How to lead like the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi

Kevin Roberts is the Chairman Saatchi & Saatchi–one of the world’s leading creative organizations with over 6500 people and 130 offices in 70 countries. He is also Head Coach at the Publicis Groupe–the world’s third largest communications group. Kevin was born and raised in Lancaster and started his career in the late 1960s at the fashion house Mary Quant. In 2013, Kevin, a New Zealand citizen, was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for services to business and the community. Currently, he is the business ambassador for the New Zealand United States Council. Kevin published Peak Performance: Business Lessons from the World’s Top Sporting Organizations, and Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands, a ground-breaking business book published in 18 languages, showing how emotion can inspire businesses and brands to deliver sustainable value. His newest book is 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World, a compendium of value-accelerators for business and life. You can find out more about Kevin on his website, read his blog, or follow him on Twitter (@KRConnect). The interview was conducted by Soma Analytics‘ and Getuberyou’s CEO and Co-Founder Johann Huber (@mangohammock).
Johann: Kevin, tell me a bit about the man behind all that success. Where do you come from? Who are you as a person?

Kevin: That’s a very good question. I grew up in Lancaster in a working class environment. My father was in the union and had a very tough life. My mother had to leave school at 14 because her family didn’t have any money. Both had only little education and the tone of the house and their “go-to-position” was to complain, to bitch, to moan, to worry and to be pissed off at people who had money. Early on I decided that my life shouldn’t be like this.

However, it didn’t quite start as I had imagined. When I was 17 I got kicked out of Lancaster Grammar school. Back then, I was going out with a girl at Lancaster Girls Grammar school and she became pregnant. I had no idea how this thing with kids really worked and it was only the second time we had done it! Her school took the right approach and told her that they will not only keep her, but would also support her throughout the process. 

My school in return wasn’t as welcoming. I still remember my headmaster — that prick from the south — he said that I can’t stay at school if I have a kid and he kicked me out. You can imagine that my parents weren’t happy about it as well! Yet I went on, married Barbara and we had our daughter Nikki. Of course times were not easy and I had to work four jobs to support the family. I started off as a bricklayer, barman and translator. Eventually I moved to London and landed my first proper job in the creative industry as a brand manager for Mary Quandt in 1969.


Johann: I really appreciated this start because normally when you look at people’s CVs you only see their biggest successes — but behind every success there are at least 10 failures. How did you manage to overcome all those struggles?

Kevin: Everyone of us has an emotional bandwidth that is relatively finite. It’s a different emotional bandwidth depending on our cultural background where we grew up, what generation, and so on. It probably doesn’t move very much in terms of a number: that’s a fact. Let’s call that EQ emotional quotient. So for example if you happen to be born German today and you went through German school you are taught to have a lot of guilt and worry about your past. If you happen to be born female or male, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim you have all the worries that are associated with that. And there is the risk that you can become very driven by those things.

If you don’t combat that fight about your inner worries, then you only have the remainder of your EQ left for positivity, happiness, optimism: all innovation, all creativity, all transformation comes from having a balance of that “upbeat shit”. If you are a cynic and a contrarian and if that becomes dominant then happiness and creativity cannot flourish within you.

The best way to answer the question is that you have to come to terms with your own emotional qualities and struggles. You will feel worry and you will feel guilt and regret because you are not stupid. But, what you gotta do is to develop mental toughness techniques Hence, my first struggle was to become clear with all that stuff that held me back. Now I am a  radical and perpetual optimist. I would say it took me till I was in my twenties.

One of the techniques which I actually learnt from my English teacher back at Lancaster Grammar before I was kicked out of school are three questions that I regularly ask myself up to this day:

  1. What is my dream, what is my ambition?
  2. What do I want to do / what am I good at?
  3. What do I not want to do?

I constantly ask myself those questions. The “What I want to do” especially can change over time. At first you might want to prove yourself, you want to gain experience, gain recognition then you want to make money. After that you want to gain influence and power and then you might want to give back and inspire. It took me until I was about 25 to realise that I don’t want to waste my time with bullshit that bores me so I started walking out of meetings when they were boring. I just said: “Guys, I am leaving, there is nothing here for me to learn”.

Of course, people started thinking that I am arrogant but you just have to deal with that shit. If you are in tune with yourself and you know what you want that shouldn’t bother you much. Later at Saatchi I even stepped out of customer meetings and after that I didn’t even join those meetings at all because I just didn’t want to do them. Did it hurt the business? Absolutely not–I don’t think you need to have a clown in a meeting who doesn’t know much about the specific pitch only because he has the CEO title.

Another technique that helped me a lot, which I made a habit over the years is to recite my ABC’s. That means my Ambitions, my Beliefs and my Courage. Just like when we teach our kids the ABC I constantly recite those in the morning in front of the mirror. With ambitions, I don’t mean “What do I want to have achieved in the next 5 years?” But, “What do I want to achieve today?” Too often we get carried away by future thinking so that we lose track of actually getting shit done on a daily basis.

Johann: How do you apply those insights to how you lead businesses and people?

Kevin: If you are absolutely clear about your dream and what you want to do and what you don’t want to do as well as your ABC’s, then leadership follows naturally. Because then your are truly authentic. The best lesson on leadership I got was from General Norman Schwarzkopf. The guy who led the US operation Desert Storm driving out Saddam’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. I met him at his ranch in the US and we talked for a couple of hours about leadership. Half way through our conversation he shared the most important sentence on leadership with me I have ever heard:

“When given command, take charge and do the right thing.”

