not the best way to spend your life.

This is probably what Roberts meant when he said in an interview with Business Insider that the “Darwinian urges of wealth, power, and fame” do not necessarily apply to everyone, and that what many people want is just to do “great work” and be happy rather than reach the top. Note, Roberts spoke about men, as well as women.

From what I have read, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what Roberts said. On the contrary, he dared to approach an issue as sensitive as gender diversity in an honest and humane way, rather than resort to the one-sided ideological statements more customary to this subject.

By contrast, the statement from Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi’s parent company, read like a dogmatic pamphlet. The gender issue is “of critical importance” and “a priority”. Publicis also apparently “champions diversity and inclusion”. What does the latter statement mean? Do the people who wrote it even know it themselves?

The closest meaning that I can think of is helping employees, both men and women, do the work that they have the inclination and temperament to do, rather than push women and other minorities towards a career in top management – even though they may have no interest in dealing with budgets, shareholders and HR problems – to achieve corporate diversity targets.

Finally, Roberts has said that, in his time at Saatchi & Saatchi, he “had not been putting any effort into diversity”. Nevertheless, during his 20 years at the helm, he had built a business with 65 per cent female employees (as opposed to a 50 per cent industry average), with a highly respected female chief creative officer. Not bad.

Roberts succeeded where many others have failed presumably by doing it the only right way: by focusing on work, training his staff how to best service their clients, and creating an environment in which people with the right skills achieve the positions that they themselves aspire to, rather than those that the management has in mind for them. And as a diversity strategy, this works much better than creating committees, penning intelligence-insulting leaflets, and hammering down mindless propaganda.

If Roberts wants to take August off like the rest of France, he should do so. But after that, Publicis should reinstate him and let him continue the good work.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.