Kevin Roberts, 64, has been the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi since 1997. Before that, the British executive worked at Procter & Gamble and Pepsi. He published a book on brand theory, “Lovemarks,” in 2004. In 2015, he will become the executive chairman of the Saatchi Fallon Group, where he will be drumming Publicis Group executives into shape in his capacity as “head coach.”
Handelsblatt: Mr. Roberts…
Kevin Roberts: Please, call me Kevin.
Kevin, how does it feel to shoot a beverage vending machine to pieces with a machine gun on a stage?
Business is a blood sport. But seriously, it was a high-profile dinner with 56 Canadian Pepsi bottlers in the midst of the toxic debate over the free trade agreement with the United States. I was in favor of free trade, and Pepsi’s market share had just shot ahead of Coca-Cola’s in Canada for the first time. There were TV crews at the dinner, and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity.
So what did you do?
When I mentioned a pre-arranged key word in my speech, workers brought one of competitor Coca-Cola’s vending machines onto the stage. Then I reached under the lectern, pulled out a machine gun and shot the damn thing to pieces. And it all happened during prime time on TV.
Your planned merger with Omnicom fell apart in the spring, but we are seeing other mergers in the market. Why is size so important in the advertising industry?
Because the balance of power in the global media and advertising world is being completely realigned. All around us, major media companies are consolidating their business. And then you have the new giants, like Google, Facebook and Instagram.
How can Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis keep up?
Since we can’t solve the size problem through a merger, our answer is speed. We have to be much become faster in everything we do. If we can’t be the biggest, we have to be the fastest and the most flexible.
Big Data is nothing more than a facilitator. But without the right idea and without a deep understanding of the consumers, campaigns will fall apart.
When you look at the relatively low numbers for 2014, things don’t seem to be going that well for Saatchi & Saatchi. Where’s the problem?
In the European business. To this day, we still haven’t managed to do equally well in all five key markets. Business is going very well in England. We’re having the best year in our history in Germany, with Christian Rätsch at the helm. And things are going so well creatively that I expect Saatchi & Saatchi to rank among the top five most creative German agencies next year. Our Italian branch is perhaps the most successful in the entire network. But we’re running into problems in France and Spain, to a large extent because of the difficult economic environment.
What do you see as your most important task in this situation?
The objective is to get our 45,000 employees in the entire group, as well as our executives, to think and act in more entrepreneurial ways. The bottom line is that we are not yet as modern, progressive and fast as I would like. We have to find the right balance between four things: IQ, EQ, TQ and BQ.
Intelligence and emotional intelligence, those are clear, but what do TQ and BQ mean?
That we need a high degree of technological intelligence, and we have to be bloody quick. We’re deficient in both areas, but we’re working on it.
Are you concerned that companies are increasingly using big data – consumer web-use data processed by Internet companies – which allows them to tailor their products and services to the consumer’s every desire? It would relegate advertising agencies to a secondary role.
Unfortunately, too many advertising clients believe that too. Big data is nothing more than a facilitator, a means to an end. But without the right idea and without a deep understanding of the wishes and desires of consumers, campaigns will fall apart. That’s why simple brand concepts are also dead. The brands that will succeed in the long term are those that manage to generate loyalty beyond any rationality, the ones that connect with people, and the ones customers identify with. I call brands that do this successfully love-brands.
Sounds flowery. How do you turn a diaper into a love-brand?
Diapers are a good example. In the future, the key issue won’t be that a diaper keeps the child dry. What we’ll have to focus on is that the child sleeps well and for a long time, that it develops well, and that its parents can also sleep well. They believe that a child that sleeps well will also end up smarter, so they’re prepared to pay a premium for a brand that gives them that feeling.
How will you disseminate this feeling across traditional ads, TV, social networks, PCs or mobile devices?
I don’t think a distinction exists anymore among traditional, digital and new media. It’s all one. We’re screen-agers, which means that each of us works and lives with screens. I’ve stopped buying printed newspapers.
So the printed newspaper has no future?
No. That’s over. The English word “newspaper” consists of the words “news” and “paper”. Paper is no longer important. But the news itself is key. Many readers see it this way, which is why the Times and Daily Mail online are also riddled with advertising. And it’s tailored advertising, because they know who I am.
But in the online world, companies like Google are sucking up most of the advertising money. If they build their own advertising agencies, won’t that eventually put you out of business?
I have to contradict you on that. Google has been trying it for a long time. They’ve hired many advertising people, and they’re also poaching our employees. But they don’t have enough emotionality, what I call EQ. I’ve talked to Google people in New York, where there are all kinds of computer geeks running around. They have great technical intelligence, or TQ, but not much emotion, or EQ.
And does that reassure you?
A bit, sure, because we must find a balance between all four competencies, otherwise we can’t have any sustainable success. Maybe Google won’t even exist anymore in three years. The same goes for other platforms – I think for instance that Facebook won’t exist in three years. My kids are still on Facebook, but they also use two or three other social networks, because Facebook is too old-fashioned for them. Who wants to go out to the same bar as his own father?
Is it true that you still answer your emails in handwritten form, and that you have your letters scanned specifically for that purpose?
Look, my desk is over there. Yes, that’s true. It’s about personalizing things. You have to use technology, but technology shouldn’t be allowed to use me. If I write something by hand, you know that the message is from me. My dream for the future is that we become the most human digital agency.
Peter Steinkirchner joined WirtschaftsWoche in 2001. He reports on the media and marketing industries for the companies and markets desk. To contact the author: Peter.Steinkirchner@wiwo.de