Sep 27, 2016 People
Man, Ad Man
Died April 1, 2040.
Kevin Roberts has frozen to death in Antarctica and a thousand women could not save him. He was 94.
Kevin was not a man who simply sold stuff. For Mary Quant, Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, he curated beautiful marketing campaigns “for everyone who was ever thrilled by a car chase or wept over a motherless deer”.
And then New Zealand, last bus stop on the planet, home of the mighty All Blacks — mightiest warriors ever known — invited him to run Lion Nathan. It had become fashionable to hire people from elsewhere in the world. They were supposed to be geniuses. Also it meant senior management could put themselves on New York money and not just whatever they were paying Gary in the warehouse, multiplied by five.
Kevin loved that it was a million miles from anywhere. He loved that everything was black. He loved the bungy jumping. It was life on the edge. He could feel a strapline coming on. Before he knew it he was running the country’s winningest ad agency and telling an entire nation what to think about Wellington and beer and the meaning of life.
He would say, “My contention is that what should not change is whatever we do that connects most powerfully with people,” and people like Jenny Shipley would take him seriously.
The froth reached its fullest head with “Lovemarks” — not so much a book and website as a marketing yoga movement — promoting the idea that you can put a label on something and inspire “loyalty beyond reason”. There was also something called Sisomo.
People couldn’t get enough of him. They put him on the Telecom board. Universities made him an honorary professor. Saatchi & Saatchi made him boss of everything.
Then a business website asked him about women in advertising. He declared that many women just didn’t want to be promoted. It wasn’t their thing. “Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy,” blathered Kevin. “Like hell,” exploded tens of thousands of women.
All of a sudden, it was time to bow out.
He sat down and wrote a book, patiently explaining how you could become a better feminist by studying an All Blacks game.
He felt awful. People seemed to have got the wrong idea. He sat down and wrote a book, patiently explaining how you could become a better feminist by studying an All Blacks game. The blogs and tweets just seemed to get more shrill.
Two decades and nine books on, getting nowhere fast, it was time to think outside the box. He chartered a cruise liner to Antarctica, taking along a thousand working mothers and a documentary crew.
“What is the glass ceiling, really?” he said to them, standing on the deck in the frigid cold. “I’ll tell you. It’s just water, gone hard. Can you break water if you’re a woman? Of course you can. Let me show you how.”
Feminist Michele A’Court was on board, not quite believing what she was seeing. “He tucks the ice pick into his wetsuit, tips into the water and dog paddles around a bit. Next thing he’s under the ice, chipping away. Chipping chipping chipping. Then after a few hours it goes quiet.
“We say to him over the radio, ‘Kevin, how are you doing?’ He says, ‘Fail Fast, Fix Fast, Learn Fast is a leadership maxim I advocate.’ It goes quiet again for another hour. Then there’s some crackling and he says something like ‘Lean in’. Then nothing.
“I suppose we should have gone down after him then, but to be honest the peace and quiet made such a change. We all just stood there thinking how nice it was.”
Illustration by Daron Parton for Metro.