The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Leadership beyond Reason
Chief Excitement Officer Kevin Roberts: It’s good to be an outlaw

Kevin Roberts doesn’t bring a business card to meetings, he isn’t wearing a tie, he happily drinks water straight from the bottle, and he doesn’t want to check this article before it goes to print.

None of that stuff matters, says the CEO worldwide for Saatchi & Saatchi. What matters in what he terms a “VUCA world”—one that is constantly volatile, unreal, crazy, and astounding—is that companies have a leadership model that is flexible and fast enough for our high-speed, connected “Age of Now.”

The alternative, he said, is “railing against the dying light until it is extinguished.”

Roberts spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s CEO Forum in mid-June, addressing a range of issues from the principles and practices of creative leadership to advertising, marketing, and broader questions of leadership, both as an individual and as a company or brand.

Some of the prescriptions might have sounded extreme or even counter-intuitive, but that is the way 65-year-old Roberts likes to operate. And what might be perceived as madness in his methods has a track record of paying off handsomely.

Equally counter-intuitive was his decision to ignore advice to bring his own tried-and-trusted people into Saatchi & Saatchi when he first joined the struggling company. Defying conventional wisdom, Roberts made no new senior appointments and declined to move any staff from their positions.

Within a year, the company was on the up, and today it has regained its reputation as one of the best advertising agencies in the business.

For Roberts, the process was straightforward.

Happy bunnies
“How do you get transitional change to create something that is fast moving and creative?” he asked. “If you don’t change the CEO, then you can’t do it at all.

“You have to have a CEO who says ‘I see the light’ and gets the idea, not the process,” Roberts told the ACCJ Journal.

And then the new leader—Roberts insists on this term instead of “boss”—needs to create four elements in his organization: responsibility, learning, recognition, and joy.

While it can be difficult to find all four of those interconnected components in companies around the world, Roberts said he believes that they are even rarer in Japan.

“Japanese corporate culture is simply not designed to delegate tasks,” he said. Instead, it is formulated in a strict hierarchy that actively dissuades individual members of staff from taking responsibility, particularly young employees who should be brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas.

When it comes to learning, Japanese companies tend to assume that means a new employee being instructed in the company’s way of doing things, even if that has proven to be out of date or just plain wrong.
Roberts shrugs and clearly states that failure to recognize an employee’s achievement or contribution will either encourage the individual to look for a new position in an organization where they are appreciated, or crush any ambition to make further efforts on behalf of the company.

Further, minus his equation’s first three elements—responsibility, learning, and recognition—a company will, he said, be sadly lacking in the fourth component: joy.

“For example, 87 percent of people are not engaged in their workplace,” Roberts pointed out. “But if you have responsibility, learning, and recognition, then you have happy bunnies who work a lot harder than unhappy bunnies. “So you need to make your bunnies happy.”

Ideas for your Granny
Born into a working-class family in Lancaster, northern England, Roberts excelled at rugby and cricket at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, but says his successful career in the creative industries is at least in part due to “a fantastic” English teacher who sensed potential in the teenager and encouraged him to seize his dreams.

Roberts started his career in the late 1960s when he became an assistant brand manager for the iconic Mary Quant fashion house. He subsequently became a senior marketing executive for Gillette and Proctor & Gamble in Europe and the Middle East.

At just 32, he was named CEO of Pepsi-Cola Middle East before becoming the brand’s CEO in Canada. It was during his time in Canada that Roberts pulled off one of his most memorable publicity stunts. While giving a speech to Pepsi Canada employees and bottlers, and to the media, a vending machine bearing the logo of archrival Coca-Cola was installed on the stage.

As he finished speaking, Roberts reached down, picked up a machine gun and opened fire on the Coke machine. The rounds may have been blanks rigged to set off a “dazzling rat-a-tat-tat,” but the message was not lost on those present: Roberts was gunning for the competition.

In 1989, Roberts and his family moved to New Zealand, where he became COO for food and beverage firm Lion Nathan. After adopting New Zealand citizenship, he was appointed a Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2013 for his services to business and the community.

Titles and homes on three continents do not seem to mean much to Roberts, however.

He is a season ticket holder at Manchester City Football Club and says the people with whom he was at school when he was seven years old keep his feet on the ground.

There is a sense that he likes things to be uncomplicated, whether in business or life in general.

“The business of doing business is so complex,” he said. “You have to keep it simple, and if your granny can’t understand the idea, then it’s probably rubbish.”

Another pet peeve of his is when businesspeople “talk in acronyms, as if their customers understand all this nonsense.” He gives a quick laugh.

So, who does he admire?

“I like mavericks and vagabonds with a strong sense of the consumer,” he shot back, naming Richard Branson and Steve Jobs—although adding that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to work for them.

“The role of the leader is to create other leaders,” he said. “Leaders lead and they want everyone else to be the best that they want to be. And then you have to zig when everyone else is zagging,” he said. Faced with being a navy sailor or a pirate, a computer programmer or a hacker, or the sheriff or an outlaw, the choice should be self-evident.

Warming to his VUCA theme at the CEO Forum the morning of the interview, Roberts insisted that the company wanting to win today cannot afford to be consensus-driven, process-driven, or “horizon-driven.”

The only way to be successful is by committing to being ideas-driven, speed-driven, and “now-driven.”

“The enabler is creative leadership, which means creating a culture where the line produces one thing, day after day: ideas,” he said. “Ideas that are executed and ideas that win,” he explained.

Roberts despises the fact that leadership has drifted to the rational and insists that creative leaders need to inspire those around them— and that starts with the language they use. CEO should be taken to stand for Chief Excitement Officer, and the CMO can be the Chief Magic Officer.

“Language drives purpose, which creates belief, belonging, and direction,” he added. “Creative leaders invent their own language, a system of meaning, a vocabulary that binds— a secret code that inspires people to be the best they can be.”

Roberts cited a couple examples: Colin Powell, who once said, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” and Shimon Peres, who said, “A leader must pioneer, not rule.”

Cut from the same cloth, Roberts revels in looking at the world through a different lens. He enjoys nothing more then mentoring a new generation of up-and-coming Saatchi & Saatchi employees—“these kids are fun, they are connected, they have good jobs, and they are safe, so they’re full of ideas.” He likes that the Tokyo office of the company has table football in the lobby.

“Everyone needs to blow off a little steam sometime.”

And while winning isn’t everything in business, Roberts concludes, wanting to win most certainly is. •

The book that changed marketing
When he was appointed to his current position in 1997, Saatchi & Saatchi—one of the most recognizable names in the global advertising industry—was in “deep trouble, with morale at an all-time low,” Roberts wrote in his 2004 book Lovemarks: the future beyond brands.

Published in 18 languages, the book explains the concept of “lovemarks” replacing brands, because the concept of said brands is “running out of juice.” In Lovemarks, Roberts asks what generates “loyalty beyond reason,” and suggests that the key ingredients to cultivating a profound devotion to a marque are mystery, sensuality, and intimacy.

We all have things we love beyond reason, the philosophy says. It could be a technology, a shirt company, a car, a hotel chain, a sports team—absolutely anything.

They are not necessarily the top of the list when it comes to performance, specifications, or value, but there is something to them that you love, remain loyal to, and advocate to friends when the opportunity arises.

That’s what Roberts calls a lovemark, and his objective is to make lovemarks out of Saatchi & Saatchi’s clients’ brands.

If the company is able to do that, Roberts says, the clients will enjoy a healthy, sustainable business, with people willing to be loyal over the long term and recommend their product or service to others.