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We need to talk about Kevin (and some other stuff too)

08 Aug 2016  |  Dominic Mills 
We need to talk about Kevin (and some other stuff too)

The advertising industry has made diversity, in all forms, a key plank of its offering. Inadvertently, Saatchi's boss Kevin Roberts has highlighted its failings, writes Dominic Mills

It's been wall-to-wall Kevin in the media. News stories everywhere. A full-blown editorial, no less, in The Times last week, Today programme coverage, a full page in Saturday's Guardian, and a whole comment piece in The Sunday Times.

Even Katie Hopkins in the Mail Online chimed in, but as a professional contrarian, on his side, although not without sticking a knife or two into the ribs.

A part of Kevin, who must have been attention-starved as a child (and also has a book to promote), will have loved it. Search Google under 'Kevin Roberts Saatchi furore' and you get pages of results.

Think about it. First, it's silly season. His comments were a bonus for media looking for anything to fill empty pages and airtime; second, the only ad agency the public (and most of the media) has ever heard of is Saatchi and Saatchi; and three, his comments coincided with the double cracking of the glass ceiling by Theresa May and Hillary Clinton.

But even Kevin, who is from Planet Solipsism, should have realised that he was playing with fire. There is no evidence to suggest that, as he put it, the gender debate in adland is "fucking" over.

Indeed, in claiming to understand women, he took on the role played by Mel Gibson in the film What Women Want. Gibson's character is a boorish, buffoonish, arrogant copywriter who, after an accident, acquires a magic power - to know what women are really thinking. In fact, now that I come to think about it, the role must have been based on Roberts.

And yet, on one level, I feel a little sorry for him. As Stephen Foster pointed out, Roberts is guilty only of a thought crime, not any actual sexist or anti-feminist behaviour. Some will say also that he has paid a price for saying the things a man can't, but women can.

Then for Maurice Levy to suspend Roberts - pending what? An investigation by the thought police? - and leave him hanging in the wind for a few days made Levy seem both cruel and cowardly.

If that was the direction Publicis was going, then Roberts should have been fired forthwith. And I can see that he had to go. You can't have a 'coach' - Roberts' somewhat ludicrous job title which seems to involve, as far as I can see, developing talent and providing the conditions in which it can flourish - who believes half the team have limited ambition and will therefore focus his efforts on the other half.

Indeed, if you look at the various boards that run Publicis, you can see how male dominated they remain and how big a task the 'coach' had. The main supervisory board (i.e. non-executives) has seven men and six women. That looks ok, but two of the women are from the Badinter family, the founders of Publicis and the dominant shareholders, and therefore cannot be said to hold their positions strictly on merit.

The management board has three men - one of whom is none other than Kevin - and one woman.

And the P12 group (which comprises the most senior operating executives) comprises 18 men and just two women.

The male-female balance is broadly similar at Omnicom. The main board has 12 members, of whom four are women. Its leadership team of 14 also has just four women.

Over at WPP, the main board is marginally better balanced, comprising four women and nine men. But of the 40 or so WPP 'company leaders' - its term, covering those who run the biggest operating companies, and taken from the 2015 annual report - just eight are women.

This is an industry that has made diversity - in all forms and sizes - a key plank of its offering. Indeed, it's where the industry would like to take the moral high ground over, say, the tech giants and management consultants that are eating its lunch.

Inadvertently, Roberts has highlighted its failings.

We need to talk about Outsmart too

Last week turned out to be a good week to release bad news - at least for the main OOH players who decided to kill off their trade marketing body, Outsmart by removing its chair, Mark Craze, CEO Alan Brydon and all but two staff.

Suspicion initially fell on JCDecaux and its decision to join the IAB rather than rejoin Outsmart when it rebranded last year, characterised by some as a 'Frexit'.

Its decision seems to me somewhat capricious. If, as Decaux suggests the future is all about screens, why not join Thinkbox (assuming it would be welcome)?

But as I understand it, the real culprit is Exterion, which told Brydon and co it was pulling out a month ago. The best guess, since back in October Exterion was busy celebrating Outsmart as the dawn of a golden era for OOH, is that this is something to do with its private equity owners trimming costs before a sale or a float.

If so, it seems decidedly perverse to kill off the body that was making good progress in its bid to make the OOH cake larger. Since its launch/relaunch last September, Outsmart has done some really good work in the effectiveness area, and its approach was winning plaudits from both stakeholders and buyers.

Having a high-profile pair of leaders in Mark Craze and Alan Brydon helped, but so did the thorough and insightful way it went about making OOH's case.

So now it is left with a staff of just two (one of whom at least is its effectiveness and insight director, Tim Lumb), and a remit as a trade body, rather than a marketing one - whatever that means.

Meanwhile, the remaining stakeholders in Outsmart find themselves in the ridiculous position of having to close down something they want to keep alive, and then defend and justify a decision they don't agree with.

And that leaves the industry going back to what it has always done: fighting each other for market share rather than fighting the medium's rivals to make the cake bigger.

For a £1bn industry, that is small-minded in the extreme.


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Mediatel operate two essential services for the OOH industry. SPACE is a collaboration between IPAO and Outsmart and is the most comprehensive and up-to-date list of inventory in the UK. The RouteAPI is a SaaS solution that enables easy integration of Route audience data into client's systems. See mediatel.co.uk for more information.

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