It’s so clear to me now. If someone gives you command–as back then when I was named the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi–you have to take charge. Don’t fuck around. Take it! You are the boss now. That’s it. It has to be clear to everyone. Else the message gets diluted! If no clear direction is given the vision blurs out. So you have to be 100% clear on that.

Schwarzkopf told me that when he was in command in Kuwait at 5am in the morning he had 3 phone calls. One with George Bush, one with Dick Cheney and one with Donald Rumsfeld. Of course everyone told him something different, so there was no point in following everyone’s advice. He is the guy on the ground so he has to decide what’s the right thing to do.

Of course, you have to listen to people actively and carefully to try to get as much from their advice as you can. But in the end you have to take the responsibility and do the right thing. Do what is right, not what you think the headquarters, the shareholders or the board wants or what you think will make you look good. The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it. And here we come back to the three questions and the ABCs. If you know exactly what you are here to do and what you want to do, doing the right thing becomes much easier.


Kevin Roberts presenting

Kevin Roberts presenting, Foto by Neil Price from


Johann: Keeping all that in mind, how did you actually manage the turnaround of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997?

Kevin: Saatchi was literally in deep shit back then. We had over a billion in debt and our share price became a penny stock far below one pound. People had lost motivation and were leaving the company. When the board asked me to join I didn’t join straight away but I decided to set up meetings with the 20 most senior leaders in the organisation before accepting. After getting to know each and every of those 20 guys I told them: “The question is not if I will join this organisation, the question is if you will want to have me?” I told them that they needed to vote if they want to have me there or not. Because even though the board really wanted me if I didn’t get buy-in from the senior managers, the war would have been lost before the first battle even started.

They all gave their votes to the board and in the end, I got 20 out of 20 votes to join. I knew I had their support. And even though the board had asked me to fire 5 of the 20 I told the senior management that I will keep everyone. They all started with a blank sheet of paper. Obviously, they had to perform but I earned their loyalty and that was crucial for the success of this endeavor. This way I got the loyalty and support of the top management.

The next thing I did, was to get buy-in from the employees. I decided to work out a big employee incentive scheme. I knew that if we wanted to turn the business around we all had to work incredibly hard. Not only the top management but each and everyone! We wanted to attract the smartest and brightest talent so there needed to be a–for this industry quite unusual–strong monetary benefit. I presented to my board a plan that they would buy back half of the equity on the market and distribute some of it among the employees in an option scheme.

My plan was to double the share price to over two pounds in the next three years. If people would stay in the company for three years they would get a big monetary incentive. If they left before they wouldn’t get anything. From the almost 8,000 employees back then more than half signed up for the option scheme and were committed to take the risk and push really hard for the company.

In the end the plan worked much better than we could have ever dreamt. Within only 2 years we sold the business for over five pounds. Even secretaries made £75,000 within only two years on top of their salary–that’s a lot of money! They could pay back their mortgage and let their kids go to proper schools. You can’t imagine how enthusiastic people were.


Johann: How do you see the current agency model changing? Do you think new platform-driven models like Agenturmatching or Sortlist can revolutionise the industry?

Kevin: You know, the traditional agency business model–which we at Saatchi never bought into–is that you hire creative people for a salary little higher than the minimum wage, you push them really hard in sweatshop conditions–maybe in a nice office so that your clients feel good–and then you sell their work for a ridiculous margin. This model is screwed and not sustainable! If you want to attract the creative geniuses you also have to pay accordingly.

You know, at the core, advertising is there to help sell more stuff. No matter at how you look at it that’s what advertising does. So, why are we still charging on a campaign basis? Good advertising should be priced as a share of sales that would drastically change the environment. If you want to evaluate any campaign you only have to ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do I want to look at it again?
  2. Do I want to share it with my friends?
  3. Do I want to collaborate?

If your campaign doesn’t answer those three questions positively it’s bullshit from the beginning. Screw it, fire your agency and start all over again.

Kevin at a recent conference in Porto, Foto courtesy of Kevin Roberts

Johann: You have already touched on the flawed agency model. Now, from a broader perspective how do you think work as a system has to change so that we create a more sustainable working environment?

Kevin: I really like this question because it’s the right question to ask. It is also the tough question to ask. If you hear people in the media screaming about Brexit or about elections in the US it’s just fucking stupid. It’s the wrong question they are focussing on! The big questions is how do we create a sustainable working environment for everyone on earth. We need to radically bridge the gap between “the haves” and “the have nots”.

The reason why wars break out is because people don’t have proper jobs that deliver them recognition and rewards as well as income. Almost half of the world is living from hand to mouth with no proper job, without receiving recognition or joy. Of course those people are unhappy and try to change the status quo–sometimes with force. The big question is how to give them proper jobs–if you are a politician this should be the first thing you are trying to fix.

At Saatchi I noted a few core principles on what this organisation provides for its employees:

  1. Responsibility
  2. Learning
  3. Joy
  4. Recognition

Will you be happy every day if I give responsibility to you because you can work on a challenging task? Of course. Will you be happy at work if you learn something new every day and you are challenged out of your comfort zone? Absolutely. Will you be happy if at your workplace joy is the most prevalent emotion of people working there because the environment enables them to work at their best? Yes! And will you be happy at work if all the above is recognised not only by salary but by honest feedback from your peers and your superiors? Sure! One thing needs to be clear then that happy monkeys work harder, better and are much more creative than unhappy monkeys.


Johann: If there is one lesson people should take away after reading this what would it be?

Kevin: That’s easy: When given command, take charge and do the right thing. It’s the single best advice on leadership anyone ever gave me.



Kevin’s headshot on the header is from Kate Ayrton retrieved from

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