Publicis Places Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts on Leave of Absence Over Diversity Comments

By Erik Oster 

A quick summary of the weekend’s events surrounding Saatchi & Saatchi global chairman Kevin Roberts, in case you missed it:

On Friday, we wrote about Roberts’ London interview with Lara O’Reilly of Business Insider. In that conversation, he made some controversial statements about gender issues in advertising, essentially saying diversity in terms of male/female leadership was no longer an issue and that he doesn’t spend “any time” on such matters at his agencies. In his own words, “The fucking debate is all over.”

He went on to dismiss some who campaign on the issue, listing Cindy Gallop in particular as having “problems that are of her own making.”

Various parties seemed thoroughly unimpressed by his comments, and the situation escalated quickly.

Early Saturday morning — after the BI post ran and we aggregated it — Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy sent an email to Campaign in which he wrote: “The opinion expressed by Kevin is neither shared nor supported by myself or the Groupe. It is his own, expressed in his unique and provocative way and does not reflect the Groupe opinion or policy.”

Kat Gordon of the 3 Percent Conference then told Adweek that her group’s own research disproves Roberts’ points, stating, “I can say with complete statistical backup that Mr. Roberts is wrong about gender bias being solved in the ad world.”

12 hours later, Roberts was pushed out of his position — at least temporarily. On Saturday evening, Publicis PR sent a statement to Adweek and others about the decision, explaining how Levy had also sent out an internal memo distancing himself from Roberts’ comments and reiterating the holding company’s “no-tolerance policy towards behavior or commentary counter to the spirit of Publicis Groupe” and its commitment to diversity. Roberts’ long-term future with Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi will ultimately be determined by the Publicis Groupe Supervisory Board. 

Adweek then reported that Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Robert Senior also released a statement disavowing Roberts’ comments. “Kevin has given what are his personal views on the subject of gender diversity. However, those views are not mine, and nor are they the position of the agency,” he said. 

“Saatchi & Saatchi is, and has always been, a meritocracy. We live and die by our people, our talent, and it makes no difference to us whether that talent is male or female,” he continued, adding that 65 percent of the agency’s staff are female, including senior leadership roles.

“However, the issue of gender diversity is not in any way over for our industry. It is live, emotive and vital for the communications business that we continue to insist that the best people, whatever their gender, are able to achieve their potential,” he added. This is what we strive for at Saatchi & Saatchi, and is what we will continue to strive for alongside all of the best agencies in our industry.”​

Mr. Roberts himself has yet to make a comment on this story.

Here’s Publicis Groupe’s full statement:

Following the comments made by Saatchi & Saatchi Executive Chairman and Publicis Groupe Head Coach, Kevin Roberts, in a recent interview with Business Insider, Publicis Groupe Chairman & CEO, Maurice Lévy addressed a statement internally to all Publicis Groupe employees to reiterate the Groupe’s no-tolerance policy towards behavior or commentary counter to the spirit of Publicis Groupe and its celebration of difference as captured in the motto Viva la Difference!

It is for the gravity of these statements that Kevin Roberts has been asked to take a leave of absence from Publicis Groupe effective immediately. As a member of The Directoire, it will ultimately be the Publicis Groupe Supervisory Board’s duty to further evaluate his standing.

Diversity & inclusion are business imperatives on which Publicis Groupe will not negotiate. While fostering a work environment that is inclusive of all talent is a collective responsibility, it is leadership’s job to nurture the career aspirations and goals of all our talent.

Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organization who does not value the importance of inclusion. Publicis Groupe works very hard to champion diversity and will continue to insist that each agency’s leadership be champions of both diversity and inclusion.

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