If you were to pick a global agency CEO who would outlast his peers, Kevin Roberts would be the least likely suspect.
Before landing at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997, Roberts had never worked at an ad agency. All his previous jobs had been on the client side at Pepsi, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, and Lion Nathan, a New Zealand brewery. What’s more, Roberts wasn’t typical corner office timber. The New Zealander by way of Lancaster, England, had a reputation for brash, outlandish stunts, such as when he staged the “shooting” of a Coke machine (blasting it as part of a keynote speech given to employees, bottlers, and reporters). Hence the nickname “Rambo Roberts.”
Yet, at 14 years, as of this Wednesday, Roberts is the longest-standing head of a big global creative agency—by far. The next most-tenured CEO, JWT’s Bob Jeffrey, has served roughly half as long, and in the same time frame, Young & Rubicam has employed no less than six global bosses.
What the black T-shirt-wearing Roberts lacks in polish, he makes up for with client focus (P&G and Toyota have grown on his watch), showmanship (he’s an energetic speaker), and, in an industry where shops fail to market themselves, promotion.
Roberts leverages books, cultural events, and catch phrases (“I want to be a hothouse for world-changing creative ideas”) to brand his agency and himself. And Saatchi, which was in turmoil before his arrival, has gained stability through its $1.9 billion sale to Publicis Groupe in 2000.
Of course, like any longtime leader, Roberts has had his share of cock-ups, such as in late 2000 when he named eight managing partners to run the agency’s North American region, as if Saatchi were a law firm. Asked if the partnership was his biggest mistake, he laughs and replies, “Yeah, you fucker. Yeah, that would be right up there.”
Roberts, 61, also survived a mutiny: the infamous Saatchi 17 episode of 2005 in which Mike Burns, longtime account chief on General Mills, walked out, followed by 17 staffers three days later, forcing the agency to re-staff on the fly even while taking Burns to court. Many expected Saatchi to lose some business, but not one Cheerio landed at the shop that IPG set up for Burns.
What did Roberts learn? “Stay close to CEOs and CMOs, number one,” he says. “Two: operate from a framework of purpose and principle.
“It was about doing the best for General Mills and their brands,” he continues, “and doing the best for the relationship. And General Mills responded accordingly.”
Click to the next page for the three most tenured CEOs after Roberts, as well as the shortest serving chiefs.